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Mayweather vs. McGregor isn’t your typical mega-fight

Stephen Brunt | posted Friday, Aug 25th, 2017

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LAS VEGAS — Come to enough of these and the rhythm gets in your bones, the ritualistic build to the big event, as predictable as a mass. No, there weren’t “grand entrances” back in the day, and Joe Louis never heckled an opponent at a press conference, but in the last half century at least, a fight of any magnitude has been preceded by open work-outs, by interviews and a weigh-in, by confident predictions and expert prognostication and the arrival of the fancy, all building to that ecstatic moment when the seconds clear the ring and the bell sounds.

But this, Floyd Mayweather Jr. versus Conor McGregor, despite all of the familiar signposts this week, feels very different.

Floyd Mayweather Jr. comes out of retirement to put his 49-0 unblemished record against UFC star Conor McGregor in a sanctioned boxing match. Watch it live on Sportsnet Pay-Per-View Aug. 26 at 9:00 p.m. ET.

It’s August for starters, the deadest month on the Las Vegas calendar, a time of year when only bargain hunters and degenerate gamblers make their way to the scorching Nevada dessert. Usually, these events happen in the spring or the fall, when the fight crowd compounds the bustling multitudes. Not so now. Having rushed to put this promotion together so the bout could take place before Canelo Alvarez meets Gennady Golovkin in the same T-Mobile Arena next month and before the Golden Knights start filling dates in their inaugural season, they’re starting from near zero, and it shows.

Only a few hundred fans and gawkers greeted the fighters at their public arrival on Tuesday, and only a handful hung around outside the casino showroom where they held the final pre-fight press conference on Wednesday.

Presumably that will change by the weekend, when, if nothing else, McGregor’s legions of Irish supporters will descend on the town, making merry and risking fatal sunburns. And even if the traditional boxing crowd turns up its nose at the prospect of the greatest fighter of his generation taking on a guy who has never entered the ring as a professional, there figures to be a surge of MMA fans who despite the long odds against their hero, will savour the opportunity to take the big stage and just maybe make the experts eat crow.

Madani joins T&S to break down last press conference from Mayweather-McGregor

There’s the unique historical dynamic. Normally, a significant championship fight is automatically slotted into the sport’s long and glorious legacy, with comparisons made back through the decades. This, by contrast, is a one-off, a novelty act, not quite as farcical as Muhammad Ali versus Antonio Inoki (though go back and look at that one – Inoki, in his own strange fashion, was certainly trying to win…), but insignificant when it comes to placing Mayweather’s career in a larger context. If he does indeed get the win to go 50-0, surpassing Rocky Marciano’s iconic record, most everyone will attach an asterisk.

But there is a real sense that this is a battle between the establishment and the usurper (albeit on the establishment’s turf and terms), the manifestation of something that’s been simmering since the Fertitta brothers bought the UFC, cleaned it up, legitimized it, marketed it brilliantly, and stole an entire generation out from under the noses of boxing promoters.

You can like both and appreciate both, but for the most part combat sport has remained divided between those two solitudes. If McGregor could somehow beat a boxer who is regarded by purists as a master technician, as a defensive and tactical genius, you’d never hear the end of it.

That’s the dream of the MMA crowd, and that’s probably the dream of a whole lot of other people as well, given that Mayweather is without argument a great athlete but a terrible human being. But it’s a possibility that boxing fans have barely even considered, so confident are they in Mayweather’s abilities. If he could handle everyone put in front of him during a 21-year-professional career, if he could handle power punchers and skilled boxers, fighters naturally bigger than him, younger than him, how can someone as apparently crude as McGregor make him break a sweat? Even the most die-hard of MMA devotees would agree that their man is at a significant disadvantage, that he will be far outside of his comfort zone while facing a massive challenge on Saturday night.

Which brings us to the other off-kilter aspect of this promotion.

Boxing history is filled with cases where a logical underdog is built up in order to suggest they have a real chance. That’s especially the case when one of the combatants is a big name, now apparently over the hill, a shadow of their former self. The truth is, they’re usually fighting for one last pay day, but instead all of the talk is about how great they look in the gym, how the old skills are coming back, how their knowledge and experience might be too much for the young pup across the ring, how what looks on paper like a mismatch could really turn into something special.

Usually – see Ali vs. Larry Holmes, or any number of Mike Tyson revivals – logic and father time prevail in the end. But the opposite happens just often enough, as it did the night George Foreman knocked out Michael Moorer and reclaimed the heavyweight title, that you can always get away with spinning promotional fairy tales.

Here, that’s been turned upside down. Mayweather is the relative old man. But because nearly everyone sees him as the runaway favourite, the promoters, including the fighter himself, have gone out of their way to argue that despite their being no supporting evidence, he may be slipping, may have slowed down several steps, and may not be taking fight seriously in any event. They went so far as to have Mayweather suggest in an ad that he would be found every night this week at a strip club he owns in town.

The strong shift in the betting line towards McGregor suggests that they’ve succeeded in closing the credibility gap, that there are more people today than there were yesterday who believe that The Notorious has a chance to step into the ring on Saturday night and do all of those things he’s been promising.

Your brain tells you one thing, but that little bit of nagging doubt they’ve seeded should be enough to keep the turnstiles spinning, the pay-per-view buys mounting. It’s all about the mystery, the anticipation, the imagining, the fact that you don’t really know, you can’t really know, until it happens.

A different path to the destination, different trappings and a different setting, but that part hasn’t changed at all.

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