THIRTY THOUSAND FEET ABOVE HAMILTON, ONT., JULY 12
The Bombardier Global 6000 nears its cruising altitude, and Conor McGregor sinks into an oversized white leather chair between the cockpit and a stack of Dolce & Gabbana shopping bags. It's almost midnight when the UFC icon and his 12-person entourage begin assessing his performance at a promotional stop in Toronto earlier that evening. He wonders if his crew enjoyed the show he put on with Floyd Mayweather Jr. as much as he did. "Did you see their faces?" he asks.
The men around him nod like bobbleheads. They're reviewing the antics of the outrageous showman who sits beside them, their eyes fixating on iPhones, iPads and laptops. They laugh watching McGregor peek inside Mayweather's backpack, revealing that the man who calls himself "Money" is carrying just a few grand in cash. They guffaw when he jokes that Mayweather can't read. A flight attendant delivers mixed nuts and fruit. "That wasn't a press conference," McGregor says, swallowing unsalted almonds and cashews. "That was a f------ rock concert."
Those onboard the jet headed to New Jersey hail from the mixed martial arts universe, where McGregor isn't so much a fighter as he is a force, the man who dispatched legendary featherweight Jose Aldo in 13 seconds and the first person to hold UFC belts in two weight classes at the same time. But as McGregor scrolls through his likes and mentions on social media, the conversation doesn't even touch on the sport that made him famous. He's focused on the one he's barging into. He'll fight Mayweather, the undefeated world champion with titles spanning five weight divisions, inside a boxing ring in Las Vegas on Aug. 26.
Toronto marked the second of four stops on an international tour to promote their bout. The road show will later be described as vaudevillian, Kardashianian, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, mortifying, embarrassing and a blight on either sports or all of humanity. It also helped create unprecedented interest for an event that involves two men and their fists.
Drake warms up the crowd at the downtown Toronto amphitheater, while at least 20 bodyguards stand watch and puffs of marijuana smoke waft skyward like at a Phish concert. Some fans settle on the hillside that faces the stage, where they're pelted by raindrops. The size of the crowd—about 16,000—will lead organizers to predict that upwards of 5 million households will pay as much as $99 to see perhaps the greatest defensive pugilist ever face a novice boxer, albeit one who is famous, accomplished and supremely confident. Onstage, Drake calls the event "the biggest fight in the history of fighting."
Hours later, McGregor kicks up his Prada sneakers on the plane and thinks about the future. He's aware that 47 professional boxers have tried—and failed—to hand Mayweather his first pro loss. He also knows that boxing purists have labeled this bout a spectacle, a circus, a farce—not to mention a supreme mismatch. But McGregor doesn't care that they're offended by his hubris. He's already conquered the MMA orbit. Now he's certain he will change boxing.
They do agree on one thing, McGregor and the boxing traditionalists: that 2017 has marked a resurgence for a sport that has been considered dead for decades. The purists don't believe McGregor fits into that story line, yet here he is, set to participate in likely the most watched boxing match ever, peddling bluster and bombast, selling a fight few believe he can actually win but for which he will bank in the neighborhood of $100 million. If this bout settled the debate of style vs. substance, style would be halfway through its victory lap.
At 12:35 a.m., the plane descends and the Manhattan skyline comes into view. McGregor stares at the skyscrapers in silence, knowing what's possible if he's right and so many others are so, so wrong.
"If you win," the question starts . . .
McGregor glares back, eyes unblinking. "When I win, the world will be truly shocked," he says. "The world of boxing will freak out."
"On August 26," he continues, "boxing will have a new god."
SAN DIEGO, JULY 31
At the back of an office park, behind an unmarked glass door with tinted windows, there is an old-school boxing gym. Fans won't find any circus here, only heavy bags and sweat stains. The walls are decorated with posters of Muhammad Ali. The Greatest, of course, was a master in the art of self-promotion. He could sell fights to peace protestors, and once even combated a professional wrestler in Japan under mixed rules that loosely resembled MMA.
