“This is bigger than a fight, or the legacy of a boxer, or the legacy of MMA as a sport. When you look at the racial environment, now it’s black versus white.”
Even the least sports-enthused know that the biggest fight of the year is coming Saturday night in Las Vegas: undefeated champion Floyd Mayweather is coming out of retirement to face off against Conor McGregor, an MMA fighter. While it’s noteworthy that McGregor is going to take on a seasoned boxer seeking his 50th win in the ring, another reason so many people are focused on this bout is the tense backdrop in which this is all happening.
With McGregor’s smack talk devolving further into racial offensiveness, and Mayweather’s history of domestic abuse allegations and his own offensive smack talk, some question the very ethics of watching the fight. As the New Yorker’s Kelefa Sanneh poses, “Who’s worse?” His answer: They’re both terrible. Same answer for ESPN columnist LZ Granderson, writing for the Undefeated — neither of these men are worth rooting for.
The press conferences leading up to Saturday’s fight has been rife with tension, bypassing entertainment for cringe-worthiness. Mayweather couldn’t refrain from calling McGregor a “pussy” and a “bitch” during their tour. McGregor’s been pegged for using racial slights against Mayweather, like telling him to “dance for me, boy,” despite his insistence that he can’t be racist because he’s “black from the belly button down.” (And yet, racially loaded insults wouldn’t be a first for McGregor). As this fight is being not-so-subtly promoted on racial rivalry, it’s taking place at a moment when white supremacists and neo-Nazis square off with racial justice activists every weekend.
And naturally, it’s all being done for money. Saturday’s fight looks to break Mayweather’s Pay-Per-View record and will likely generate sky-high payouts. Both competitors will deepen their pockets, no matter who wins or loses.
All of this is why Exavier Pope, a lawyer, sports analyst and podcast host suggests no one watches this match. I spoke with Pope on Friday about this fight and the future of boxing. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
So let’s set the scene for this fight tomorrow — how would you describe Conor McGregor, Floyd Mayweather, and the background of this fight.
Imagine a dying sport in boxing, which has had, in its history, incredible showmen: Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson. Now we have Floyd Mayweather, who left a void [when he retired in 2015] and the issue that boxing’s no longer being seen as a must-see event.
Now imagine a new phenomenon: MMA, or mixed-martial arts, with predominantly white stars — boxing has predominantly black stars.
And then imagine it’s set on the backdrop of an undefeated boxer looking to conclude his legacy by taking on this new challenger, not just for him but for his sport. If you look at this on a social dynamic, not only is Floyd Mayweather fighting for the survival of boxing, and to prove that boxing is a superior sport over MMA. I think, he’s also fighting for victory for blacks and Latinos, who primarily watch boxing, over blue-collar, white Americans who watch mixed martial arts. On the other side, you have people who hate brash, African-American boxers, and have labeled them as all flash, and they’re rooting for a guy who says he’s mastered numerous styles of fighting, in Conor McGregor.
Now this is bigger than a fight, or the supremacy of one sport, or the legacy of a boxer, or the legacy of MMA as a sport. When you look at the racial environment, now it’s black versus white. Now it’s Donald Trump supporters versus people of color.
I know generally your outlook is that no one should watch this fight. Can you go deeper on why that is?
This fight and how it’s being viewed — how it’s being marketed to the public is disturbing.
Floyd Mayweather, for someone who flashes around all his cash and everything on Instagram, owes the IRS $22 million. And he’s asking for a tax reprieve from the winnings he made against Manny Pacquiao, a fight in which he made millions.
And having this fight is a reminder of the women that he [is accused of harming]. Imagine being a victim of Floyd Mayweather — an ex-wife or ex-girlfriend — watching a Floyd Mawyweather fight. Every time he punches another man, you’re triggered from the time he harmed you. So just from the standpoint of these women and this fight, you’re watching someone demonstrate his power over opponents.
We talk about the domestic violence issues in the NFL … but there has been no similar outrage to this fight. Floyd Mayweather has never had to pay a price, financially, for his abusiveness. He hasn’t had a title stripped, he hasn’t made less money — in fact he’s made more each fight. So him being in the news, whether it’s positive or negative, serves him. But [his success] can’t be on the backs of abused women.
And it can’t be on the backs of some of the most divisive times of our modern American history. It’s not just black versus white, MMA versus boxer, but they’re actually marketing the fight [on racial divides]. In one of the press conferences Conor McGregor told Floyd Mayweather, “dance for me, boy.”
This is a very tumultuous situation, because this is not just an event, this is a fight. You have a president like Donald Trump saying there were bad people on “many sides” in Charlottesville, but what about the side that incited the violence that killed Heather Heyer? The United States is supposed to be leading the world toward racial equality, and instead we’re making international headlines for racial unrest and inequality.
