The Question: Can Conor McGregor vs. Floyd Mayweather Actually Happen?

Jonathan SnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterJanuary 30, 2017

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - NOVEMBER 19:  UFC lightweight and featherweight champion Conor McGregor attends the UFC Fight Night at the SSE Arena on November 19, 2016 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Like a cockroach that just won't die, the oft-discussed Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight was once again pitched to the public Saturday.

On both sides of the Atlantic—Mayweather (49-0) on Showtime/Sky Sports and McGregor (21-3) in a pay-only media appearance—the principals took their case to the people in stereo.

"I have my eyes on one thing right now, and that's Floyd Mayweather," McGregor told MMA Fighting's Ariel Helwani during a pay-per-view interview in Manchester, England. "That fight is more than just being explored. There's a lot of steps, but it's the fight to make. It's the fight I want."

Mayweather echoed those sentiments in a Sky Sports 1 interview before the Carl Frampton-Leo Santa Cruz fight in Las Vegas.

"That's the only fight that will get me back in the ring," the retired boxer said. According to ESPN's Darren Rovell (h/t NESN.com), he has applied for a handful of trademarks related to a potential 50th professional victory.

While the dueling interviews generated headlines, obstacles to the fight remain firmly in place. Though they seem similar, there are significant structural differences separating boxing and mixed martial arts that might torpedo this fight before discussions ever really get started.

Can it really happen? And, perhaps more importantly, should it?

Josh Gross and Jonathan Snowden, veteran reporters who have spent years digging into the financial realities of combat sports, joined forces to tackle one of the most compelling questions in modern fight promotion.

(Warning: Video contains NSFW language.)

 

Gross: Is there any quibbling with the notion that nothing is impossible in the fight game when enough money is involved?

Acknowledging the various contractual and regulatory differences between the way boxers and mixed martial artists go about their business, and the problems that oil-water mix could present, the answer is no—this spectacle can really happen because many millions of dollars are at stake.

If Mayweather Promotions in conjunction with McGregor Promotions in conjunction with the Ultimate Fighting Championship can actually make it work at the negotiating table, that alone will be a feat.

The potential of massive gate receipts and obscene pay-per-view revenue are the only reasons this is even in discussion, of course.

We know it's not about competition or legacy or proving a point. It's a straight cash grab that will likely entice many, many people. It will also expose a new set of hurdles that could cause it to fall apart. Overseeing Mayweather-McGregor will require regulatory chutzpah.

Inherent issues of health and safety are at play, just as they would be if the roles were reversed and an inexperienced Mayweather was being coaxed into a cage against the Irishman.

On its face, an all-time great boxer taking on a fighter whose talent and success as a mixed martial artist have netted him a 0-0 record in the ring would be a non-starter.

But, money.

If, for example, Nevada, California or New Jersey refuse to regulate the contest, where besides an offshore barge could the vested parties take the fight and not become a punchline? There are many risks, Jonathan.

Which roadblocks (financial, regulatory or otherwise) could end up killing the bout, and is it appropriate for this to be attempted in the first place?

 

Snowden: I think the biggest roadblock should be McGregor's lack of anything resembling professional boxing experience. Like Mayweather or not, he's an extraordinarily gifted pugilist. Allowing him to fight a novice, even a famous one, is reprehensible and dangerous.

Then again, as you said, money tends to talk loudly enough to drown out decency and sportsmanship. Nevada, the best of a dodgy lot, allowed Muhammad Ali to fight long after it was clear he was deteriorating badly. The money is big enough that regulators will cast their eyes down and live with it.

The real problem will be that money. More specifically, it will be UFC's involvement in the process.

If McGregor was a free agent (or a boxer), I believe the parties would easily come to terms on an arrangement that would make the rich much richer.

But, believe it or not, the boxing business is built on minuscule margins. When Mayweather fights, there is very little room for promoters to wet their beaks. The bulk of the revenue, from pay-per-view to foreign television and concessions, is shared by the fighters. The promoter can do well if the event is a success, but the top fighters are always going to walk away with most of the money.

As you and John Barr reported for ESPN.com years ago, UFC runs a different system, using a business model based closely on the WWEs. The UFC pockets almost all of the revenue, sharing less than 20 percent with its fighters.

That leaves a gulf filled with tens of millions of dollars separating the UFC from Mayweather's expectations. While a top boxing star can command upward of 75 percent of the revenue, sources say Mayweather's split is closer to 90 percent. That doesn't leave much room for his own promoter to present a decent undercard and still make money. It leaves no space for UFC to insert itself into the event.

These are basic, systemic problems. If they are to be overcome, someone will have to bend. No one involved is used to that. Who, Josh, do you think is most likely to show some flexibility for the sake of the spectacle?

White and Mayweather shake hands in 2014.
White and Mayweather shake hands in 2014.Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Gross: 1) Dana White 2) McGregor 3) Mayweather

The UFC is already bending in ways it never would for MMA, such as making an "official" money offer through the media. Why?

