Gather ’round, friends, and I’ll tell you a tale. ‘Tis a tale of the olden times, days now lost to the thick fog of history, back when UFC champions would occasionally make some noise about fighting one famous boxer or another, only to have UFC management shoot it down once the idea had served its cheap publicity purpose.
Truly, this cross-sport challenge was just a fantasy. A fine diversion to get your name in the headlines, but then it was back to the dreary work of defending titles, even against the most lackluster of contenders, because the show must go on (and on and on).
That was then. The old days. The BCM (Before Conor McGregor) era. Then somehow a plucky Irishman set his sights on the biggest boxer in the game and, lo and behold, the impossible became possible. At the risk of overstating it, things haven’t quite been the same since.
What makes McGregor’s clash with Floyd Mayweather the biggest story of 2017 is not only the novelty and improbability of it all coming together, but also the sheer magnitude of the event.
The bout became official in June. In July, the fighters and their respective entourages took their promotional tour on the road, throwing expletives and money in the air before large crowds that had gathered just to hear two men talk. In August, they finally fought, and though it had only been a matter of months from conception to completion, it felt more like years.
The fight dominated headlines all summer, and the fighters never let us forget how much money they’d be making to punch each other in the face. The fact that they were essentially bragging about spending our money didn’t seem to bother us. It only made the fight bigger, more important, more of an unmissable spectacle that held millions in the tractor beam of a cultural event.
You can always tell a big fight by its ability to draw the attention and interest of people who don’t watch fights. The same way the Winter Olympics can turn us all into speed skating and ski jumping enthusiasts for a couple weeks every four years, a huge prizefight packs bars and couches with viewers who otherwise wouldn’t know an uppercut from an overbite.
The “Money Fight” between Mayweather and McGregor certainly passed that test. This was partly because both men were the most famous and most wildly outspoken fighters in their respective sports to begin with, but also because of the borderline absurdity of the whole thing. An MMA champion with no professional boxing experience was going to take on the best pound-for-pound boxer of a generation. It was just crazy enough to be worth paying for.
And pay people did. While the principals are still arguing over exactly how many pay-per-views the event sold, it appears to be at least among the best-selling fights of all time, generating over $600 million in worldwide revenue, according to Showtime.
But there’s the flipside of this fight, the part we’ve been dealing with ever since. The flood of riches meant different things for different parties. For Mayweather, it meant the ability to settle a tax debt, allowing him to slink back to his life of unchecked opulence without being hassled by the IRS. For the UFC, it meant a chance to leverage McGregor’s fame for its biggest payday of the year, and without even setting up lights or a cage.
But for McGregor, it meant total and instant financial freedom. He may have lost the fight, but with the money he made for the beating he took, he won the ability to call his own shots, and more or less indefinitely.
Which brings us to the fallout from the biggest story of 2017. McGregor’s pursuit of Mayweather resulted in the UFC lightweight title staying out of circulation for the entire year, and at a time when the division is as overflowing with talent as it’s ever been.
McGregor also set a sort of unwitting example for other UFC fighters and champions, who suddenly came to appreciate the power of a relatively meaningless fight to make them wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. This helped establish, if not a brand new dynamic, then at least a new aspiration.
Tired: Defending titles against hungry contenders for relative pocket change.
Wired: Going after whoever will help you get paid, whether it makes a lick of sense of not.
In the final quarter of 2017, you could almost feel the post-MayMac hangover settle over the combat sports world. Like junk food addicts who’d burned out the pleasure centers of our brains with a wild Taco Bell orgy, we wandered listlessly back to business as usual, choking down the contents of another nondescript UFC Fight Night.
And McGregor? He’s still gone, off enjoying his riches with yachts and sports cars, testing the limits to see just how much he can get away with now that he’s bigger than any three little letters, whether they’re MMA or UFC. The cash cow broke through the fence and ran to the nearest bespoke tailor. There’s no telling when or if he’ll ever be coaxed back into the same old pasture. Either way, it’s starting to feel like things will never be quite the same.