Boxing didn't have to defend itself back then, in 1976, when the sport routinely reached huge audiences and the heavyweight champion ranked among the planet's most famous athletes. Alas, four decades later, the fight of the year—a bout many describe as the best in years—must contend with something more like Ali vs. Antonio Inoki for mainstream attention.
On Sept. 16, Canelo Alvarez will meet Gennady (GGG) Golovkin in Las Vegas in a middleweight unification bout. The boxing folks who see Mayweather-McGregor as a fake fight will view Alvarez-Golovkin as the season's legitimate, and overshadowed, centerpiece. The "real fight" combatants boast 86 combined victories and 67 combined knockouts, and between them have suffered only one loss—Alvarez, to Mayweather by decision in 2013.
Alvarez grew up in Juanacatlàn, Mexico, a town outside Guadalajara, but he trains in the anonymous California gym surrounded by Ali posters. While he borrows some of Ali's in-ring tactics, he's not interested in selling fights with the bombast that Ali did. Alvarez is polished, packaged and comes across as scripted, to the point that he's been labeled a joint creation of Golden Boy Promotions and the Mexican television network Televisa, which has covered his career religiously, even developing a telenovela based on his life. His critics see him as a star who lacks both charisma and career-defining victories.
As Hennessy reps arrange cases of cognac for a photo shoot, Alvarez's longtime trainer, José (Chepo) Reynoso, points to the posters on the wall. Should Alvarez top the undefeated Golovkin, Chepo says he'll ascend to the rarest air in boxing, alongside fighters like Ali. Excelencia, Chepo calls that stratosphere, a step up from mere champion.
"Boxing needs a fight like this and a fighter like Canelo," Chepo says. He means an expert counterpuncher who rarely moves backward and will welcome exchanges with the thunderous Golovkin. Their bout should feature the kind of action Mayweather fights often lack: Two boxers trading punches in the middle of the ring, as compared to one flailing away at the elusive Mayweather.
Alvarez sits down on the ring apron and signs 25 bottles of cognac. A tattoo is visible underneath his left biceps—no boxing, no life—and the ink spells out his ethos. Alvarez cares about his sport's history, and he explains his place within it in measured Spanish delivered in a loud whisper. He is the antithesis of Mayweather, a boxer who, Alvarez says, delivers more in the weeks before his bouts than on fight night. He points to boxing's last true blockbuster event—Mayweather-Pacquiao, in 2015—as another triumph for style over substance, another example of the sport's failure to deliver on hype promised. "That fight killed it for boxing," Alvarez says. "They made people wait six years, and then it was a boring fight when it came together."
Chepo wraps his fighter's hands with gauze. They disagree on whether the two major boxing events this summer can be symbiotic. Alvarez believes the McGregor-Mayweather spectacle will damage boxing when it disappoints; Chepo welcomes the additional attention. "It's all good," Chepo says. "We have a saying in Mexico: When it rains everyone gets wet."
The discussion ends when the rapper Nas enters the gym. He's also there for the photo shoot. More than a casual boxing fan, he celebrated his 40th birthday in 2013 by watching Alvarez tango with Mayweather in Las Vegas.
If Drake is like Mayweather-McGregor—seeking attention and uncomfortably public—Nas more closely resembles Canelo-GGG. He's the choice of the aficionados, more 1997 than 2017. He's substance, even with style.
Sipping cognac from a paper cup Nas climbs inside the ring to shadowbox with Alvarez. "Boxing is back," he says.
LOS ANGELES, AUG. 2
Inside his office at Golden Boy Promotions, the eponymous Golden Boy sits on a dark leather couch, next to a chessboard, considering his moves in boxing's summer renaissance. Now Alvarez's promoter, Oscar De La Hoya knows all too well the ridiculousness of the Mayweather promotional vortex. At various stops on the promo tour before they fought in 2007, Mayweather brought a live, caged chicken on stage to mock De La Hoya, stole his luggage and pilfered his team's to-go lunch order.
The shenanigans ultimately worked. Not only did De La Hoya misguidedly try to punish Mayweather rather than outbox him, but their bout set a then pay-per-view record with 2.48 million buys. Antics translated into attention, which translated into cash—and the Mayweather Business Model was born. The actual fight proved underwhelming, but that hardly mattered. Mayweather became the most bankable star in sports, even after a series of domestic violence charges landed him in prison for 60 days in 2012.
