BY PETER DAHL
On May 2, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao will end years of speculation and negotiation with a landmark boxing match with the welterweight title on the line. Fittingly, this drawn-out process of finally reaching an agreement on the Fight of the Century is continuing to slog towards fight night, as the two sides have not signed some official documents and tickets (ranging into the hundreds of thousands of dollars) have yet to go on sale..
When this fight finally does happen, between the undefeated American and the hard-hitting politician from the Philippines, it’s going to be, in some respects, the most important sporting event of my young life. This will be the last time that a boxing match becomes a cultural moment. For one night, it will be like the old days when a match divided a nation, people got together to take in the fight and celebrities turned out in droves to sit ringside.
The storybook elements are in place: the undefeated, flashy, highest-paid athlete in sports defends his title against the man of the people from the Philippines. One of the most technically precise defensive fighters fends off the big-swinging little man. The trash talk has been thrown around. And, perhaps best of all, no clear favorite has emerged amongst experts. The fight may, somehow, live up to the hype.
Boxing will go on past May 2, as many places in the country are much more engaged in the sport than Northeast Wisconsin is. Even so, this will be the last fight like this (unless, of course, there’s a rematch). A sport that has long fallen from grace, plagued by various problems and lacking star-power, will continue its decline into general irrelevancy, and a sport that was once so critical to American culture will no longer produce fight nights that demand the attention of the nation.
However, just months after this grand finale, boxing’s cousin, mixed martial arts, will have a critical fight of its own, as José Aldo defends his featherweight title versus Conor McGregor on July 11. If Mayweather-Pacquiao generates enough interest in combat sports, and Aldo/McGregor delivers a great fight, mixed martial arts and its lead promoter, UFC, could be off to bigger and better things. I think UFC will always have severe popularity limitations, as many people can only take so much violence in a sport, but July 11 could be the defining moment in a surge of interest for mixed martial arts.
The greatest thing UFC has going for it is The Notorious Conor McGregor, the Celtic Tiger. He is a defiant, confident and fierce fighter, with a cool demeanor and audacious persona. As they say, he “talks like Ali, kicks like Bruce Lee.” I became a McGregor fan on Jan. 18 when he dismantled Dennis Siver in Boston. Before the fight, Siver refused to accept McGregor’s offered handshake and McGregor turned his hand into an extended finger. After the fight was called, McGregor scrambled over the octagon wall like a madman to confront José Aldo in the crowd, letting the champ know that he was coming for him. In the post-match interview, he said Aldo better polish the belt for him, and just a few weeks ago, in a press conference, McGregor crossed the stage to actually snatch the belt from the champ, causing quite a stir in the press room.
I don’t know what’s staged and what’s real. I don’t know when UFC president Dana White “suggests” to one fighter or another that they do this, that or the other thing. But there is enough real intensity in McGregor for me to know there’s something special about him. In fact, I think he could be, on a smaller scale, the Tiger Woods of mixed martial arts, as people who may not be particularly interested in the sport itself will still tune in to see what Conor McGregor does.
If McGregor wins on July 11, UFC will be headed for another landmark event. Dana White has said that McGregor’s first title defense would take place in Ireland’s Croke Park. To put this in perspective, the Irish frenzy in Boston was palpable as the Celtic Tiger obliterated Dennis Siver. If he defends his title in his home town, in a nation where mixed martial arts is making huge inroads, we could have a scene that looks like something out of the movie Gladiator. And, in the process, boxing’s cousin would continue its ascent on the back of its biggest star.
Combat sports may not be the most popular sports in America, but there are big time events on the way in the very near future. You may want to tune in.