Here we are on the eve of a fight that, when you really think about it, has no business happening. A 49-0 boxer vs. an 0-0 boxer in a boxing match. How could the Nevada State Athletic Commission have possibly sanctioned this?
And yet, UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor (21-3 MMA, 9-1 UFC) and boxing legend Floyd Mayweather (49-0 boxing) will face off Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas in a pay-per-view event expected to be the most lucrative prize fight of all time.
Because that’s really what this is all about: money. A while back – the day McGregor was issued a California boxing license, in fact – is when I truly started to accept the possibility of this fight happening. It still kind of stuns me that it actually is, though.
We know Mayweather could fight whoever he wants any time. McGregor, on the other hand, had to put in a lot of work to reach this life-changing payday that could earn him $100 million, which remains only a dream for every other UFC fighter.
So how did “The Notorious” get here? How exactly did McGregor pull this off? Hard work is one answer. But you don’t break a barrier like this and make a once-thought-to-be-only fantasy fight simply with hard work.
Plenty of luck was involved, too, and here are seven things that broke McGregor’s way:
When McGregor fought Dennis Siver at UFC Fight Night 59 on January 18, 2015, Siver already was 36 years old and on the down slope of his career. Ranked No. 10 in the UFC rankings at the time, Siver was 3-2-1 in his previous six bouts, the no-contest coming as a result of an overturned win thanks to a failed drug test.
Somehow, though, the decision was made that a win in this fight would earn McGregor a UFC title shot?
McGregor had yet to beat anyone ranked ahead of him (he was No. 5) and without a signature win to date. While some might point to current featherweight champion Max Holloway as a notable win, Holloway was just a 21-year-old kid and nowhere near the fighter he is today. Simply having to beat an aging Siver, which McGregor did via second-round TKO, to earn a title shot was a clear indicator that the UFC was eager to push him into the spotlight – and it worked.
McGregor and Jose Aldo embarked on a wild and crazy six-city, five-country world tour to promote their UFC 189 featherweight title fight, which is why it was such a shame that Aldo had to withdraw late.
And so on less than two weeks notice, Chad Mendes took the opportunity to face McGregor for an interim title. Mendes spent the first round taking down McGregor pretty easily and employed some solid ground-and-pound that even cut him open. But it was clear in between rounds that Mendes already was starting to gas out. His lack of cardio on short notice wouldn’t suffice for his grinding wrestling style. Sure enough, it didn’t, and McGregor capitalized with a TKO finish near the end of Round 2 by landing some hard combinations that turtled up an exhausted Mendes.
Given how that first round went, though, it makes you wonder what might’ve happened if Mendes was on a full camp.
There was an added benefit to Aldo pulling out of his first scheduled fight with McGregor: It gave him an extra five months get under Aldo’s skin with his trash-talk and antics during the build-up.
When they finally met at UFC 194, Aldo did something he normally wouldn’t and came out firing in the opening moments, head forward, chin out. It was reckless and provided all the momentum McGregor needed to catch him with a short left hand that knocked him out cold in just 13 seconds. The crazy thing is that Aldo actually landed, as well, but it simply didn’t faze McGregor.
Why do I chalk up this fair-and-square win as a lucky break for McGregor? I’ll answer my own question with a question: Would we have seen the same result or anything close to it if they had rematched? “Getting caught” is a phrase we use in MMA for a reason. It happened to Aldo on this night.
UFC President Dana White is right about McGregor’s willingness to fight anyone, any time, anywhere, and I commend him for that. There was no upside to facing Nate Diaz the first time at UFC 196 after Rafael dos Anjos was forced to withdraw from their lightweight title fight on just two weeks notice, but McGregor accepted anyway – at welterweight.
It was a decision that backfired on McGregor, who tapped out to a rear-naked choke in the second round. Business with Diaz should’ve been done there. After all, McGregor was the featherweight champion and had challengers waiting. Rather than defend his title, though, McGregor insisted on a rematch with Diaz at welterweight. It was supposed to headline the UFC’s landmark 200th pay-per-view but fell through when McGregor refused his obligations to promote the fight.
Not even a feud with White would induce punishment on McGregor. The fight still happened at UFC 202 in August of last year, with McGregor winning a hard-fought majority decision in an epic encounter responsible for the most pay-per-view buys in UFC history. It truly was a gutsy performance by McGregor – and Diaz. But did we really need the fight? No. But without that unnecessary opportunity at redemption, the legend of McGregor doesn’t continue to grow and keep us moving toward “The Money Fight.”
By the time McGregor challenged Eddie Alvarez for the lightweight title at UFC 205, he’d held the featherweight division hostage for 11 months by not defending his title even once. McGregor went on to dominate Alvarez and finished him via second-round TKO for the greatest win of his career.
With that, McGregor made history by becoming the first fighter in UFC history to simultaneously hold championships in two divisions. The fact that it happened on the UFC’s biggest stage, in the promotion’s debut at Madison Square Garden in New York, was icing on the cake.
A star was born beyond just MMA thanks to the history-making win. This in-cage achievement is the reason McGregor’s mainstream popularity took off. But if McGregor never intended on defending the featherweight belt in the first place – and make no mistake that he didn’t – doesn’t the “history-making” aspect sort of ring hollow? Holding two belts at the same time is the kind of accolade that starts getting you noticed by Mayweather, though.
Mayweather had been comfortably retired for more than a year when McGregor started ramping up talk of a boxing match with the former boxing pound-for-pound king. At first, Mayweather viewed it as disrespect to even mention his name in the same breath as McGregor. On the day McGregor was issued his California boxing license, Mayweather Promotions CEO Leonard Ellerbe told ESPN.com “the con game is over,” suggesting McGregor stop trying to use Mayweather’s name for his own gain.
That’s how unrealistic Mayweather-McGregor seemed.
As everyone involved in promoting this fight has reminded us, “the fans wanted this.” There are at least 150 million reasons why Mayweather decided to finally change his mind. Without the previously mentioned string of events, though, to boost McGregor’s profile, he remains a nobody to Mayweather.
As crazy as it is that Mayweather changed his mind, perhaps nobody has come a longer way than White. Just earlier this year in January, he promised “an epic fall” if McGregor wanted to defy the UFC and move forward with trying to box Mayweather. Now? The UFC president is McGregor’s No. 1 fan, reminding us often that he calls him “The Unicorn” and warning anyone not to doubt his top draw.
What a time to be alive.
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