Sunspel
By Sean Cunningham / August 25, 2017 5:00 am

Before Mayweather-McGregor, there was a fight between an all-time great boxing champ and a UFC icon.

Three weight-class champ and two-time The Ring magazine Fighter of the Year James “Light Out” Toney was formidable enough that, when Michael Mann made his 2001 film Ali, he cast Toney as the boxing icon “Smokin’” Joe Frazier.

In 2010, Toney took on Randy “The Natural” Couture, a former UFC heavyweight and light heavyweight champion, in a mixed martial arts bout.

These are the highlights (to use that term extremely loosely) of what happened to the boxer dubbed The Dark Emperor.

 

Couture took down Toney barely seconds into the fight to neutralize Toney’s punching ability and submitted him in the first round. The result was a surprise to absolutely no one: Toney was a novice attempting to get a win against Couture who, while past his physical prime, was a master of the MMA game.

Now the two sports have come together again, with “Money” Mayweather against “The Notorious” Conor McGregor.

Former Mike Tyson trainer and ESPN boxing analyst Teddy Atlas must speak truth to power on pugilism: “I have a responsibility to say what my learning of this sport has taught me to say.”

Heather “The Heat” Hardy is the undefeated WBC super bantam and featherweight international boxing champion who recently won her debut MMA fight for Bellator. She modestly observes: “I may not be a completely beautiful technician, but I do have fighting instincts.” (ESPN’s photo of her battered-yet-grinning face post-Bellator win makes it clear she is willing to scrap, as does this clip of her getting it on at Madison Square Garden.)

The two explain why Mayweather-McGregor should be a much longer viewing experience than Couture-Toney, just not a better one. (Not to mention you’re putting money in the pocket of a man with a history of domestic abuse.)

To start, however, here’s a brief list of reasons why the UFC’s McGregor could theoretically make it a competitive (or at least entertaining) fight, despite it being the first time he’s ever boxed professionally.

The age factor. Mayweather’s 40; McGregor’s 29.

The ring rust. It’s been nearly two years since Mayweather’s last bout. McGregor’s had four fights since then. (Albeit in a different sport.)

The wear-and-tear factor. Mayweather’s fought 387 rounds to McGregor’s 37. (Note: Boxing rounds are three minutes, while UFC rounds last five minutes.)

The size factor. Whether in terms of height, weight or reach, McGregor’s bigger.

The power factor. McGregor has fought a total of 24 mixed martial arts fights. In 18 of them, he stopped the other guy, an impressive rate for boxing and an absurd one for MMA. (Mayweather has 26 knockouts in 49 career fights, the vast majority early in his career.)

The walking the talk factor. In just 24 fights, McGregor has managed to win four different belts: the Cage Warriors featherweight and lightweight championships and the UFC featherweight and lightweight titles. Other fighters have complained his knack for hyping himself (he’s basically the Notre Dame Fighting Irish logo magically come to life) let him repeatedly skip ahead of more deserving contenders.

It’s a practice McGregor’s continued with his move into boxing, as he becomes the first man to debut against a pound-for-pound champ. (Hardy said of this unprecedented first fight: “How could I claim to be the best at something if I never did it before?”)

Even so, McGregor made the most of his previous chances, stopping his opponent each time. Most notably, there was a 13-second obliteration of Jose Aldo, who’d been undefeated for nearly a decade before running into McGregor.

 

So will Conor do the same against Floyd?

Way back in 2016, when the fight was nothing but a weird theoretical matchup, Atlas estimated McGregor would need “about five years” to bring himself to a competitive level as a boxer.

Meaning McGregor will have a decent chance if this fight is somehow delayed until 2022.

If the event happens in 2017 as scheduled … uh-oh.

What’s Hardy’s take? After all, she’s fresh off a successful move between the two sports. By McGregor’s account, he started training for the Mayweather fight in May, giving him three months by fight night. Hardy’s transition took less time than that: “I got the call [from Bellator] in April and had the fight in June.”

So can McGregor do it?

“I got Money May all day,” she said.

These are the reasons why both McGregor and people buying the pay-per-view are in for a rough night.

It’s a whole new game. Imagine the NBA told Kevin Durant, “Next season, no jump shots for you—in fact, if you shoot one it’s a heavy fine and possible suspension.”

Durant would have to ignore the voice in his head yelling, “Take the open shot!” drilled into him through years of practice while losing an essential weapon on offense. A seven-footer with great ball-handling skills could probably still get his share of dunks and layups, but you’d expect that scoring average to drop.

McGregor is going through a more dramatic version of this as he gives up kicks and takedowns.

“It’s always challenging to start over,” Hardy said. “I went from being an accomplished veteran in boxing, ready for the top girls. It’s always challenging to start from the bottom again.” (Incidentally, Hardy’s accomplishments become even more impressive considering her late start: “I started boxing at 28. I turned pro just before my 30th birthday. I made my MMA debut at 35.”)

