LAS VEGAS — Ever since Conor McGregor decided to press pause on UFC superstardom and step into a boxing ring with Floyd Mayweather Jr. on Aug. 26, the validity of their bout has hinged on something few actually know. Can McGregor box?
His longtime coach doesn’t just think so. He says he knows so. In fact, John Kavanagh seems offended by the question he fields almost every day now. Usually, the interviewer will tip-toe toward the meat of it, reminding Kavanagh that Marcos Maidana bothered Mayweather more than most of his opponents. Maidana is more brawler than boxer, so the implication there is that McGregor might want to borrow from Maidana’s tactics, that he might consider working inside on Mayweather, making him uncomfortable, roughing him up. That style has been described as his best chance and only chance to win.
“Here’s my prediction,” Kavanagh says. “Conor won’t beat him because he’s going to bully him, or throw wild, looping overhands in the back of his head like Maidana did. He’ll beat him because he’s more skillful. You will see him out-box Mayweather.”
He pauses, as if considering how this sounds (you know, crazy). “I know everybody reading this is going to think I’m insane,” he continues. “But this isn’t going to be a street fight. It’s going to be a boxing match.”
That strategy would seem to tip the advantage ever more in Mayweather’s direction. But Kavanagh isn’t concerned about raised eyebrows. He says he sees what others miss about McGregor, a fighter he describes as a skilled striker with impeccable timing. “I find that notion sort of weird,” Kavanagh says. “Are you seeing the same fights I’m seeing? The combination he put Eddie Alvarez away with? The left-hand counter that knocked Jose Aldo out in the first round?”
But those fighters, talented as they are, aren’t boxers, he’s reminded. They haven’t spent their lives slipping and landing punches the way that Mayweather has. They haven’t fought 49 times as boxers. “Conor wins a lot of fights with his hands,” Kavanagh says. “I hear boxing people say he’s only good when he gets guys on the ground, or he uses sumo wrestling in his fights.”
He pauses again, sighs, then says, “They’ll see soon enough.”
Kavanagh sits on a ring apron at the UFC Performance Center when he says this, roughly 15 feet from more than 100 reporters asking McGregor why he thinks he can just pick up boxing like a hobby and beat the best fighter in a generation. Kavanagh is not ignoring that prevailing sentiment, nor is he unaware that boxing purists watch what little they’ve seen of McGregor working on heavy bags and scoff. They see the short clips of him landing lefts on two-time world champion Paulie Malignaggi and side with Malignaggi when he says those clips are edited and the angles they were filmed at are misleading.
The week after Kavanagh defended McGregor’s boxing skills, an adroit young junior welterweight named Terence Crawford will film a video with other boxers mocking McGregor’s warm-up, where he flails his arms and dances around the ring. Never mind that the warm-up isn’t atypical in MMA. Other boxers joined in. Some even starting calling it the Conor McGregor Challenge—like that ice-bucket deal a few years back. “I have been getting hateful response, prejudiced response,” Crawford says. “People are telling me McGregor can beat me up. I just laugh.”
The videos highlight the divide between boxing fans and MMA fans over the legitimacy of Mayweather-McGregor. The majority of boxing traditionalists seem offended that this fight is even taking place; the majority of MMA die-hards seem entertained by the spectacle, and they’re intrigued to see if McGregor can pull off the impossible again.
That’s the other thing Kavanagh emphasizes. He has seen this movie before. “Like Rocky II,” he says, laughing. He can still remember McGregor’s first pro MMA fight. It was just the two of them, in Stockholm, and McGregor already had big plans. He was certain he would become a UFC champion. He later Kavanagh he would stop Aldo in the first round. That happened. He then told Kavanagh, as far back as 2013, he would fight Mayweather. That happened. “I’m used to being told we can’t do things and then he still goes out and does them,” Kavanagh says.
That McGregor is preparing for Mayweather with his longtime coaches, Kavanagh and Owen Roddy, rather than bringing in a more traditional boxing trainer, will prove transformative, Kavanagh says. He notes that other UFC fighters have started to borrow from McGregor’s tactics and training methods. He predicts boxers will do the same. “I believe after the boxing community watches this fight, there will be a lot of changes that next Monday morning,” he says. “He’s going to open people’s eyes.”
Kavanagh is rolling now, voice rising, oblivious to the army of writers standing nearby. “Boxing hasn’t had a shake-up in 100 years,” he says. “The creativity isn’t there. I believe MMA is the opposite. I don’t really care if Conor is doing something ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ I care about the results.”
He’s asked, what then? What if McGregor wins? Does he fight another boxer? Return to MMA?
“I’m thinking basketball next,” Kavanagh says. Another laugh.
He mentions a YouTube clip that went up recently, of McGregor on a basketball court, taking a three-pointer. Many of the comments mocked his form. But Kavanagh’s point is that the shot went in. “That’s all that matters,” he says. “I don’t if you say it’s the wrong punch he lands to knock out Mayweather. His fist will hit him in the head and he will fall.”