According to MMAjunkie's Steven Marrocco and Ben Fowlkes, the new regime needs to hit big earnings figures over the next 18 months to meet "earn-outs," the first of which would pay $175 million in June if UFC increases its revenue by 61 percent from the year before. That means it needs to make $275 million compared to the $170 million it produced in earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization from 2015 to 2016. There's another $75 million waiting for bigger growth in 2018.

So, yes, the UFC has a ton of incentive to latch on to Mayweather-McGregor, because it would be expected to pull in the public and generate huge business—the first billion dollar fight. Even a smaller piece of that take than its usual haul from MMA contests would put the UFC in a great spot.

It holds some chips, including contractual control over McGregor's ability to compete in unarmed combat for money—no small thing.

There is risk, though, because of the stark differences between the two businesses you spelled out, a potential rift with its biggest star if the UFC gets in the way of the Mayweather fight, the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act and the potential that McGregor puts his high-flying MMA career in peril by engaging in this boxing bout.

McGregor has always been a risk-taker. Anyone who commands so much has to be. He'd surely come down from his early $100 million demands to get the payday and exposure. He would risk humiliation and potential physical damage if he boxes Mayweather, but like Ali, that's part of what makes him who he is.

Last is Mayweather. Unless he's been negligent with his career earnings, he shouldn't need another payday. But he wants that big number and feels like it's owed to him. This is the man who appears intractable in this equation. Mayweather wants 50-0? OK. Getting it on 0-0 McGregor doesn't say much about his competitive drive.

I suspect if it doesn't happen, Mayweather will laugh about the time he screwed around with these UFC clowns, including the guy who carried his bags.

Add in the flexibility of a regulator like the state of Texas and the attractiveness of a venue like Jerry World, and you've got the makings of an extravaganza.

Then what? Tell me this: After the opening bell, how long would it take to set in that the fight was a bad idea?

 

Snowden: It wouldn't take long for onlookers, and likely McGregor himself, to realize he'd made a terrible mistake. While he's shown precision and power in the UFC cage, the skill and expertise of a top professional boxer are unmatched in the realm of combat sports.

Mayweather's dazzling footwork, timing, speed and uncanny instincts would make life exceedingly difficult for McGregor from the beginning of the fight. Everything from the ring to the range would be different, including gloves twice as big as the ones McGregor wears in the UFC Octagon.

Martial artists initiate attacks from long distances, with the threat of a kick or takedown opening opportunities that simply don't exist in boxing.

A disciplined fighter like Mayweather would shred any such attempt to pieces. While not known for his power at 147 pounds, he would land the kind of clean punches that leave a lasting presence. Nate Diaz, a much less gifted boxer, gave McGregor fits, often easily countering his wild blows with punches that accumulated quickly.

In some ways, this fight reminds me less of a traditional athletic contest and more of a spectacle Josh is intimately familiar with. While the stakes and the prize money would be higher, this fight would be more Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki than it would be Ali's epic matches with Joe Frazier.

MC/Associated Press

It's easy to see the allure, especially for Mayweather. It's an enormous payday with minimal risk. It's the UFC and McGregor who should pause to consider the implications.

An embarrassing performance may further dent a reputation that was scuffed after a loss to Diaz, a fighter who was seemingly settling into journeyman status. It's hard to sell a fighter as cool, brash and cocky when the world has seen him swing hopelessly at air for 36 minutes.

The UFC would have even more to lose with such a bout. Not only would it risk the reputation of its top star in a fight that seems all but unwinnable, but it would also put the company's hard-earned pay structure at risk. Allowing McGregor to call the shots and upset the apple cart would invite others to do the same. It's a gamble that would only make sense if the company truly believed McGregor can win and that it could control his rights in the ensuing chaos.

The UFC's $4 billion asking price made sense when it was a promotion with a carefully controlled payroll. Opening Pandora's box for a one-time jackpot against Mayweather would be reckless in the extreme.

White is a gambler, but beyond the blackjack table (NSFW language), he's also a winner. From the revenue to the result, this is Mayweather's fight to lose—and that's why White will never allow it to happen.

Gross: I'm not nearly as confident as you that the UFC can pass on collecting a cut of Mayweather-McGregor. Generating blockbuster money is all that matters to the new ownership right now, and this is the biggest spigot it can shine at the moment.

If it goes the way the fighters wantall they seem to care about is the same thing the UFC cares aboutfew people among the many who would pay an exorbitant sticker price to watch will pick Mayweather to lose.

Here lies the only bit of charm that comes with the idea of this contest: Based on McGregor's profound track record in big moments, anything can happen.

Mystic Mac called out Mayweather, and somehow he's going to engineer it into reality? If he can do that, why can't McGregor go the distance? Or give the crowd a glimmer of something miraculous when his left hand meets its mark?

That's the fairy tale people will buy if this falls into place—which remains fantasy enough.

   

Jonathan Snowden and Josh Gross cover combat sports for Bleacher Report.