It was supposed to be a mismatch.
But there was Conor McGregor on Saturday night at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, peppering Floyd Mayweather's head and body with punches—outboxing the best boxer of a generation over the first three rounds in their boxing vs. MMA superstars pay-per-view megafight.
What had McGregor's prefight mind games done to Mayweather?
McGregor agreed to a match versus Mayweather using Mayweather's rules. He had conceded all that he knew before to have a chance at trading leather with the preeminent boxer of this era. It was Mayweather, the undefeated boxing great and winner of 49 consecutive fights, versus McGregor, a man competing in his first-ever professional boxing match.
Why did it take so long for Mayweather to finish him off?
Formulating the Plan
Despite giving away the first three rounds of the fight, it's likely Mayweather was never in any real trouble on fight night. Yes, McGregor's oddball southpaw stance and decidedly un-boxing-like punching angles were new data sets for Mayweather to process.
But Mayweather notoriously skips the prefight ritual of watching film of the opponent before fights, so using the first few rounds as a study course on McGregor was a given heading into things. Still, no matter how many different boxing styles Mayweather had faced before, and he probably thought he had faced them all, he had never encountered one quite like McGregor's.
Heck, no one had. If one had never seen an MMA fighter try to box before, McGregor's unorthodox striking tactics looked like something from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. McGregor sure looked like a regular dude on the outside, but his moves made him look like some kind of alien just pretending to be human.
But the truth of the matter is that Mayweather was so confident in his ability to dominate McGregor over the longer stretch of the fight that he conceded the early rounds, particularly Rounds 1 through 3, so that he could measure McGregor's skill set.
Maybe Mayweather wanted to put on a show. After all, he had promised fans a knockout victory in the fight, and the way he strutted toward McGregor from the opening bell indicates Mayweather was absolutely certain the MMA star wouldn't be able to land any meaningful punches clean.
And McGregor didn't. Even early on, when McGregor was still fresh and strong, most of McGregor's punches were either blocked by Mayweather's arms and gloves or he was able to slip them just enough to minimize the potential knockout force behind them.
So while it may have looked like Mayweather was in trouble during the first quarter of the fight, there was a reason he was smiling at McGregor when the bell sounded to end Round 3.
Mayweather had formulated the plan to defeat McGregor.
Execution of the Plan
Mayweather's masterful execution and dismantling of McGregor began in Round 4. Where the previous three rounds of the fight saw Mayweather simply walking toward McGregor with his arms guarding his face and body, in Round 4 we saw Mayweather establish his lead right hand and begin to create effective punching angles.
The idea behind creating a punching angle is this: A fighter wants to have his feet and body positioned so that it is easy for him to land punches while his opponent cannot. Call it Advance Boxing Geometry, and Mayweather is as good at it as any fighter in history.
One wonders what ran through McGregor's mind the very first time his head was snapped back by the force of that patented Mayweather punch. Historically, the rear hand power shot had been Mayweather's most devastating weapon, and it would play a heavy factor in this fight, too. How many times had McGregor seen clips of Mayweather landing this punch on other fighters? How many times did he tell himself it would be easy to get out of the way?
Whatever the answers, Round 4 marked the beginning of reality in the fight. This was Mayweather's ring and McGregor was simply a guest. The bill was due now and eviction was coming.
Mayweather had begun the bout with a special emphasis on throwing punches to McGregor's body. The reason a fighter wants to do this, especially during the early rounds, is that it can pay dividends later in the fight. Body punches don't often stop a fighter the round in which they are thrown. They wear on an opponent over time so that, as minutes pass, the recipient's feet start feeling heavy as lead and his torso begins throbbing with the phantom pain of punches that have come but are long gone by now.
Mayweather really turned up the pressure beginning in Round 4, and in each round after, he dialed it up a little more. His steady walk forward was now augmented by short bursts of explosive quickness.
