A few years ago, I was a budding MMA journalist covering UFC Fight Night: Rockhold vs. Bisping in Sydney, Australia. One of the pre-fight press conferences took place at the city’s quintessential tourist photo-op spot, the Sydney Opera House. After the media Q&A (which to my shock included then-UFC middleweight champ Chris Weidman, in town to support his teammate on the undercard), Luke Rockhold and Michael Bisping stood by the edge of the Parramatta River for the usual face-off.
It didn’t take long before things got heated, and soon the two fighters were nose-to-nose, talking trash that would’ve easily crossed any cultural barriers. I was a star-struck observer soaking up the moment. This was a few months after Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier had their infamous brawl at a similar presser, so I was expecting fireworks.
“I want to see them push each other into the river,” I said out loud. More like slipped out, really, but I figured no one was listening.
A second later, I heard a voice from a few feet up, “Nah man, they want to get paid.”
The voice from above belonged to The Ultimate Fighter Season 3 winner Kendall Grove, who was part of Bisping’s entourage. Aside from the fact that the towering former UFC fighter had heard my brain fart, Grove’s comment reminded me of one very important thing: Professional athletes are in it to make money. All the drama, like Rockhold and Bisping’s face-off, are just means to that end.
Fast forward to August 2017, and we’re at the cusp of one the biggest events in combat sports history. This weekend, UFC champ Conor McGregor will face unretiring boxing legend Floyd Mayweather Jr. in the squared circle. The stage will be set in Las Vegas for a "My Kung-Fu is better than your Kung-Fu" clash for the ages.
At first, most fans predicted an uneventful, one-sided shut-out for Mayweather. Logic dictated that a near-untouchable all-time great versus a boxing first-timer could only go one way. But over time, the tide shifted.
A quick browse through Facebook comments today will show many passionate McGregor fans claiming that the Irishman will shock the world. Google’s fan survey on the outcome actually shows McGregor leading the polls. Unorthodox style and cataclysmic power in that left hand, they shout from the social media nosebleeds. Everyone, from longtime fight fans to so-called enthusiasts (some of them on TV!) who wouldn’t know a left hook from a checkbook, now has an opinion on the fight.
What the hell happened?
First, there was the press tour, where most agreed the enigmatic McGregor stole the show. It was akin to weekly episodes of WWE programming: Sworn enemies who only ever spit venom in front of the cameras, and somehow had synchronized travel schedules. Almost as if they were travelling together.
Then came the news from each camp: McGregor’s controversial knockdown of former champ Paulie Malignaggi, Mayweather’s claim that he’ll be partying at his strip club before the fight, plus that video of him eating a cheeseburger.
Every move they’ve made in the last month has flooded newsfeeds worldwide. Showtime’s All Access series on the fight portrayed a young and hungry superstar against an aging legend who was spending his days attending Yoga classes and roller-skating with his kids.
The point of all this drama? Well, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that two superstars whose reputations are based on being rich are all-in on a spectacle that guarantees them millions. The more drama they generate, and the more we believe that the underdog might win, then all the more cash we fork over in ticket and pay-per-view sales.
It’s been that way since even before the days of Tex Rickard and Jack Dempsey (Google them). Us fans, from newcomers to veterans, are just along for the ride.
As for me, I’ll be watching one thing on Sunday: A boxing match. When that bell rings and the hype silences forever, it’s all about the fisticuffs. If it turns out to be an exciting fight, then everyone wins. If not, then we got exactly what we first expected. A big part of me hopes that we’ll finally stop talking about this fight once it’s over, but something tells me that it’ll still be in our office pantry conversations for some time.
Oh well, there’s still Canelo vs. Golovkin to look forward to next month. I wonder how many of the checkbook crowd will tune in for that one?