Conor McGregor truly believed he could beat the finest boxer of his generation, Floyd Mayweather Jr.
And why not? After all, his every other dream had come true, brought to life by the law of attraction. It had worked in the past, even when it made no sense to anyone else. Why couldn't it work again on the grandest stage of them all?
For nine magical minutes, with thousands of fans cheering his every blow, McGregor appeared on his way to making combat sports history and actualizing his wildest fantasy. The man critics said shouldn't even be in the ring was the aggressor, throwing punches in volume and bullying Mayweather in the clinch.
HBO analyst Max Kellerman famously claimed McGregor wouldn't land a single punch. Instead, he snapped the boxing champion's head back several times and earned the respect boxing analysts refused to initially concede.
But when Mayweather started fighting back in the fourth round, and the fists began flying on both sides, belief turned out not to be enough. Not when pitted against more than three decades of carefully honed craft. McGregor searched for a weakness and found none. All he found was guile and two balled fists, carefully preserved for one final violent dance.
Despite his best attempts to delay the inevitable, McGregor soon found himself at a loss, heaving for breath and eating punch after punch. Mayweather landed 58 percent of the power punches he winged McGregor's way, many of them accurate blows that accumulated as the minutes flew past.
By the ninth round, Mayweather was chasing McGregor around the ring, the reckless gunslinger of his youth back for one final showdown. McGregor teetered but never fell. His courage throughout was never in doubt. In the 10th round, referee Robert Byrd stepped in as a hurt and exhausted McGregor wobbled around the ring.
He didn't win, but even in defeat McGregor defied expectations.
"I thought I took the early rounds pretty handily," McGregor said after the fight. "He had to change his style, and he adjusted.
"He's composed. He's not that fast, he's not that powerful, but boy is he composed. He was patient with his shots. He's had a great career. What can I say? I had a bit of fun and hopefully entertained the fans."
Chuck Mindenhall @ChuckMindenhall
Conor loses better than anybody. Full of compliments, whiskey, fight recollection and enthusiasm after having gone through it.2017-8-27 07:03:23
Mike Chiappetta MMA @MikeChiappetta
Bottom line: McGregor should be proud of his performance and Floyd followed his promise & made it a fun fight. Kudos all around. #MayMac2017-8-27 05:25:14
In the arena at least, fans seemed more than satisfied. The Irish fans had painted the town orange, green and white in the days before the fight, and their passion inspired—but in the end it's only you and another man in the ring. They roared every time McGregor appeared on the big screen and chanted throughout the night, most intensely after McGregor stuck his tongue out defiantly in the sixth round.
That, of course, was also when things took a turn for the worse. Cheers were not enough when a steady diet of body shots and the rigorous requirements of the ring finally began to weigh on the UFC star. Three straight rights rocked him in the seventh, and by the ninth round Mayweather was routinely landing flush punches to the head. It was violence delivered in intimate quarters, first in a sudden, sharp staccato and later in a melody of clubbing, almost reckless blows.
Before the fight, Mayweather, known as a brilliant defensive wizard who put out flames rather than fan them, promised he'd come forward and bring the action. It was a pledge he kept after a slow start, pursuing McGregor throughout the middle rounds in a way fans hadn't seen in years.
"Our game plan was to take our time, go to him, let him shoot his shots early and then take him out down the stretch," Mayweather said. "We know in MMA he fights for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, he started to slow down. I guaranteed to everybody that this wouldn't go the distance."
As the clock continued to click, McGregor's chances at victory receded further into the rear view. Mayweather walked right through McGregor's increasingly languid punches and delivered punishment in a fight that became one-sided quickly.
The two men brought the best out of each other. After all the talk about McGregor's fearsome power, Mayweather wanted to prove a point by being the aggressor. His total disregard for the MMA fighter's ability to hurt him let Mayweather put caution aside and swing for the fences with every punch. That, in turn, allowed McGregor to show his mettle and courage.
"I could have easily outboxed and counterpunched Conor McGregor all night," Mayweather said. "That's not what I wanted to do. I wanted to go out with a bang."
Somehow, even in Mayweather's best moments, it was McGregor who came out looking like a hero. He was in his first professional boxing match and hanging tough with a legitimate legend, a man who will be remembered as one of the best of all time.
"He's a lot better than I thought he'd be," Mayweather admitted. "He's a tough competitor, but I was the better man tonight."
It was an event where, amazingly, everyone walked away a winner.
Bleacher Report @BleacherReport
“We rich.” https://t.co/CuQLeiu0R92017-8-27 05:07:32
Mayweather managed to surpass the great Rocky Marciano by pushing his record to 50-0 in his final bout. Promoters most likely broke gate and pay-per-view records. And McGregor proved to the doubters that he was, if not a masterful technician, a valiant warrior.
"He did the UFC proud," Mayweather Promotions CEO Leonard Ellerbe said. "He did his country proud. And he should keep his head held high."
Before the bout, internet critics ran rampant. But there was a clear disconnect between some reporters and the public, which embraced the fight and made it the kind of spectacle few will forget, half Evel Knievel stunt show and half athletic contest.
On Twitter, there were 9.1 million tweets about the bout, indicating epic interest. PPV demand was so high that servers crashed in California and Florida, causing a delay in the main event. In Las Vegas, Irish fans abounded. While many couldn't afford the high prices to get into the fight, they packed the restaurants and casinos selling the fight on closed circuit for $165.
"You have to have negative people," UFC President Dana White said. "It creates debate and back-and-forth. But Conor McGregor is a fighter, and we saw a fight tonight."
McGregor may not have walked away with a victory, but as Mayweather departs the stage, McGregor did enough to snatch the combat sports crown. When he returns to the Octagon, his star will shine as brightly as ever. He went into the fight as the biggest star UFC has ever produced. He leaves it as nothing short of an icon, bigger than MMA, boxing or even athletics.
After the fight, he came out to address the media in a custom-made suit, carrying a bottle of Irish whiskey and having a heck of a good time.
"It was a bit of fun, right?" he asked Mayweather. "A bit of fun."
Much respect between these two. @FloydMayweather & @TheNotoriousMMA put on a show #MayweatherMcGregor https://t.co/Q2nek4jpC82017-8-27 07:12:09
If he wasn't a winner, he was doing a darned good impression of one. McGregor, strangely enough, is at his most endearing in defeat. He gave credit to his conqueror and acknowledged his own faults, all while never losing his smile or track of the fact the future is promising indeed. Still just 29, he seemed open to opportunities, whether in the UFC Octagon or the boxing ring.
"Oh, that Irish whiskey tastes so good," he yelled at one point, addressing every question with honesty and verve, reveling in a promise kept.
"I'm just relishing in it right now," McGregor said. "...I love a good fight, and tonight was a damn good fight."
McGregor, most on press row agreed, had earned the right to smile and have a drink or three. He stepped into the lion's den with the world waiting for him to be a laughingstock. Instead, he left an even bigger star.
The past was already little more than a memory, and the future stared us right in the face. Everyone walked away a winner—in combat sports, you can't ask for more than that.
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.