Like any good professional boxer, Mayweather never kept his head in one place for too long, so while McGregor was huffing and puffing to blow Mayweather's house down, Mayweather was gliding forward with a full amount of air in his lungs hurling lefts and rights at McGregor's larger but consistently more stationary frame.
McGregor did his best to keep Mayweather at a long enough punching distance but couldn't overcome Mayweather's pristine footwork. The hardest thing to do in boxing is fight well on the inside where a puncher's power can be smothered by his own body, especially for the larger fighter.
Mayweather knew it, and he probably suspected McGregor had done nothing in his life to prepare for just how long a 12-round fight with three-minute rounds actually feels. By Round 5, McGregor couldn't keep his mouth closed from tiredness. Mayweather, meanwhile, continued to amp up the pressure as he pursued McGregor every second, sometimes throwing combination punches in bursts but sometimes content just to let McGregor punch himself out of the fight.
At the end of Round 5, Mayweather shoved McGregor as the two were set to depart back to their corners. "Show me that power!" he exclaimed, knowing full well McGregor would be incapable of doing it.
The next two rounds would play out the exact same script only with Mayweather increasing his pace by a degree or two here and there until, by the end of Round 7, McGregor started to get that bewildered look a fighter gets in his eyes when he knows he's about to lose the fight.
That was the beginning of Conor McGregor's end.
The End of McGregor
Mayweather isn't a knockout puncher. He is the type of fighter who hits just hard enough.
He hits just hard enough to keep his opponents wary of his power. He hits just hard enough to keep them from foolhardily rushing forward the whole fight. He hits just hard enough to knock a fighter out from an accumulation of punches over the course of the bout.
And no one in the sport is as solid a performer as Mayweather on fight night.
"He's composed, he's not that fast, he's not that powerful, but boy is he composed in there," McGregor would say immediately after the fight. "I thought it was close though, and I thought it was a bit of an early stoppage. I was just a little fatigued. He was just a lot more composed with his shots.”
Mayweather's level of composure is what separates him from the rest of the boxing world. The entire world could be falling into chaos around him and he'd still be rock steady ready to win a boxing match.
When Round 8 began, McGregor's world was falling into pieces. He could hardly hold his arms up anymore and Mayweather was there smirking at him as the round began.
If nothing else a game fighter, McGregor kept throwing punches and moving backward to give him his best chance to get some leverage on his shots. But Mayweather was smarter and faster like Mayweather always is in a boxing ring, and he kept closing the distance under McGregor's longer reach to land a frighteningly increased number of potshots.
The last two rounds of the fight, in which referee Robert Byrd could honestly have stopped the bout in either, was simply Mayweather's formulated plan at full throttle. Mayweather had secured McGregor to the bottom of the pool. He had filled it up with enough water to cover McGregor's entire body, and now all he had to do in order to drown him completely was cover McGregor's head with the water.
McGregor was visibly shaken by Mayweather's punches in Round 9. He did his best to play coy, but Round 9 marked the first time McGregor had to grab and hold Mayweather to get his wits about him.
In Round 10, Mayweather closed the show. McGregor was beat before the bell signified a beginning of action, and Mayweather knew it. He marched forward like an army of avalanches, overwhelming McGregor with clean, hard punches that rocked McGregor's head around as if it was on a swivel.
McGregor may not have wanted to be saved by the referee to end the fight, but he sure needed it.
"This is my last fight, ladies and gentlemen," Mayweather said after the bout. "For sure. This is my last fight. Tonight, I chose the right dance partner to dance."
Mayweather went on to praise McGregor's effort and rightly so. What was supposed to be a boring, one-sided squash match instead turned into must-watch television.
McGregor enjoyed enough moments early to make the bout entertaining to watch, and while Mayweather probably could have won the fight in 50 other different ways, the fact that he chose the one that would be the most fun to watch will leave a lasting impression for years to come.
So, why did it take so long for Mayweather to stop McGregor? That's easy. It's because he wanted it to.