Hardy felt McGregor would have at least a chance against “most of the guys” because “he’s tough, because he has heart, because he’s awkward [making him unpredictable], because he has that powerful left hand.”

But against Mayweather?

“I just don’t see it.” She noted if she had wanted to face UFC champ Amanda Nunes for her title in her first fight it would have been “silly.”

All right, McGregor’s a likely lamb to the slaughter. (Hardy said don’t cry too much for him since he’s getting “$100 million — he ain’t doing it for free” and can go on a “great vacation.”) Can’t there at least be some entertainment value in Mayweather’s supremacy?

Probably not, for reasons having to do both with Mayweather’s primary strength and what Atlas terms his two underlying flaws. (These defects haven’t particularly mattered during his career, but may deny him a place among the sport’s true greats and often make watching him surprisingly dull, particularly for casual fans.)

We’ll start with Floyd’s most impressive talent.

Mayweather makes you miss. Atlas divides fighters into “parts” and by evaluating those aspects of a boxer, you can get a sense of him as a whole. When critiquing Mayweather, there’s something about him that Atlas gives unqualified praise: “He’s got the great defensive part.”

It’s not just that Mayweather is undefeated, he’s practically untouched. Indeed, he’s only been officially knocked down once in his career, way back in 2001 against Carlos Hernandez. The video below demonstrates how Mayweather minimizes and outright avoids punches. Quite simply, few have done a better job of staying safe in the ring.

 

Beyond this, Mayweather can “combine offense and defense,” Atlas said. “He’s a great counterpuncher.”

Assume McGregor comes out aggressively against Mayweather. Only two of McGregor’s fights have gone the distance; he stopped his opponent in the first or second round 19 times. (Beyond being McGregor’s usual modus operandi, it’s good strategy for this bout: Mayweather’s genius for analyzing and adapting to opponents means an unorthodox McGregor style may confuse him at first, but it won’t be too many rounds before he cracks the code.)

Mayweather will almost certainly avoid the attacks and repeatedly nail McGregor with counterpunches.

Soon McGregor’s frustrated and likely tired since he’s in a fight scheduled for 36 minutes. (McGregor has never fought more than 25 minutes and only did that once.)

In no time McGregor’s throwing fewer punches, he’s less trying to win than just survive. Now Mayweather can:

Put an overmatched opponent to sleep.

OR

Put everyone watching to sleep by running out the clock for a decision.

Based on Floyd’s history, expect the latter.

This is because of Mayweather’s deficiencies, which shouldn’t stop him from getting an easy win but may keep you from having an enjoyable evening. The first:

Mayweather’s better at protecting himself than hurting the other guy. As Atlas put it: “Does he have the part where he can generate offense and still be responsible defensively? Where he can take it not to 70-degree weather, to 90, to 100?”

In his career’s latter stages, the answer is a resounding no. Mayweather has knocked out one of his last 10 opponents … and that was less impressive than insane. (Nearly five years ago, Victor Ortiz inexplicably stopped defending himself and Floyd sucker-punched him twice—even by boxing standards, it is a uniquely weird moment.)

 

Mayweather may go unblemished, but his opponents aren’t exactly being rushed to the hospital. Before McGregor, Mayweather’s last fight was against Andre Berto in 2015. Berto summed up the experience by noting, “I got out of every round sitting back in the corner and thinking like, ‘What the hell is this? Did I hit him? Did he hit me? I don’t know.’” (MMA fighter James Krause expressed a similar reaction to the bout with the tweet: “The real fight is me staying awake during #MayweatherBerto.”)

In short: Unless you’re the sort of hardcore fan who thrills to flawless defensive technique, even peak Floyd can make for a slow night.

Far more damning than Mayweather’s performance against Berto was the fact he fought the overmatched Berto in the first place. (Then 32-year-old Berto had lost three of his last six fights.)

This brings us to Atlas’ second critique of Mayweather:

Mayweather is content to coast. “What is the mentality of true, true, true greatness?” Atlas asked. “Is it to do enough to win or is it to do everything there is to be done? For me the true great ones do everything that’s possible to be done. To have the guts to search that out. To have the talent to execute it. Floyd didn’t do that.”

In the later stages of his career, Mayweather has prioritized being undefeated over being great.

Let’s be clear: These are very different things. If a flawless record was the truest measure of a fighter, the greatest boxer ever to live would be Edwin Valero, who faced 27 men and knocked all of them out while earning WBA super featherweight and WBC lightweight titles. Of course, no one would suggest Valero is the greatest because he didn’t beat anyone of particular note. (He didn’t get a chance to, hanging himself in prison after allegedly killing his wife.)

Muhammad Ali, on the other hand, suffered losses, but they don’t matter so much considering he knocked out Sonny Liston and George Foreman when both men seemed unbeatable. (Liston had won 28 straight fights and Foreman was 40-0 with 37 knockouts including an absurd 24 straight stoppages when he faced Ali.)

