Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor meet this weekend to decide almost nothing. It is not really boxing versus mixed martial arts, it is not the past versus the future. It is simply money for money's sake. Few are giving McGregor a chance; in fact, most think it would be a victory if he could go the distance with Mayweather. Whether you are hoping to win some money off a naïve friend or simply to sound smart in front of your fellow spectators, there are only a few questions that really matter when you're talking about Mayweather versus McGregor.
What are "MMA angles" and "MMA distance"?
The buzzword throughout the buildup to this fight has been "angles." The assertion that there are "MMA angles" that differ from "boxing angles" is now commonplace. If you speak to any rabid McGregor supporter, or even a paid analyst for Showtime's coverage, they will repeat ad infinitum that McGregor has "angles." Unfortunately, no one will ever qualify what angle they are actually talking about—which means that if McGregor does win they will look insightful, without ever actually having to explain themselves.
Angles typically aren't hard to explain. In a southpaw vs. orthodox matchup, you can typically take an outside angle—stepping outside of the opponent's lead foot—or an inside angle—stepping inside the opponent's lead foot. There are degrees of depth to an angle, and it can be taken on offense or defense, but nothing about "MMA angles" makes them any different from those available in boxing.
To quickly explain those for the layman, here is Manny Pacquiao, a master of utilizing both angles, on the lead and on the counter. Southpaw 101 is to take the outside angle with the lead foot and shoot the straight down the center, getting the head outside of the opponent's lead shoulder in order to make it harder to hit and make the exchange an unfair one.
Here he demonstrates the inside angle.
And here Pacquiao demonstrates how taking the inside angle during an exchange allows him to shorten his right hand and continue his combination work, but this is getting beyond our present purposes.
It is worth noting that when McGregor leads he will mostly either cut a slight outside angle with his Naseem Hamed–style lead uppercut or simply shoot a long, leaning straight without taking an angle to either side. They might well work against Mayweather, but there is nothing revolutionary about them.
The distance in mixed martial arts, however, is often completely different from that in boxing. That is due to the legality of takedowns and kicks. McGregor's kicking game is often seen as gimmicky and secondary to his left hand, but more often than not it serves to set up his left hand far better than his jab does.
In mixed martial arts, the large distance McGregor maintains, and the kicks he pounds in from that distance, encourages opponents to close the range. Often, this means that they will run in swinging, exposing them to his retreating counter left hand. The problem is that if you step back to create more distance each time your opponent shows you a feint, you will quickly hit the ropes in a boxing ring. And, of course, if you don't have the better jab, there is nothing to make the other man need to close the distance.
How much gas will there be in McGregor's tank?
Conor McGregor is in his physical prime and is being paid millions of dollars to come into this fight in shape to go twelve rounds. Floyd Mayweather is 40 years old and two years removed from active competition. Unfortunately, a 12-round professional boxing match is a lot to ask of someone who has never boxed professionally before.
The stories out of McGregor's camp are that he has sparred dozens of 12-round sessions, but as far as can be discerned, the majority of those were with fighters of Artem Lobov and Dashon Johnson's caliber. Meanwhile, Mayweather has been working with men like Zab Judah—the original lightning-fast southpaw who gave him trouble—and he has gone the distance numerous times with the finest names in boxing over the last two decades.
McGregor's power comes with a downside: he can tire himself out quite quickly in using it. In the first bout with Nate Diaz, he walked Diaz down, reacting to Diaz's jabs and slipping deep each time he was shown a feint. Within a round he was breathing hard, and in the second Diaz cracked him while he was leaning and the bout spiraled towards the submission. In the second Diaz fight, McGregor fought scientifically, low kicking and circling away from Diaz, but was still clearly fading by the third round.
Against Diaz, who cannot cut the ring for toffee, and in the large, almost circular cage, McGregor could jog around the perimeter. In a square ring with a ring general of Mayweather's quality, jogging to run down the rounds is unlikely to be an option. At the highest levels of combat sports, the majority of knockouts come down to fatigue. The moment a fighter can't react fast enough or see a blow coming, he's in trouble.
Then there is the fact that Mayweather works the body a lot better than most give him credit for. Not with the spectacular Ricky Hatton–esque digs, but he will needle his man with the body jab and the right-hand lead from range. His right-hand lead to the body put Sharmba Mitchell on one knee for the count. Mayweather also uses uppercuts and counter-uppercuts to the solar plexus perfectly; the latter shanked Marcos Maidana in the guts each time he stepped in to swing in their second fight.
McGregor is noted in MMA for his body attack, winding many of his opponents with good kicks and left straights, but almost all of his opponents in MMA have swung exclusively for his head (spare Diaz along the fence in their second match). You have to imagine that Mayweather will test his abdomen and his wind. The younger fighter may not have the edge if this fight goes to the later rounds.
