After knocking out Jose Aldo in 13 seconds in December of 2015, Conor McGregor scaled the Octagon cage and sat still for a moment, his face still expressionless. The MGM Grand arena was in a state of sonic eruption, every member of its sold-out crowd stunned by the single sequence they had just witnessed. It’s impossible to imagine what the Irishman was feeling in that moment, but one thing was clear: he wasn’t surprised.
Before the fight, even McGregor’s most ardent supporters approached his prediction of a first-round knockout with a degree of skepticism. Aldo had been the only featherweight champion the UFC had ever known, he’d been undefeated for ten years and had never been knocked out. McGregor had looked impressive leading up to the fight, but this was a level of competition he had never seen before.
Still, he dismissed Aldo’s chances and predicted an early knockout without an ounce of doubt in his voice. And with one left hand he proved himself right.
For all of his witty trash talk and flashy outfits, it’s McGregor’s self-belief and his ability to vocalize it that has made him the UFC’s biggest star. It’s infectious. He has the rare ability to make a statement that in any other context would be absurd and make it sound like hardened fact. Each of the contenders he dispatched on the way to Aldo presented different challenges, and he predicted he’d pick them off like appetizers on the way to the main course. Aldo? No different than the rest of them. Even a loss to Nate Diaz failed to dull McGregor’s shine, especially when he avenged the defeat and followed it up with a history-making destruction of lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez last year.
But here’s the thing about an athlete with the mindset of McGregor: the next move must always be an upward one. When he sat on the cage in Madison Square Garden, two world title belts resting on his shoulders, what could he possibly do next?
He could fight Tony Ferguson or Khabib Nurmagomedov, or rematch Aldo, for a cool $15-20 million.
Or he could step into the ring and try to knock out Floyd Mayweather for five times as much. It sounds absurd — until you hear it from him.
First, a disclaimer: McGregor’s UFC victories, even the 13-second stunner against Aldo, offer zero reason to expect him to have success in the boxing ring. The analysts that give McGregor a chance lean on suspect logic: He’s unconventional and he’s a southpaw. Marcos Maidana troubled Floyd with unconventional movement. Floyd has trouble with southpaws. Floyd’s been rocked before, against Mosley. McGregor hits hard. In truth, the most basic prediction of the fight is truly the most reasonable. “Boxer vs. MMA fighter? Where are they fighting? Oh, the boxer will kill him.” Sometimes, simple isn’t simplistic.
So on to a more interesting question: why is the fight happening? And why is McGregor, 0-0 as a boxer, a smaller betting underdog than past Mayweather opponents like Andre Berto and Miguel Cotto, proven veterans of the ring? Sure, there’s the factor of Floyd’s age and two years away from the ring. And there’s McGregor’s massive fanbase that would place a wager on him to topple any man or beast on the planet. But what makes McGregor different than the superstars, trash-talking or otherwise, of the past?
Mayweather has been selling polished lies in the buildup to August 26: he says that his older, slower, smaller self is taking on a big risk by facing McGregor when really the opposite is true. He’s a master at this style of promotion, his swagger and charm masking the hollow fabrications he’s spewing.
But the best salesman is the one that actually believes in what he’s selling. When McGregor speaks of Floyd Mayweather, the greatest boxer of this generation and one of the greatest of all time, he sounds no different than he did speaking of Aldo, or Alvarez, or Dennis Siver, or Dustin Poirier. Another man that will be knocked out inside a round or two.
He’s likely delusional. Look at him on stage, drunk on vodka and orange juice, describing his left fist’s size in relation to Floyd’s head. Look at him in his fur coat, howling in the faces of ringside boxing writers, their tape recorders all but leaping from their hands.
“Look me in the eyes. Twenty-eight years of age, confident as a motherf***er. Long, rangy….DANGEROUS with every hand. I’m gonna stop Floyd, you’re all gonna eat your words.”
Look at him standing in the shadow of the mural on the wall of his gym, so hastily done yet perfect, as if it hadn’t been painted but rather appeared the instant his pen touched the fight’s contract.
It’s all a bit silly, a grown-up millionaire version of a starry-eyed kid shadowboxing in the mirror after watching Rocky III and picturing Mr. T on the end of his punches. It all bears virtually no weight in determining the actual fight’s outcome.
But in an increasingly cynical world, there’s a strange allure to the mission McGregor’s on. He dares you to ignore history, technical analysis, logic and reason when he tells you what he is going to do. While the boxing world mocks him as a hopeless outsider destined to be not only beaten but humiliated, he speaks as if the notion of losing hasn’t even entered my mind.
Shane Mosley and Marcos Maidana and forty-seven others couldn’t beat Floyd Mayweather, and there’s little reason to believe Conor McGregor can either. But there’s a reason it’s him we want to watch try.