Boxing judges don’t award moral victories. But Conor McGregor won one on Saturday night.
He stepped into the ring with arguably the best defensive fighter in boxing history and showed that he belonged. The mixed-martial arts champion clearly won the early rounds. He accomplished something that more experienced men–Diego Corrales, Manny Pacquiao, Arturo Gatti–found difficult to do: he hit Floyd Mayweather.
Floyd’s age perhaps caught up to him. But more significantly his gameplan allowed McGregor to blow past him, at least for a few rounds.
Mayweather competes as one of the most savvy and smartest boxers to ever lace up gloves. The totality of the fight showed this even if the early rounds put a fright into his fans and lured McGregor’s supporters to imagine an upset. He used his gloves to block punches instead of throw them. He allowed McGregor, a cage fighter used to 15- and 25-minute bouts, to hit him and empty his gas tank. And when McGregor’s running-on-empty signal lit up, Mayweather lit him up.
One saw shades of Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope strategy against George Foreman in Mayweather’s plan. But 44 years later and a continent away from the Rumble in the Jungle, the rope-a-dope came into play in a modified form minus the ropes. Mayweather just let McGregor throw. He mostly hit gloves. But he occasionally connected, and outpointed Mayweather in the first three rounds. McGregor slowed, at first glacially and then quite noticeably, after his initial success. The man who stuck his tongue out as a taunt eventually stuck his tongue out like a dog in search of oxygen. His hands dropped. His legs appeared not quite under him.
To Conor’s credit, his legs, if a bit rubbery, remained under him enough to hold him up. He never went down. But he could not answer Floyd’s shots, which increasingly landed at will in rounds nine and ten, when the referee intervened. If premature, the stoppage seemed inevitable at some point. Why let a match turn into an assault just to rebut the coming counterfactual claims of McGregor’s fans? Robert Byrd proved a better friend to McGregor than his many cheering friends.
Unlike so many of Mayweather’s fights, this one lived up to the hype. It was strangely competitive. Mayweather, in a nod to those feeling ripped off by his pay-per view with Manny Pacquiao, moved forward for much of the match. He stayed in the pocket. Right crosses, not shoulder rolls and backwards bicycling, appeared with great frequency. Mayweather did something he always does in winning. But he did something he seldom does in winning: he entertained.
Mayweather rides into the stripclub with his faculties and his finances intact. McGregor makes a hero’s return to the octagon. The fans feel like they got their money’s worth. Everyone gets their happy ending.