Mayweather vs. McGregor Is Sports At Its Most Cynical
Mayweather vs. McGregor showcases the ugly side of sports, yet the agreement between these two fighters will do more real damage to us, the buying public.
In boxing, there is a term known as the silent contract. Coined by legendary trainer Teddy Atlas, a silent contract is when two fighters come to some kind of subconscious agreement that they won’t afflict any real damage on each other. Nothing is verbalized, obviously; it’s visceral. Fighters will grapple, faint, jab, and dance — anything but actually inflict harm. Atlas once succinctly described it as: “I won’t hurt you if you don’t hurt me.”
Silent contracts happen often. Mostly, when one of the fighters is outgunned. The most famous example was recent. In 2015, while training for the biggest fight of his career against Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao tore his rotator cuff. Instead of getting surgery and postponing the fight — one that took six agonizing years to make — Pac decided to keep the injury a secret and collect the check. That night, he pretended to throw meaningful punches while Floyd did just enough pecking to get a 12-round unanimous decision. The fight was a raging success financially, generating $600 million in revenue, with Floyd personally walking away with $240 million and Pacquiao taking home $125 million. But the event was a failure with the public and caused damage to the already fringe sport. How can the biggest event in boxing be one in which the combatants don’t try to hurt each other?
Which brings us to tomorrow, Aug. 26, and what will be the grossest example of the silent contract in boxing history. This Saturday night Floyd Mayweather, one of the most dominant boxers of all time, will fight Conor McGregor, a decorated mixed martial artist who will be participating in his first sanctioned boxing match. It’s a freak show that falls somewhere between Michael Phelps racing a computer-generated shark and a man getting eaten alive by a snake. The problem is, because of a calculated promotion and the fact that it’s a slow time in sports, the freak show has the aura and respectability of a mainstream sporting event.
Let’s get back to the silent agreement: Floyd Mayweather won’t lose, and he knows this as much anybody. Just listen to how Floyd, the cockiest, most unsubtle athlete of all time, has talked over the last month. He’s on record saying that he’s not the “same fighter I was two years ago.” A couple of weeks ago he had the audacity to appear on ESPN’s First Take and say “if you look at everything on paper, it leans toward Conor McGregor.” It’s a far cry from how he talks when he has even a somewhat credible fighter in front of him.
Now let’s look at the challenger: Conor McGregor will lose, and he knows this as much as anybody. If McGregor thought he had any serious shot why wouldn’t he take on a couple of fights before fighting one of the best boxers ever? Or, at least hire an actual boxing trainer instead of using his MMA trainer, John Kavanagh, who has literally never cornered a boxing match before. Or, why would he go so hard with this contrived Paulie Malignaggi storyline? (McGregor knocked down Malignaggi during sparring then released a highly-edited video. Now they’re kind of going at it, or whatever.)
And despite all of this the fight is sure to break records. And, unbelievably, there is a large population — boxing and UFC fans call these people “casuals” — who believe this is a real sporting event. You can just look at the sporting books; ninety-five percent of people who are betting are putting their money on McGregor. (It should be noted that the popular bet has been McGregor but the smart bet has been Mayweather. For example, at CG Technology the average amount wagered on McGregor was $137; while the average Mayweather bet was $5,900.)
What’s most troubling is that this event has used one of the oldest promotional tools in the sport to gain publicity: race. Since Jack Johnson knocked out the “great white hope” Jim Jeffries in 1910 and set off a surge of race riots throughout the country, race and ethnic pride have been a part of almost every major boxing event.
Mayweather vs. McGregor showcased a bastardized use of this tool, with a series of press conferences in July that featured a number of racist and homophobic comments from both fighters that were equal parts lazy and offensive.
It makes me sad as a lifelong boxing fan. Boxing has always been a business masquerading as a sport. I just don’t recall boxing ever being this avaricious, and that’s saying something. It all feels so… desperate.
On Saturday, millions of people will gather to watch a lick where everyone who taxes will eat. There are the promoters who made the ticket prices so expensive only the one percent can get in the building; the distributors who priced the PPV at $100 for no reason other than they could; the casinos who quadruple the rate for a room; the movie theaters who double the price of admission; and the bars who want to charge you for a table. Everyone wins, except for those who even have a morsel of expectations.
Those silent contracts were signed a long time ago.
Dimas Sanfiorenzo is a New York-based writer and editor. Follow him @Milkman__Dead on Twitter.