Why you should care
Because, like them or not, these generational talents are changing the game.
Dana White, president of Ultimate Fighting Championship and a man whose Zuffa Boxing T-shirt seems intent on strangling his bulging biceps, is stalling. It’s 7:00 p.m. and Conor McGregor has yet to arrive for a 5 o’clock media session at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
It becomes evident that reporters will have to wait until the promoter’s most famous prizefighter and his upcoming opponent, boxing icon Floyd Mayweather Jr., are finished spewing expletives at each other onstage to the cheers of thousands of fans. Meanwhile, the media’s questions shift to White’s own future — particularly with regard to his branded T-shirt. For the second straight day, White is repping Zuffa Boxing. Since White is part owner of Zuffa, the entity that formerly owned UFC, the scribes wonder whether a pivot to boxing promoter is in his future. “You never know,” says the burly, outspoken UFC frontman. “If you told me a year ago I’d be promoting a boxing match, I’d never believe you. This is batshit nuts.”
There’s so much money in this thing, [McGregor] might never fight again. … If it does 4.9 million pay-per-view buys, I might not come back.
Dana White, president, Ultimate Fighting Championship
To the surprise of many, UFC, Showtime Boxing and Mayweather Promotions have made this fight. Once merely a hypothetical, the pairing of mixed martial arts’ biggest star and one of boxing’s all-time greats will become reality on August 26. The unrivaled peculiarity of the spectacle commands intrigue, while the oft-offensive bravado of sports’ two most unabashed self-promoters has launched the fight into the “biggest of all time” stratosphere. Though most fans believe a Mayweather victory is inevitable, the matchup could shift the combat world’s future as other fighters around the world take note. “You can’t fake being McGregor or Mayweather, but you can learn from them,” says CBS Sports combat analyst Brian Campbell. “We’re starting to see more MMA fighters speak out, unafraid to make demands.”
McGregor’s ascent to superstardom as UFC’s first two-division champ has inspired a legion of peers who are now realizing how powerful a vibrant personality can be in the fight game. Only four years removed from his debut, McGregor is the biggest pay-per-view draw in MMA history. He has headlined four of the UFC’s six best-selling cards, and his victory over Nate Diaz last August drew the most MMA buys ever.
Still, his achievements pale in comparison to Mayweather’s. On top of a 49–0 boxing record, Mayweather is the highest-paid athlete in all of sports. He has generated roughly 19.5 million career PPV buys and $1.3 billion in revenue. As he reminded everyone during a four-city, three-country promotional tour, McGregor is a “seven-figure fighter,” while Floyd himself fights for nine-figure checks.
For all of boxing’s flaws, there’s a reason this bout will be in a boxing ring. Even amid a run of massive UFC success that recently saw White and his Zuffa partners, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, sell the company to talent agency WME-IMG for $4 billion, boxing boasts a substantially larger global reach. Plus, savvy contractual structuring by White and the Fertitta brothers directs most profits back to UFC. The highest-paid boxers earn exponentially larger cuts than their MMA counterparts. Even McGregor’s largest payday ($3 million) is scraps compared to Mayweather’s biggest purse ($250 million). So, as McGregor outgrew his UFC earnings, boxing was the logical next step.
A growing number of athletes have expressed interest in following suit. “I’m going to be dealing with this for years,” says White, confirming that allowing McGregor — who remains under contract with the UFC — to box has prompted other fighters to come calling. “Money is and always will be an issue.” Following the June announcement of this headlining crossover bout, UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic (17–2) called out the WBO and IBO heavyweight boxing champ, Anthony Joshua (19–0), for a chance to touch gloves. UFC legends José Aldo and Anderson Silva also have added their names to the boxing conversation.
Steve Espinoza, executive vice president of Showtime Sports, is quick to note that current circumstances are unique. “There’s been a lot of conversation about if this will become par for the course,” Espinoza says. “I don’t see it that way. This wouldn’t happen without the two personalities at issue.” Espinoza is correct to taper speculation. Still, precedents for a replicable, smaller-scale model exist.
In 2009, World Wrestling Entertainment superstar Brock Lesnar became an incredibly popular UFC champion. Five years later, White signed wrestler CM Punk — an MMA disappointment but one who injected much-needed casual interest in the sport. And at Bellator MMA, UFC’s rival, crossovers are a major marketing tool. The late Kimbo Slice — a street-fighting YouTube phenom turned MMA fighter — and other aging stars played a key role in the growth of Bellator, which is now grooming legitimate young talent like Aaron Pico, a former world champion wrestler and national champion boxer.
Six months ago, most fight fans scoffed at the idea of a match between Mayweather and McGregor. But then a funny thing happened. In an industry notorious for red tape and meddling management, everyone got out of the way. With a record 5 million PPV buys in sight, there was no reason not to make it happen. The door to cross-combat potential is now ajar. If fans decide that demand exists, why wouldn’t all parties involved oblige?
“There’s so much money in this thing,” says White, speaking on behalf of his prized employee. “Forget deciding to stay in boxing; he might never fight again. Shit, if it does 4.9 million pay-per-view buys, I might not come back.”
Eventually, McGregor takes the stage to meet the media — shirtless in skin-tight paisley pants and a white mink coat. Something tells me White would be easier to miss.