NEW YORK — Stephen Espinoza, head of Showtime Sports, a man instrumental in putting together many of the marquee boxing matches this decade, sits in a black leather arm chair in his 16th floor office, near a window that overlooks midtown Manhattan. A hardcover book with a photograph of Floyd Mayweather Jr., arms crossed, both index fingers pointing skyward, lays on the table in front of him. A wide-angle photograph of a boxing ring, with Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao squared off inside of it, covers the entirety of the wall behind his desk. It is there to commemorate a fight, a spectacle, a cultural phenomenon that Espinoza helped bring to life, a fight no one believed would ever happen. The Fight Of The Century. It may soon be getting replaced.
It’s been two months since the next fight that everyone longed for (and now everyone scoffs at) was confirmed, and one month since Conor McGregor called Espinoza a “f—ing weasel” on stage in Los Angeles, in front of a national TV audience. Now here he sits, 10 days away from the most anticipated sporting event in quite possibly the history of sports. Espinoza has seen just about everything possible in boxing thus far in his career. But he’s never seen anything quite like this. This fight has been, well, different—even the build up was strange. They held an international PR tour in three countries and thousands upon thousands of fans sold out arenas to watch press conferences.
“We expected a lot of enthusiasm, that’s why the fight was made,” Espinoza says. “But we have been surprised by the extent of [that enthusiasm] and the passion and the emotion behind it.”
That’s what happens when you put the most polarizing boxer of his era and the most polarizing UFC fighter of his era in the same room together. (Well, that, and a lot of curse words.) But we hadn’t seen this Mayweather in a long time; the brash Mayweather, the trash-talking Mayweather, the bring-a-chicken-to-a-press-conference-to-annoy-Oscar-De-La-Hoya Mayweather. But McGregor forced it out of him. He said Mayweather couldn't read. He jabbed him for owing money to the IRS. He said he had “little legs,” “little hands,” a “little torso” and a “little head” and led reverberating chants of “F— the Mayweathers.” So Mayweather shot back—when one went low, the other went lower, the cycle repeating itself.
“It’d been a while since a fighter talked trash to Floyd like Conor did,” Espinoza says. “From Floyd’s perspective, it’s been a welcome relief to have someone else pulling their share of the promotion.”
Looking back on the last month, Espinoza says what surprised him the most was the fervid support that followed McGregor wherever they traveled.
“He has generated in his fans a unique type of connection,” Espinoza says. “This emotional, absolute passionate devotion to him.”
Another thing Espinoza says he’s never seen before in the lead-up to a fight is the stark dichotomy of opinions on how this fight will end. If you ask Mayweather fans, or boxing aficionados, who will win, they will laugh at you. Yet the UFC contingent, the McGregor faithful, see no possible way that their fighter, the bigger, stronger and younger fighter, loses.
“You have two fan bases that are absolutely convinced their guy wins easily,” Espinoza says. “There’s not many people saying, hey this is a tough one to call.”
Espinoza is realistic about the fight. Maybe that’s because he says all the promotion has already been done— at this point, you’re either hooked or disgusted. Mayweather is one of the best tacticians the sport has ever seen, arguably the best defensive fighter of all time. So, “if this contest turns out to be about boxing skill,” Espinoza says, “then Floyd has already won. There is no one, even at 40, that is going to outbox Floyd.”
But, here is where the intrigue lies. On Wednesday, the Nevada State Athletic Commission selected Robert Byrd as the referee for the fight—a selection that McGregor has called “phenomenal.” Let Espinoza explain why.
“[Byrd] has a reputation for letting people mix it up,” Espinoza says. “I don’t think you're going to see a lot of ticky tack stuff called. I think there’s a recognition that this is a fight, there’s going to be some grabbing and holding and rough stuff. I’d be surprised if Robert Byrd wasn't pretty lenient.”