De La Hoya says he feels guilty for helping promote 10 Mayweather bouts from 2007 to '14, for selling them as competitive when he knew deep down they were not. He's partially right. It's true that Mayweather hand picked opponents better than any fighter of his generation. But it's also true that he has beaten myriad world champions, outclassed future Hall of Famers and won 49 fights. It's unfair to say he never fought any champion in that champion's prime. But it's fair to say that his zealous defense of his undefeated record led other fighters to pattern their careers in the Mayweather way: maximize profit, minimize risk. Who loses in that scenario? Fans.
What bothers De La Hoya about this summer, he says, is that Mayweather continues to do things that benefit only Floyd Mayweather. One example: choosing Aug. 26 for the McGregor fight, a thunder-stealing move given that the same venue, T-Mobile Arena, was already hosting Canelo-GGG the following month. Of course Mayweather is allowed to look out for his best interests first, but his actions did seem motivated by spite. It would be like booking the same wedding venue as your less popular friend for a date three weeks earlier. The promo tour didn't help either, according to De La Hoya. "It reminded me of a really bad, scripted show gone terrible," he says. "I actually felt embarrassed. It just felt gross."
Boxing is, at the very least, having a moment. Anthony Joshua's stoppage of Wladimir Klitschko in April marked the best heavyweight bout in years. Manny Pacquiao's controversial loss to Jeff Horn on ESPN was the most watched boxing event on cable TV since 1995. A Premier Boxing Champions card that pitted Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia in March drew a peak number of 5.1 million viewers on CBS. All of that pointed toward the summer, toward two huge events that could not be more different or more important for the sport and what's next.
Still, De La Hoya says he's rooting for Mayweather-McGregor to succeed. He has no other choice. Boxing desperately needs the additional eyeballs and mainstream attention produced by the extravaganza. Instead of looking at the two events this summer as the fake fight and the real one, he hopes that casual sports fans will come for Mayweather-McGregor and stay for Canelo-GGG. If they like both, maybe they come back for any number of elite young fighters, from Terence Crawford to Vasyl Lomachenko to Errol Spence.
"We have an opportunity here to capture a new audience," De La Hoya says, "as long as we don't turn them off first."
BIG BEAR, CALIF., AUG. 1
The Gym That Abel Sanchez Built is located 100 miles—and a world away—from the celebrity epicenter of Los Angeles. Here, Sanchez trains fighters as the Boxing Gods intended: In seclusion, almost 7,000 feet above sea level, amid towering pine trees and far from camera crews, cronies and P.T. Barnum press conferences. Sanchez is also a contractor who has built more than 250 houses; he finished this one, with a gym in place of a garage, in April 2010. He had planned to retire from boxing and let his friends use the space, but two months later, a fighter from Kazakhstan walked in. Golovkin. The first time they worked mitts, he felt the boxer's power reverberate "all the way down to my toes."
Early in their partnership Sanchez scribbled a list of history's best fighters on the gym's whiteboard. At No. 1, he wrote Ali. He left the No. 2 space blank, before penning names like Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson and Mayweather underneath. The second spot, Sanchez told his fighter, is where he could end up.
Pictures of Golovkin decorate the gym's walls. Many were taken by Sanchez, an amateur photographer who sometimes trains boxers with a Canon hanging around his neck. If that image seems quaint, it also belies just how dominant, brawny and thrilling Golovkin is in the ring. He's 37–0, with 18 straight middleweight title defenses (two shy of Bernard Hopkins's division record). He is boxing's most powerful fighter since Tyson was biting people's ears. He owns 33 knockouts, including 23 straight stoppages, a streak that ended with his last bout, a win by unanimous decision over Danny Jacobs in March. That Jacobs managed to go the distance gave Alvarez false hope, Golovkin says. Enough to agree to the fight, anyway, after two years of acrimonious negotiations.