Mayweather has faced great fighters, but only after they already took a beating or two.

Oscar De La Hoya had lost two of his last four fights, including a knockout by Bernard Hopkins followed by Oscar giving up boxing for nearly 20 months.

Miguel Cotto had lost two of his last seven by stoppage, experiencing brutal beatings by Manny Pacquiao and Antonio Margarito. (It is believed Margarito’s gloves contained plaster of Paris in a horrifying display of cheating—he was essentially hitting Cotto with concrete for 11 rounds.)

The Pacquiao fight, of course, took six years to come together, happening only after Pac-Man had clearly slipped. (Juan Manuel Marquez had knocked him out and Manny’s own power dramatically faded, as he faced Mayweather having gone nine straight fights without a stoppage.)

Right now, there are far more intriguing opponents for Mayweather. On September 16, Gennady Golovkin takes on Canelo Alvarez. (Hardy is a huge fan of Canelo and GGG as well, saying they’re “great punchers” and struggling to make a pick for the fight: “It’s like vanilla or chocolate: I like both.”)

Golovkin vs. Mayweather has long been a fight boxing fans dreamed of: Floyd’s impenetrable defense against Golovkin’s unstoppable offense (Triple G is 37-0 with 33 knockouts).

Even an Alvarez rematch would be intriguing, as Canelo was only 23 when he lost to Mayweather by majority decision in 2013. (He’s gone 7-0 since.)

Instead, Mayweather fights a guy with as much pro-ring experience as most people watching … none.

While fully acknowledging that Mayweather is “terrific during his era,” Atlas insisted:

“I can name five guys from an era not that far off who would have beaten him. I’ll start with Sugar Ray Leonard [Atlas singles him out for being ‘technically solid’ while still able to create ‘create offense’], I’ll go Roberto Duran, I’ll go Tommy Hearns … this’ll surprise you, but I’ll say Aaron Pryor. I’ll go to Pernell Whitaker.”

(Note: I interviewed Mayweather before his 2007 De La Hoya fight and Mayweather praised both “The Hawk” and “Sweet Pea” Whitaker as two of his all-time favorite fighters.)

Inside the ring, Floyd’s been similarly risk averse. When you’re on offense, the defense invariably suffers. The result is that Mayweather has traditionally delivered fireworks only against opponents who were tough but completely lacked the skills to challenge him, as happened against the late Arturo Gatti back in 2005.

 

Okay, now forget all that: Let’s say that Mayweather decides, “Enough with caution—I have an overmatched opponent and I’m going to show what I can do and put him down.”

Even if that happened, Mayweather still might not be able to deliver because …

Mayweather has bad hands. Quite simply, Mayweather’s hands are notoriously brittle. (His former cutman Miguel Diaz reported that Floyd’s father and uncles, all former fighters themselves, had similarly weak hands and has speculated: “They didn’t have enough calcium as babies. Their bones did not grow strong.”)

One of the basic truths of boxing is small guys hit softer than big guys. Mayweather’s small. While this bout will take place at 154 pounds, Mayweather tends to fight at 146.

Meanwhile, McGregor has faced Nate Diaz twice at 170. (They split the fights, with McGregor going the distance for a decision in the second.)

“I think if Floyd stops him, it’ll be from a bunch of unanswered punches,” said Hardy. “There’ll be frustration, from Floyd changing angles, manipulating distance, things like that. Not so much he’s gonna clock him with a big right hand and drop a guy who’s used to getting kicked in the teeth.”

Of course, that would mean Mayweather is risking a fluke knockout by McGregor and potentially destroying his hands just to send fans home happy. Nothing from his past suggests he will. This is the pattern of his career over the last decade:

-Agree to a bout that draws a huge amount of pre-fight hype.

-Earn a fortune as the pay-per-view sales go crazy.

-Win a decision in a fight that features no knockdowns and limited action of any kind.

-See his pay-per-view sales plummet in his next bout as bored fans turn away.

-Repeat step one.

Mayweather has already completed this cycle three times. He had historically huge fights against De La Hoya (2.4 million PPV buys—#2 all time), Canelo (2.2 million PPV buys—#3 all time), and of course Pacquiao (#1 with 4.6 million PPV buys, a mark Conor and Floyd very much want to top).

In Mayweather’s bout after each of those decisions, people decided there were better things to do with their time and cash. Mayweather’s most recent fight against Berto managed only 400,000 buys, less than a tenth of the Pacquiao figure. (Indeed, the fight was almost certainly a big money loser.)

If history holds, August 27 will see Mayweather complete one last cycle, earn one more easy-but-uninspired win on the cards and give boxing a final black eye. The greatest of ironies would be Mayweather getting robbed on an utterly indefensible decision, much as happened to Pacquiao against Jeff Horn back in July.

Or McGregor will land the lucky shot heard ’round the world and make boxers everywhere wonder why they worked so hard for so long.