There’s not much point in following sports anywhere in the world if you’re offended by spectacle. In fact, there’s never been much point in following sports if you're offended by spectacle. The first Olympics were a celebration of games, the arts and and gloriously pagan vices. The Aztecs played a kind of rudimentary combination of handball and jai alai called ullamaliztli. It involved, among other crowd-pleasers, human sacrifice. Historians seem divided between whether it was the winning team or the losing team that played the lead role in that particular postgame entertainment, being sacrificed to the gods being considered quite the honor. In any case, I wish World Cup soccer were like that.
Here in America, where we have dedicated ourselves almost from our nation’s birth to the production and enjoyment of extravagant ballyhoo, we have never recognized any limits to the number of bells, whistles and fighter-jet flyovers with which we consecrate even the most minor sporting event. And when I say no limits, I mean no limits. Shame is a limit. We do not recognize any limits, especially that one.
However, all of us have our individual limits. Mine, I like to think, are sufficiently broad as to follow my Irish grandmother’s sage advice that we all are entitled to go to hell in our own way. I have sat through a boxing weigh-in in which Mike Tyson showed up at 6 a.m. wearing nothing but leopard-skin briefs. (That put me off breakfast for at least a month.) I watched Angel Cordero ride an elephant down the homestretch at Belmont Park. I have sat through Super Bowl pre-games that looked as though Leni Riefenstahl had taken a job at the next desk over from Don Draper.
I have mocked many of these things. I have mentioned with some disdain that our major events have been militarized to a preposterous extent. I have ridiculed the whole notion of that godawful modern phenomenon that has come to be known as “game preparation.” I have even made peace with the UFC. It's not my cup of chowder but, hey, whatever floats your boat, Skippy. However, not until this very month have I been tempted by a mere sporting event to pray to God above for forgiveness, take 32 showers a day and reacquaint myself with my lunch in colorful ways.
Which brings us to the upcoming encounter between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor.
Mayweather, 40, is a boxer, one of the best of his generation. He’s also a pain in the ass and a notorious beater of women. McGregor, 29, is a mixed-martial arts sensation who has never boxed professionally and is likely to be tattoed even beyond his present state of body art by Mayweather. The purse for this fight is said to be $175 million. A ringside seat is said to cost $10,000. I would rather spend the 10 G’s to watch Mayweather and McGregor set $175 million on fire than come within 100 miles of this glorified cholera outbreak.
This is a festival for fools, a carnival of greed. Caligula would have been revolted by this fiasco, and so would his horse. The official hype is only one week old and I want to turn in my American citizenship, sail off to a distant isle and wait there until I and the rest of the human race devolve back to the primeval slime out of which we crawled because, believe me, if this fight comes off, that process may be well nigh irreversible. I would rather watch a raccoon fight an 18-wheeler on I-90 than this match. Anybody who pays to see it should not be allowed to cut his own meat, let alone handle his own money. You know what the difference is between this event and human sacrifice? Ring card women.
Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor already have demonstrated that there is no bottom to this particular barrel and no reason to believe one will be located by the time the fight occurs on Aug. 26. The fighters' traveling press rollout, which visited four cities in three countries in four days last week, had enough homophobia and racism to last months. Mayweather called McGregor a “f----t.” McGregor called Mayweather “boy.” McGregor rubbed Mayweather’s head, something made even UFC president Dana White queasy, and White has a cast-iron stomach for that sort of thing.
Jack London was a terrific writer of fiction, but in 1910, he proved himself to be a genuinely terrible sportswriter. Shocked by the fact that the world heavyweight champion was an African American named Jack Johnson, London famously wrote to retired champion Jim Jeffries, begging Jeffries to get back into the ring and re-establish what to London was the natural order of things.
"Jim Jeffries must now emerge from his Alfalfa farm and remove that golden smile from Jack Johnson's face,” London wrote. “Jeff, it's up to you. The White Man must be rescued."
Jeffries responded by saying he indeed would leave the comforts of his alfalfa farm and “reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race.” As Barak Y. Orbach pointed out in a study of the fight’s social, cultural, and, sadly, racial impact in the New York University Journal of Law and Liberty, one of the critical elements of the hype surrounding the fight was the fact that a film of the fight would be shown in movie theaters around the country. Presumably, white America would pay top dollar to see Jeffries reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race. And, in any case, as Harper's wrote at the time:
It is no exaggeration to say that the entire world will await a pictorial of the fight. [With]the unmistakable victory of Jeffries, these pictures should prove in the current locution, a “gold mine.” This is the wish that is father of the thoughts of hundreds of millions of white people throughout the world.
Unfortunately for all the profiteers involved, Johnson celebrated the Fourth of July in 1910 by knocking Jeffries all over a ring in Reno. This devalued the film rights almost completely; federal law at the time banned the depiction of conduct that was illegal in any state. That took the Jim Crow South out of the distribution plans completely, and northern cities weren’t wild about it, either. (The law, as Orbach observes, wasn’t overturned until 100 years after the fight.) Far worse than the failure of the film was the fact that race riots broke out all over the country in the wake of the fight. New Orleans, St. Louis and Houston all erupted. Black men were shot to death in the backcountry of Arkansas, Illinois and Virginia. In Wheeling, W.V., a black man was lynched for having a fine automobile, the kind that Jack Johnson was known to drive. As historian Geoffrey Ward wrote in his biography of Johnson, no single event was responsible for more outbreaks of violence until the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, in 1968.
More than anything else, this is what is sickening about Mayweather-McGregor. Supposedly, in 2017, we know more than we did in 1910 about the forces with which this event now is flirting. Supposedly, in 2017, we are beyond using crude bigotry to hype a sporting event. Supposedly, in 2017, we have matured as a society. After all, Mayweather has been arrested for committing an actual crime against a woman, and not for violating bogus racial codes the way Johnson was. Surely, the day of jubilee is at hand. What Mayweather-McGregor has proved, if it has proved nothing else, is that one vicious old dog still hunts.
We are now in yet another of America’s regular spasms of racial reaction. There is pushback against the pushback against police violence. There is no inside voice for racism, sexism, and homophobia, much less one that is shouting from a podium. It is a fearful, dangerous time. And while there is never a good time for a prizefight that seeks to turn that dread and unease into a big payday, it's especially not that time now.
By now, not only are the principles behind this fight lost, but the principals are, too. Mayweather and McGregor are already halfway to becoming vessels for some of the worst impulses in our society, impulses on which the reins have been loosened over the past two years. The spectacle surrounding this fight already has set modern standards for public vulgarity and ostentatious indecency, both of which will be richly rewarded by a public with an apparently insatiable appetite for bread and circuses. (The satirist Juvenal coined the phrase to demonstrate the decadence of a Roman elite that bought power with public spectacles and free wheat.) At the somewhat advanced age of 63, I have discovered that my tolerance for this kind of ballyhoo has an outer limit after all. Sooner or later, even my grandmother’s advice is inadequate. It’s a sad day indeed when that happens. Get this abomination off my lawn, dammit.