The aura that surrounds Golovkin makes it difficult for him to find fighters willing to become knockout victim No. 34. The list of excuses lobbed his way range from not today to not tomorrow to, according to Golovkin, I lost my pen. Mostly, though, he hears, "We'll fight him. Just not next."
"That wasn't a coincidence," Sanchez says. "That was the Mayweather Effect. Floyd made not fighting certain boxers seem more viable. But boxing took a nosedive because fans don't want to see that."
Golovkin doesn't say much and will fight anyone, while Mayweather will say anything and is exceedingly careful who he fights. But which way is better business? By refusing to clamor for attention, Golovkin receives less notice in return. He can sell out The Forum in Los Angeles, Madison Square Garden in New York and The O2 Arena in London on the strength of his boxing prowess. But because his approach is more throwback than car crash, a Mayweather or McGregor level of fame has eluded him. Is that because he's not pleading for attention, wearing $40,000 mink coats, or throwing cash around on stage? Or because boxing won't produce another mainstream star again? "I'm not sure," Sanchez says. "But no one has dominated a division the way he has."
As his fight, the "real fight," draws closer, Golovkin is not concerned that casual sports fans will tune it out, even if they're angry with the spectacle of Mayweather-McGregor or sick of buying—and buying into—major fights that don't deliver on months of hype. "Right now is very interesting situation for boxing," he continues. "Last few years, not interesting. Klitschko brothers, not interesting. Mayweather-Pacquiao, not interesting. Right now, very serious. New blood. Is coming."
Golovkin thinks there's room for style and for substance. "If you want to watch, like, a show, like Cirque du Soleil, just watch," he says. "If you want true boxing fight, best fight in boxing, welcome to September 16."
LOS ANGELES, JULY 11
Thirty-six hours before McGregor kicks back on the plane to New Jersey, Mayweather traverses the corridors of the Staples Center with his 50-person crew—friends, female companions, his children, his children's mothers, nine bodyguards, his barber, lawyer, manager, adviser, masseuse, his film crew, his other film crew and randoms like some guy in a yellow shirt. The group inches along like a traveling mosh pit, everyone jockeying for position. They pile into a locker room, occupying every seat and every inch of available floor space. Many wear sunglasses indoors.
Mayweather's shadowy adviser, Al Haymon, makes a rare public appearance, putting his arm around the boxer as they head to a back room. Mayweather emerges with a $100 million check (supposedly his uncashed earnings from the Pacquiao fight), which he drops into a Gucci backpack.
The boxer created this cocoon long ago, right around the time he became a reality TV sensation on HBO's 24/7, ridiculing De La Hoya in every episode. Ever since, Mayweather has surrounded himself with acolytes who don't care about anything but Mayweather's favorite gauges for his popularity, his relevance: Instagram followers, social media buzz and dollars earned and bragged about. To explain his place in boxing history, the man who also calls himself TBE—The Best Ever—defaults to money. Always, money.
"It's time," a bodyguard says, whistling everyone to attention.
"Clear the way."
"Clear the way."
"Real champ on the move."
The traveling mosh pit inches toward the stage. Fans lean over railings seeking autographs. The crowd lustily boos. Thus begins four days of Insult Wars: mink coats, gold chains, staged confrontations, bodyguard scuffles, illiteracy jokes, tax jokes, stripper jokes. The absurdity isn't part of the sell. It is the sell: the scene, the pageantry, the WWE theatrics. Mayweather is banking that that's what people will pay for on Aug. 26. That and the chance, however slim, they will see him get knocked out.
It's fair to question the merits of what Mayweather and McGregor are selling but impossible to ignore the interest. For every column lambasting the tour for its increasingly poor taste, there are hundreds of thousands of fans who have bought tickets, made plans for fight night or posted about the event on social media. "We're in a society where that's what people want," says Leonard Ellerbe, the CEO of Mayweather's promotional arm. "Say what you want—people want to see the Kardashians. It's called entertainment."
McGregor and Mayweather traversed four cities in three countries, drawing more than 50,000 total fans. Between the YouTube and Facebook pages for Showtime and the UFC, the dramatics garnered more than 33 million video views. That doesn't count the Snapchat numbers (98 million views, with 73 million in the United States). For context, the Rio Olympics last year reached roughly 100 million views on the same channels—over three weeks.