Espinoza says that for McGregor to win, he’ll have to do what Marcus Maidana attempted to do in 2014, “brute force, rough, aggressive, wild. That’s the blueprint,” Espinoza says. He admits because of that, there is some risk that McGregor might do something, well, a little bit crazy. Like a spinning kick to the chest. Or a flying elbow to the head. Espinoza says the UFC brawler might do so simply as a reaction, having fought that way his whole life; he may do it strategically, knowing he’ll only be docked a point and be fined a small portion of the money he’s due to make (it’s reportedly a seven figure fine, but when you’re making over $100 million, what’s a mil or two, really?); and he may do it late in the fight, if he finds himself being beaten handily.
“Why not go out a hero, do something crazy and memorable, endear yourself to the MMA fans?” Espinoza asks.
He’s told it seems kind of like he’s hoping for this outcome. It wouldn't be the worst thing for publicity…
“We want a clean fight and a clean result,” he says. “But a good chunk of the interest here is, what will this look like. I don’t think anyone has any clue how it’s actually going to play out in the ring. It’s Batman versus Superman.”
In the corner of his office is a dry erase whiteboard with a to-do list of tasks still left for the fight. Espinoza says there used to be a color-coding to the board—things in red marker were the most critical, while the less urgent tasks were black and green, respectively. Now, only red marker remains.
“At this point its sort of like planning a wedding,” he says. “Its all about seating and logistics. There’s not all that much we can do to change the trajectory of the market and the buys.”
This week, Espinoza says, the salvo of celebrity requests for tickets has skyrocketed. Since the UFC has its own coterie of famous fans, and boxing hits an entirely different demographic, the event is pulling from two different worlds. He can’t divulge everyone who will be there—got to save some surprises—but it’s confirmed that Mark Wahlberg, Don Cheadle, Jamie Foxx, Jay Pharoah, Chance the Rapper, Snoop Dogg, Drake, and Lebron James will be attending. And while the tickets haven’t been selling quite like they hoped—possibly because MMA fans are used to much cheaper events— Espinoza says, “once we get to fight night, I have no doubt we’ll have an all-time record for the gate.”
Espinoza says he won’t know much about the two fighter’s ring walk-ups until next Thursday, and even then, he might still be in for a surprise. When Mayweather came to the ring with Justin Bieber, or the Burger King king, Espinoza found out at the same time as the rest of us. He does let on that the physical ticket for the fight will have a 3D hologram on it, one of those where if you look at it from two different angles you’ll see two different images. The ticket will be a keepsake to commemorate what he expects to be a weekend unlike any Las Vegas has ever seen.
“Across the city you’ll see passion, excitement and a level of adrenaline that the city hasn't seen before,” Espinoza says. “It’s like having the UFC Super Bowl and boxing Super Bowl the same weekend.”
Espinoza says that fans shouldn't expect this fight to follow in the footsteps of the last dozen Mayweather fights, where he talks about knocking his opponent out for months and then gets in the ring and dances around, making sure not to get hit for 12 rounds and inevitably wins by decision.
“This is a different endeavor for Floyd,” Espinoza says. “If McGregor is standing up at the end of 12 rounds, he’s won at least a moral victory, if not a victory in many senses. So I think Floyd feels the pressure to perform at a high level, to dominate and to get a stoppage more than ever. We may see something different here. Floyd has everything to lose in this fight. There’s very little for Conor to lose.”
Then he adds: “And Conor is absolutely convinced that he is going to win.”
It’s been nearly three years since McGregor first offhandedly told his trainer that “one day” he would fight Mayweather. Two years since he reiterated that desire on the Conan O’Brien Show, saying “I would certainly box him if the opportunity arose” and "there’s no real fight in boxing left for Floyd anyways, no more real draws,” before adding that he’s the obvious choice “if you’re looking for a fight that would generate interest” and “if we were to get it on, I would most certainly dismantle him.”
We laughed then. But the first three quarters of that has already proven McGregor prophetic. Now we’re just over a week away from seeing if he can finish the prediction.