Conor McGregor couldn't will himself to victory against Floyd Mayweather Jr. on Saturday in Las Vegas, but give the swaggering 29-year-old UFC champion credit for making things fun.
Taking advantage of a glacial start by the 40-year-old Mayweather, McGregor fared better than almost anyone anticipated in their junior middleweight bout at T-Mobile Arena. Though he faded down the stretch, eventually conceding a 10th-round TKO loss, McGregor can exit his first foray into professional boxing with his head held high.
He didn't shock the world—unable to close the vast gap in experience and technique between himself and Mayweather—but he didn't get embarrassed, either. If he chooses to press on with boxing or return to the Octagon to restart his UFC career, he'll have no shortage of lucrative options.
"I've been here before," a happy-go-lucky McGregor told interviewer Jim Gray in the ring after it was over. "I've been strangled on live TV and I came back...I thought the referee could've let it keep going a little bit. Let me go down."
Few pundits gave McGregor a realistic chance of besting Mayweather as he crossed over from MMA to take on arguably the greatest boxer of his generation. Conventional wisdom said things would turn ugly for the Dublin native once the talking stopped and the fight began.
Perhaps in the end McGregor didn't belong out there with Mayweather, but the titanic mismatch most expected never materialized:
McGregor began the fight aggressively, pressuring Mayweather with a surprisingly effective jab as well as some worthwhile combinations. He caught the boxer with a counter uppercut in the first round and landed with enough regularity to win the first three periods on at least one ringside judge's official scorecard.
That alone defied expectations.
McGregor also indulged his theatrical side, putting his hands behind his back and leading with his chin, switching stances and sticking his tongue out at Mayweather. In addition, he received multiple warnings from referee Robert Byrd for landing hammerfists to the top of Mayweather's head.
By contrast, the boxer was far more deliberate in the early going. Mayweather threw just a handful of punches during the first few stanzas. After the fight was over, he told Gray the slow start was part of his game plan, but there were times he appeared legitimately frustrated, shoving McGregor at the end of Round 5 and getting shoved by Byrd while complaining of a low blow in the ninth.
"He's a lot better than I thought he was," Mayweather told Gray of McGregor after the fight. "He used different angles. He's a tough competitor, but I was the better man tonight."
Mayweather seemed to find his footing as the fight wore on, flashing more offense beginning in the sixth round. The eighth was arguably the best frame of the fight, as McGregor and Mayweather exchanged punches for an exciting three minutes that gave fans more action in one round alone than they expected to see all night.
By the ninth, it was clear McGregor was on his way out. He was fading badly and his vaunted punching power—which didn't seem to fully translate from MMA to boxing to begin with—softened as his energy drained. He didn't have much for the surging Mayweather during the final few rounds.
Byrd stepped in to call off the fight just over a minute into the 10th, though the stunned McGregor managed to smile and appear to have his wits about him in short order after the stoppage.
His reasons for the grin should be obvious. McGregor received a reported $30 million in base pay for this bout, per ESPN.com's Dan Rafael, far more than his estimated earnings for his richest UFC fight. UFC President Dana White estimated McGregor will end up making at least $75 million once the fighter's cut of the pay-per-view money is tabulated, per Keith Idec of BoxingScene.com.
Though McGregor and Mayweather had sparred in the media and online as far back as 2015 and engaged in a contentious war of words leading up to this fight, they were both all smiles when it was over:
For McGregor, if the objective was to emerge from the bout without being embarrassed while showcasing his skills and unique gift of gab for a whole new audience, it was mission accomplished.
He'll likely continue to call his own shots as he presses on with his career.
McGregor has a high-dollar trilogy fight waiting for him against Nate Diaz if he returns to the Octagon. That pair's two-fight feud has already proved to be the most lucrative in UFC history. Signing on for a third installment could bring even more money if any sliver of the audience that watched Mayweather-McGregor follows him back to the UFC.
McGregor could also defend his lightweight title against any number of top contenders, including Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov. Against the latter, McGregor has talked about trying to promote a megafight in Russia.
McGregor also still has a simmering feud with former sparring partner Paulie Malignaggi. It's unlikely his UFC bosses would allow him to carry on with a boxing career, but McGregor's performance against Mayweather was just good enough to make a bout against Malignaggi feel halfway interesting.
Whatever happens, McGregor afforded himself about as well as he could have in defeat against Mayweather.
He exits this fight without suffering any serious blows to his drawing power, and perhaps having impressed a large contingent of new fans.