If we are painting a pessimistic picture of McGregor's chances, let us pause to consider what may be the most pivotal question regarding the action in the ring:
How will the clinch be contested and, more importantly, refereed?
Floyd Mayweather is not a particularly active fighter. He is a 40-punch-a-round fighter who controls distance and pace masterfully. Mayweather stands on the end of his opponent's reach, drawing the jabs he so loves to fire his right hand across the top of. If the opponent get too close for comfort, he pivots or sidesteps away. If the two men are about to engage on anything but Mayweather's own terms, he ties up—and that is where this bout has the potential to get interesting.
Mayweather may be a master boxer, but those are fairly common in the highest levels of professional boxing. Where Mayweather elevates himself above other boxers is with his wrestling.
Mayweather is rarely breathing hard when the final bell sounds because he can control the pace of his fights completely. He insists that his hardest match came against Miguel Cotto, who made Mayweather work by denying him clinches. This is an area where Conor McGregor's many years of hard wrestling practice may tip the scale in his favor. In boxing, the fighters do not pummel for position as in a wrestling clinch, but head placement decides whether the clinch can be held or not. Cotto kept his skull between his chest and Mayweather's so that the American was forced to hug him around a bowling ball of bone. Cotto could then free his arms without fail.
McGregor could very easily replicate this, and his head placement looked sound against Alvarez and others he has gone to the clinch with in MMA. If McGregor can keep Mayweather out of the clinches and keep him working, even if that's by forcing Mayweather to punch him in the face more times a round, we might actually get to see the 40-year-old veteran's endurance put to the test.
Don't bet your house on Conor McGregor just yet, though. The rules of boxing are open to interpretation. Mayweather's two fights against Marcos Maidana, for example, were completely different, largely thanks to the referee. In the first, it was Tony Weeks (who also refereed that Cotto fight), and he gave Maidana time to work when his hands were free on the inside. A true tie-up is a hard thing to achieve, and an even harder thing to hold against an experienced infighter. In the second Maidana fight, however, Kenny Bayless—a referee who loathes the inside game—broke the two men and restarted them from distance each time Mayweather threw his hands loosely around his opponent.
On the plus side, Bayless is not refereeing this fight. Instead it's Robert Byrd, who at least was good at allowing Pacquiao and Tim Bradley to work out of the clinch each time they got there in their bout. The word is that McGregor's camp enlisted Joe Cortez—who was criticized for his handling of Mayweather and Hatton in the clinch—to ref sparring sessions and see what they could get away with on the inside. If McGregor can use the snap downs and the overhook in the clinch to tire Mayweather and turn the clinch into somewhere he doesn't want to be, McGregor landing his left hand well in the later going becomes a much more promising notion.
Certainly the most interesting aspect of this clinch fighting, especially if it gets rough, will be the reaction of the boxing world. For a long time, Mayweather has been utilizing tactics that are essentially wrestling and his opponents—especially Canelo Alvarez and Manny Pacquiao—have come in woefully unprepared for it.
But the final big question that needs answering is perhaps the only reason the fight was made to begin with.
Who will actually buy this fight?
On Wednesday, the BBC reported that the Mayweather–McGregor bout still had as many as 7,000 seats left unsold. While they will likely get snapped up when the price drop, and it will never get to the point where they're giving tickets away just to prevent the broadcasts from showing thousands of empty seats, it does make you wonder how much the promoters overestimated interest in this fight. Yes, it is a major talking point this week in the mainstream media, but a $100 pay-per-view for a man who has never boxed professionally is pretty insulting to boxing's established fans, and a lot of money for a single fight for the casual fan.
And how many of the casual fans this fight hopes to draw in have been burned by Mayweather's antics before? The supposed fight of the century between Pacquiao and Mayweather turned into a tedious 12-round decision. Mayweather's style is not fan-friendly; in fact, even in the hardcore boxing audience it is viewed as technically impressive but not entertaining. Is the allure and the star power of Conor McGregor enough to make fans forget that disappointment from just a couple of years ago? Or perhaps, as Mayweather has always traded on being despised, it will only add fuel to the fire?
Of course, any time a fight is announced to be the "biggest fight ever," it is also set to become the most pirated fight ever. While it is hard to get actual figures on pay-per-view buys, it will be fascinating to see if this fight pays off in the way that the promoting parties imagined, especially as this is being projected to be the UFC's most profitable exercise this year and they have had almost no part in the promotion. The UFC has, however, booked no other events over the last three weeks in the buildup to this fight, leaving fans hungry for even the woeful Stefan Struve–headlined card in the Netherlands next weekend.
For most hardcore fight fans, a return to business as usual will be welcome, but the way that this fight—which makes no real sense whatsoever—has caught the public attention proves that we still very much live in the age of flim-flam, ballyhoo, and spectacle.