Big L is one of the greatest rappers—maybe the greatest of all—to pick up a microphone. Murdered before his 25th birthday, he only lived long enough to see a single full-length release; you can listen to his entire discography in the span of a few hours. But even in the grimiest, gun-happiest days of mid-1990s gangster rap, the Harlem emcee born Lamont Coleman distinguished his rhymes about violence, money, and drugs through cadence, word play, and cutting one-liners. He was in his finest form on "Devil's Son," an over-the-top ode to murder, rape, and pistol-whipping priests. The live version hits even harder: "I was a child runnin' wild like a goose chase/Punish my dad I put poison in his toothpaste/Then I picked my infant sister up, gave her a quick spank/Then I dropped that little bitch in the fish tank."
Absurd as those lyrics are, UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor had them beat with the sustained animosity he showed toward Floyd Mayweather, on last week's four-date international tour for their August 26 pay-per-view cash grab. In Los Angeles, McGregor wore a David August suit with fuck-yous sewn into the pin stripes. In Toronto, he screamed at Showtime Sports executive Stephen Espinoza ("Look at you, you little fucking weasel!"), and he dug in further on Mayweather's tax troubles. (Mayweather: "I do numbers, I make money." McGregor: "You owe money.") In Brooklyn, everything about McGregor except for pants that looked like 19 th-century wallpaper was fucking awful: he gave entry-level shout-outs to Biggie and Jay-Z, said dumb shit about being "half-black…from the belly button down," and the reality-show-season-57 blandness that seeps in when you hold three "press" conferences in row without anyone asking a goddamn question became all too clear. In London, the thing came to a merciful end with McGregor regaining some semblance of form and, thanks to Mayweather's flights of homophobia and misogyny, coming out looking like the hero of this farcical pugilistic fairytale.
Tiresome as it was, it was a fun time—in a deranged, masochistic sort of way—with many threats of bodily harm, flag hurling, awkwardly long stare downs, spectators crowning the "winner" of each press conference based on whose verbal abuse seemed less scripted, and the principals redirecting their own gnawing insecurities re: money, fame, likeability, fighting style, and prospects of victory into headline- and video-package-ready sound bites. But the best part was how the mainstream-ness of the whole traveling carnival translated to cable sports TV bullshit. "This was a rap diss show," said Fox Sports 1's Jason Whitlock of the LA presser on the first night. "This is gangster rap moved to the sports lane, moved into boxing." ("It's like Papa Doc and Eminem in 8 Mile, right?" said co-host Kristine Leahy, as I put a razor blade to my wrist.)
The gist of Whitlock's argument—which I guarantee he thought of on air between breaths—was weird as well as self-contradicting. One the one hand, he said the shit-talk during the Mayweather-McGregor pressers could leech into how NFL players hype up games, and that the eff-bombs at the first event were the nadir of fight hype. "This is unprecedented for boxing," he said. (Uh, remember that press conference when Mike Tyson said, "I'll fuck you 'til you love me faggot"?) On the other, he said no one should get sanctimonious about the tenor of that shit-talk because it's the inevitable outcome of boxing's history of insults and race baiting. "We have emptied out the trailer park and the hood and put them in a ring together, and we're about to witness a culture clash and a culmination of a path we've been on for years."
Whitlock's argument is amazing both because it sounds apocalyptic and it sets up a straw man just to knock it down. Like, is anyone actually concerned that this press conference might set a bad example for the NFL, when a bigger problem might be people like a quarterback who threw his testicles onto a female athletic trainer's face back in college, then spent his entire career convincing us that he was the apple-pie-eating-est motherfucker to win a Superbowl ring?
But last week's miserable series of press conferences closed the distance between the blowhard McGregor pretends to be when he needs to sell something and the shameful human Floyd Mayweather, Jr., continues to be every day. Most people who've spent time with McGregor say he dials down the volume in private and, outlandish sartorial tastes and threats of running over a reporter who wouldn't let him see a story before publication notwithstanding, is a humble guy, proud father, and devoted to the mother of his son. True: telling Mayweather "dance for me boy" was gross and quasi-racist, dedicating a few coital thrusts to his "beautiful black female fans" was like Trump eating a taco bowl and tweeting "I love Hispanics," and the clean up at the media scrum afterward didn't erase the stain of ugly jokes that wouldn't pass muster on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour.
But without pardoning McGregor, remember that the goon he plays on TV perpetrated that over-the-line buffoonery in a played-out format where he had to fill dead air. He never assaulted the mother of his children while they watched, faced 90 days in jail as a result, and later opened a strip club called Girl Collection. And he didn't call his opponent a faggot in London like that's an okay slur to wield in public.
Another downside is that the episodes of let's-just-fight-right-now jawing at each other wore thin even before they showed up in LA. Mayweather and McGregor didn't fight each other at the press conferences not because of the bodyguards onstage, or any vestigial nod to professionalism. It was because why the fuck would you give away the spectacle you're trying to sell in August? Some estimates expect Mayweather-McGregor to clear 4.8 million pay-per-view buys and gross $500 million. This is life-changing money for McGregor and, with a big tax bill due, lifestyle-saving money for Mayweather. Decades after this fight is done, they will greet each other with open arms and warm words, thinking about all the cash they earned back when they pretended to hate each other.
Big L didn't actually kill his parents and his baby sister. Those who knew him remember a quiet Lamont Coleman at odds with his trigger-happy alter ego. Similarly, if the most memorable combat sports athletes aren't also method actors, they at least know how to build compelling characters through expression. Vulgar insults make for a reliable script, and so does the me-against-the-world story McGregor tells himself. "Showtime and all these, they're trying to set me up," he said in Toronto. "They're trying to catch me off-guard, they're trying to put me in these uncomfortable situations. But little do they know, I thrive in uncomfortable situations."
By the third day, when they ran out of gas, watching Mayweather and McGregor yell at each other was hell. But when you're the devil's son, that's not a bad place to be.