LAS VEGAS — For the entire week leading up to the epic Conor McGregor vs. Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight Saturday, it's been whispered like a mantra, equal parts wishful thinking and warning.
"The Irish are coming."
Everyone was in place, playing their parts with a carefully honed expertise. McGregor was the brash newcomer, intent on disrupting a sport that has followed the same basic template for 100 years. Mayweather was the proud veteran, lacing up the gloves one more time to establish his place, not on the contemporary scene he already rules, but among the all-time greats.
But without the fans, so steadfastly confident in their countryman and unafraid to voice their opinion, volume rising with each beer, fight week was missing its soul.
On Friday, as McGregor posed on stage at the official weigh-ins, a maniacal gleam in his eye, the deafening noise in the T-Mobile Arena made one thing perfectly clear—the Eire has arrived.
The flag is everywhere—green, white and orange the new official colors of the Strip. Their presence is felt as chants of "Ole, Ole, Ole, Ole" break out, seemingly at random, in restaurants, on the street and even in the bathroom.
It's felt as fans stagger around one of their fellows passed out in a corner at the New York casino, Irish flag draped over his body, beer bottle defying the odds and gravity by staying upright in a sea of people. It's 11 a.m.
The weigh-ins were a huge success, but it was a close call. Because the technology company Cisco had the arena booked most of the week, the Showtime crew didn't get access to the building until noon Thursday. Barely 24 hours later, there were singers and rappers in the ring, and a live television broadcast was imminent. Work went on long into the night and right up until the show appeared on screens around the world.
"We relish the challenge. You always want to be tested. The pay-per-views are our Super Bowl," Showtime's senior vice president of production, Gordon Hall, said. "And the technology we'll use for this fight is similar to that used to broadcast the Super Bowl, the playoffs or a World Series game. We have the ability to capture everything that happens in there with high-speed and 4K cameras that allow us to blow up the image and replay it in extreme slow-motion."
To make it all happen, Hall has brought 150 staff members, five production trucks in a mini-compound filled with generators, cooling systems and burly men in the constant process of moving equipment from here to there. At the tip of the spear are 24 cameras to capture every conceivable thing that might happen in and around the fight. If you do the math, that's one for each of the ring's 24 feet.
Showtime's massive crew, one that includes a helicopter for custom aerial shots, is dwarfed by others from around the world, all desperate for a piece of the event filling an enormous hole in the otherwise barren sports schedule.
"Because of the large interest from international broadcasters and media outlets, there's a larger television compound here than I've seen at any of the boxing broadcasts we've done," Hall said. "That's because of the wide audience that seems to find themselves fascinated by this matchup. It's grabbed attention from people beyond boxing fans."
The huge media presence includes almost 20 television trucks from around the world, all drawing massive amounts of power. The compound requires the same amount of power as a neighborhood block.
"Each of these trucks pulls more power than a large house uses," Colin DeFord, technical producer for Showtime, said. "These bigger trucks use three times the power of a typical house. Power definitely keeps everyone in this business up at night. The World Series went off the air—that was certainly a wake-up call for this industry."
While the technical gurus behind the scenes fret about keeping their equipment cool, in front of the house, things were heating up. McGregor's frantic weigh-in performance woke something within his countrymen.
"You'll never beat the Irish," he told the crowd. "That's it. You can't beat us. We come in, and we take over whatever we want. Las Vegas is Ireland now."
More than 30 minutes after he had departed, a group at least a hundred strong continued to chant and dance and do their best to keep the show going. On the floor, Mayweather's entourage and various VIPs were filming them, a paradigm shift that people seemed willing to just go with. A small child swayed on her parents' shoulders, and at least one man was forcibly removed by police.
The people who care about this fight do so deeply and earnestly. I watched a drunk Irishman and a drunk African-American debate the merits of their chosen avatar as they ascended the stairs back out into the Las Vegas heat. When they reached the top, they shared a hug and a head nod. We'll all find out who was right Saturday.
Backstage before the final press conference, UFC President Dana White is just as nervous as anyone else with a partisan stake in the bout.
"When the lights go out, my heart is going to be pounding until the fight is over," White says. "I don't know if I've ever felt this way before. Normally going into the week of a fight, they're both my guys...here, it's my guy vs. their guy. It's a different feeling."
In the meantime, he's doing his best to impact the outcome of the bout. Right now, the best solution he can come up with is sartorial.
"The Patriots won the Super Bowl last year, and I wore a Patriots shirts every day leading up to the Super Bowl," he says. "Not that I'm superstitious or anything, but I'm wearing Conor McGregor shirts everyday."
White shares a moment with the other side, reminiscing with Mayweather about the time, two decades ago now, when they both got their start in the business. Mayweather seems less sentimental than almost everyone who interviews him about this being his final fight week.
"I don't really like this," he revealed. "I'd rather be at home with my family. I just want to fight. But I understand my obligations, and this is my job."
The sports intelligentsia are rarely united, but they are walking in complete lockstep here. According to these arbitrators of taste and style, this fight is a grotesquerie, devoid of redeeming value.
One writer compared the bout to Drederick Tatum's cartoonish clubbering of Homer Simpson. At SB Nation, Spencer Hall said the fight reminded him of the menu at a Bennigan's. Our own Dave Schilling, who spent much of the week immersed in the madness, called his time in the storm "70 hours in hell."
The problem, according to conventional wisdom, is that this event is more spectacle than sport, gaudy, loud and gauche in a way that makes traditionalists slightly uncomfortable. During the week I'd see Carrot Top, former Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas and stripper-turned-rapper Cardi B.
So, perhaps, they have a point.
But I would humbly suggest the spectacle isn't this fight's weakness. It's what draws us all, fans and Carrot Top alike, to something so outside the normal boundaries of what we consider acceptable.
The world of sports is so antiseptic and carefully policed by roving bands of online proprietary police that little of the authentic remains. Athletes remove themselves from the public domain, coming out only to do carefully controlled media projects, staring at their phones during dreadfully dull press appearances and revealing only carefully scrubbed versions of themselves on social media.
Like them or not—and many don't—McGregor and Mayweather are free to reject this version of sports. They won't let themselves be beholden to any commissioner or league, leaving them free to speak their minds, even if what they have to say ends up being repulsive. They don't care how many souls are left wringing their hands at how vulgar it all is. Sometimes it takes the vulgar to make you feel anything at all.
That's why thousands gathered to hear McGregor's banter in cities around the world. In a world gone strangely silent, it's easy to mistake the loudest voice for the one most worth hearing. And there's no doubt McGregor has his trash-talking down pat.
It's why fans have flown across the ocean to stake their claim in Las Vegas. It's why Drake, Diddy, Mark Wahlberg and Charlize Theron will be just a handful of the dozens of celebrities scattered around the ring. People want to see something real. And fighting is the last refuge.
On stage, the men are free to say the most vile things to each other. When they are done, they'll punch each other in the face until someone tells them to stop. There's a purity there you can't find where men settle scores with a stick or a ball.
No one knows what is going to happen when the bell rings Saturday night. McGregor seems confident he will do to Floyd the same thing he's done to just about anyone he's shared blows with—outsmart and outpunch him. Conventional wisdom says Mayweather will do what he's done 49 times before and find a way to win.
Is it sport? Is it spectacle? And, more importantly, what makes one better than the other?
No matter the result, we'll all be discussing it the next day. Very few events are global in their impact, reaching out to touch a diverse cross-section of the planet. That alone makes this an event worth paying attention to. Like it or not, we're all in this one together.
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.