Hours later, while watching the fighters film promos, Showtime's boxing czar, Stephen Espinoza, defends the event they're marketing. It's not that Mayweather didn't have more typical options for opponents, he says. Dozens of boxers tried to entice him back into the ring. But Mayweather wasn't waiting for a worthy challenger. He was waiting for the right type of challenger, one that would help him print Pacquiao money and allow him to pay the $22.2 million he reportedly owes in back taxes. "You've done not a sporting event, but a cultural event," Espinoza says. "What else is there?"
He continues: "Look, do we want an entire year of Mayweather-McGregor? No. I look at it like a summer blockbuster. You don't want every movie to be Transformers. But would you watch Transformers in the summer? Absolutely."
The sun sets. Mayweather relaxes with his entourage.
"Did I kill it?" he asks a friend.
"You a superstar," the friend responds, before venturing that the onstage antics appeared calculated.
"It got to be calculated," Mayweather responds.
"Ain't nobody more calculated than you," the friend says.
Mayweather just laughs. In the last decade, he changed what was possible in boxing. But did he leave his sport better off?
The years of selling have even seemed to sap his desire to sell. He's 40 now, near the end. While getting his haircut, Mayweather closes his eyes. He says he's trying to find peace. When he wakes up, he changes into shorts decorated with his likeness, glitter and bedazzled $100 bills. He looks the part but doesn't sound it anymore. "Training camp is grueling," he says to no one in particular. "I can't do it. This has to be my last one."
LAS VEGAS, AUG. 11
As the two events that will define this summer of boxing draw closer, the advertisements on taxis and slot machines in Sin City all feature Mayweather or McGregor. There's no sign up yet for Canelo-GGG.
McGregor pulls up to the UFC Performance Institute in a green Lamborghini, carrying a black Versace robe. His date with Mayweather is less than three weeks away, and he's there to meet with reporters and defend his place in boxing's landscape.
The obvious question lingers, unanswered, driven by endless speculation that won't be resolved until Aug. 26. Can McGregor box? Dana White, the UFC president, hands over his iPhone. "They say he's never been in with a real boxer, a guy who has been boxing his whole life, yadda, yadda, yadda," White says. Then he suggests his visitor hit play. There's McGregor, sparring with the former boxing champion and Showtime analyst Paulie Malignaggi at the UFC's gym. McGregor is landing shots, jabs, straight lefts and left hooks. He even appears to knock Malignaggi down. (Malignaggi has disputed the footage, saying he was pushed, and implored McGregor to release video of their entire sparring session.)
White sits in the Conor McGregor Conference Room. He has heard from Travis Barker, Roy Hibbert, David Spade, Gordon Ramsay, Robert Downey Jr., Shaquille O'Neal and Anthony Kiedis on this day alone. Interest hasn't slowed; it's boomed. "MMA purists love this," White says.
He's asked why boxing purists don't feel the same way. "I don't ever worry about that," he says, waving his hand dismissively. "Look at boxing, and every f------ fight is like a going-out-of-business sale. Nothing has changed. Look at HBO, the gold standard. The only difference if you watch a fight on HBO from 1975 to today is high-definition."
What boxing needs is change, he says, change that McGregor will provide. He must know this sounds crazy. He must know that if Mayweather-McGregor is as bad a fight as most predict, it will discourage mainstream sports fans from paying for other bouts, like Canelo-GGG, hurting boxing far more than a McGregor win would help. White scoffs. "Everybody thinks this is impossible," he says. "But this won't be a boxing match. It's going to be a fight. And in a fight, anybody can win."
And if the impossible happens? "It's the biggest upset in the history of f------ sports, ever," White says. Imagine that. A sport with hundreds of years of history, upended by someone from outside its ranks. It would catapult McGregor into most-famous-athlete-on-the-planet territory, a dominant force in not just two weight divisions but in two sports.
What would he do for an encore? Hopefully fight the winner of Canelo-GGG.