And now we’re watching a fight premised on violence — which includes participation of violence toward women — as well as violence related to race, between whites and blacks. That’s a problem. And because this fight has been premised as such, there is no reason we as Americans should partake in paying for this fight. Because no matter who wins this fight, there will be Americans who say the winner of this fight is the champion of their cause toward the other. We have to have a problem with that.
The first thing is, they have a purse to share. If fewer people [pay to watch this fight] on Pay-Per-View, that means fewer fees going into the purse. It would result in less money for, say, Floyd Mayweather, who needs to cover his butt from owing the IRS $22 million.
From a second standpoint, we’re telling the fighters and we’re telling our society that we’re not going to stand for the profiting of racial conflict. Profiting off of racial conflict has propped up vehicles such as extreme right-wing websites and news channels. It’s popular for people to profit off of hate now. This is where we are.
We have to have more constructive way to deal with the issues we’re facing in this country. And if you don’t think this fight is part of that, then I think you’re missing the point.
Why on earth would an MMA fighter agree to a boxing match, anyway? You mentioned earlier that McGregor’s trying to legitimize MMA in the shadow of boxing, but is that all of it?
On a base level, that’s part of it, but that’s not everything. Conor McGregor is a huge star, and he is actually quite like Floyd Mayweather — he’s flashy. And this is going to be the biggest payday of his career, and he saw this as an opportunity to cash in on his celebrity and cash in on his fame. Think about this — MMA fighters have a very limited shelf life in terms of how much they can fight, and how long their careers can be. So, Conor McGregor is out to make coin, no doubt about that.
Who are the people watching this fight? Who’s excited about it? Are MMA fans more excited about this or are boxing fans?
Now, this isn’t the first time we’ve had a crossover in boxing. Muhammad Ali, in the 1970s, remarked to a gentleman that he’d never had an Asian opponent. He was told he could fight a really popular Japanese wrestler, [Antonio Inoki] so this fight was promoted. So when they fought, they promoted the fight as being East versus West.
Muhammad Ali only threw six punches in 15 rounds. It was embarrassing because in the fight, the Japanese wrestler is literally laying on the canvas, kicking Mahammad Ali’s legs. This wasn’t a fight. This was just a pure attempt to make money. For Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor, the main goal is to make money. If they have to use racial epithets or the division of our country to sell the fight, then they’re all for it because they’ll make money, and we are the suckers for being roped into it.
There were people in Japan who watched, and people in the Asian market watching, and then you had Americans tuning into the fight, even if they weren’t into boxing.
Now with MMA, McGregor’s from [Ireland]. You have people across the pond in Europe rooting for him. Then there’s MMA fans here in America, and you have boxing fans, and you have Americans watching the fight because it’s us versus them over there. Then you have blacks and Latinos, who are the primary viewers of boxing, and people who are white and middle class watching the fight. So everyone has their place in terms of who they’re rooting for. And I’m sure much of it has to do with nationality.
Let’s say McGregor actually wins this thing — how will this effect either boxing or MMA or sports in general, going forward?
The first thing I think is if Conor McGregor won the fight, there would be a Conor McGregor v. Floyd Mayweather Part 2. They’d set up another fight, which would have the same sort of attention this fight would have, and automatically, there would be a third fight. So automatically, if Conor McGregor wins this fight, you’re going to get two more fights, guaranteed to generate hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s just from a purse standpoints.
MMA fans will look at themselves as being better than boxing. MMA fans looking from an identity politics standpoint, those people would say “we’re smarter and better than people of color,” and that creates something very divisive. And that validates a lot of white nationalists.
It would have been different had the fight been marketed straight up and down, but instead they’ve marketed the fight on racial identity.
Stepping back, I’m wondering what you think on a grand scale: Is boxing wrong? There’s this decline of interest in this sport, maybe because more people think it’s not as great to watch people punching each other as they used to? Maybe we know more about brain injury? But, curious to know, do you think that’s tied to the decline of interest to the sport?
Well, we don’t really have the science behind what boxing does. You know, we had Muhammad Ali — he had Parkinson’s, and then he died. We don’t know how boxing really affected Muhammad Ali. His brain was never submitted for [Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy] testing. What if Joe Frazier had CTE? What if George Forman has CTE? What if the thing that caused Mike Tyson to bite Evander Holyfield’s ear was CTE? What if Conor McGregor has CTE? How many concussions have these guys had?
But I think one of the main reasons boxing has declined in popularity is that people don’t see it as a sport worth watching — it’s just people punching each other. And I think that people who are okay with that may have gravitated toward MMA. And MMA is a niche sport — it’s not as popular as Major League Baseball or the NFL or basketball. And neither is boxing. You see the giant fights between people like Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor — this is one fight out of the entire calendar. There are other fights, but no one is watching those fights. If boxing has declined in popularity, it’s primarily because people just don’t want to watch it.