For two ridiculous rounds at least, it looked as though the freak show was going to have a suitably freakish conclusion. Conor McGregor, a man who had never before boxed professionally, had taken the fight to Floyd Mayweather and was briefly — incomprehensibly — ahead on points.
A record-breaking television audience watching from around the world, not to mention the thousands of fans who had paid increasingly outlandish sums to take up a seat in the Arena, all began to ask themselves the exact same question: can he do it?
We all knew the answer. We knew it all along — no, of course he couldn’t. But the UFC star had shown enough skill in the ring to at least warrant talk of a future in the sport, taking the fight to Mayweather in the opening exchanges before being stopped in the tenth round.
“I was surprised by the level of disrespect I was shown ahead of this fight,” he pouted in the ring after Mayweather's hurtful final flurry. “But I enjoyed the experience. Now, I have multiple world titles in the UFC to think about as well as the boxing.”
Was the fight exciting? Certainly, as for long periods the contest appeared to abandon the concept of Queensbury Rules entirely. But in the end, normality was restored. Having survived the Irish onslaught, Mayweather rolled back the years with an uncharacteristically aggressive display, landing a succession of punishing right hands that obliterated McGregor’s non-existent defence, handing him his first stoppage since 2011.
Mayweather may be a divisive character, but he is no fool. After a warm embrace with the man he only last week claimed he hated, he signalled his intention to retire for good this time round, having toped the professional record of Rocky Marciano in his final fight.
“You won't see me in the ring no more, so any guy that's calling me out, forget it, I'm okay,” he laughed afterwards, revelling in a victory that was hard-earned even if it was never in serious doubt.
“Rocky Marciano's a legend: he paved the way for me to be where I'm at,” he added. “Every fight counts to me, not just one fight. After 21 years in the sport of boxing, I had some great fights, I had some boring fights, but I will always be remembered as a winner.”
There have been few fights like this one. The build-up to Saturday night’s contest was dominated by chaos and controversy, and the pantomime continued even after both men had made their way into the ring; McGregor draped in green, white and gold, Mayweather wearing a balaclava.
The fight was so novel that Hall of Fame referee Robert Byrd even had to give a lengthy lecture ahead of the first bell, sternly warning both men (although looking directly into the eyes of McGregor) that he expected them to act like “world championship winning professionals” and demanding “a clean fight”.
But the comedy stopped when the first bell rang. McGregor attacked, with Mayweather’s defence far more penetrable than at the height of his career. The novice worked the jab well and even caught Mayweather with a well-timed uppercut that stung him. It turned out there was more in McGregor’s arsenal than simply his notorious counter straight-left.
Having survived the barrage, Mayweather then established his dominance in the fourth round as McGregor — who entered the ring at close to 170lbs — tired. Panting, he was picked apart by Mayweather’s accurate pot-shots and came close to falling in the ninth, stung by a vicious combination to the body.
He survived the round but not the fight. Mayweather’s final flurry was vicious. A straight-right stunned McGregor and left him staggering backwards, with Byrd diving in to wave off the contest after two more shots to the head landed.
"I thought it was a bit of an early stoppage, where was the final two rounds?” McGregor complained afterwards as the Irish crowd roared. “When you're in here in the squared circle, everything is different. Let the man put me down, that's fatigue, that's not damage. Let me walk back to my corner and compose myself.” Again: the sign of a novice. He was soundly beaten and the stoppage was a wise one.
And so, McGregor’s audacious gamble failed to pay off. In Vegas, the unobtainable is never more than a roll of the dice away but, as expected, the luck of the Irish eluded the Dubliner when up against arguably the most accomplished boxer to have lived. McGregor acquitted himself well, but lost.
Or did he? He remains the face of the UFC. He remains the biggest star in the rapidly growing spore of mixed martial arts. And — in his own words — he “quadrupled my net worth in one-half a fight.”
No, both men emerge from this contest as winners, even if Mayweather’s record now reads 50-0 and McGregor’s 0-1. If there were any losers, they were not standing in the ring but peering in from outside, as Mayweather and McGregor laughed and joked with one another following the final bell. But then we already knew that, didn’t we?
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