LAS VEGAS — It’s 11 a.m. in Las Vegas. In four hours Floyd Mayweather will stand on the T-Mobile Arena stage, smirking and stoic, while Conor McGregor screams insults in his face. The Irish UFC champion—who will seem to have traveled with an entire country of support, turning Vegas into Dublin—will clench his jaw and grind his teeth and pound his chest and shriek like a feral animal, his tongue darting out of his mouth, looking mildly psychotic. And Mayweather will stand there and say nothing.
But right now, that has yet to happen. Right now, Erik Adrian Santiago stands beside a black, four-foot boxing ring in the back of Mayweather’s pop-up shop on the third floor of the Fashion Show Mall in Las Vegas. The ring, like everything in the store, is for sale. If you want it, you can pay $2,500 and then figure out a way to carry it out of the mall and get it back to your hotel, and, presumably, eventually onto an airplane.
Mounted on the wall above the ring is a red and black neon sign that reads MAYWEATHER vs. MCGREGOR, which will cost you $10,000. Hanging on the wall behind the checkout counter is another neon sign with the same words and a silhouette outline of the two fighters squared off in the ring. That has a $15,000 price tag. Sitting inside the ring are two black leather bags that Santiago hand sewed himself, custom-made for this fight. Each bag consists of one single cowhide, so that there are no seams, and two laser cut nametags. The bags took over a week for Santiago to construct, and he labels them as “a classic, simplified, minimalist look that will carry you into the gym in style.” They are going for $2,500, apiece.
Three police officers stand guard outside the store, seemingly for security because of the high priced items within. Yet, over the span of about an hour, only a handful of customers enter. They gawk at the expensive items and then buy a $40 t-shirt or a $20 fight poster, or walk out empty-handed.
That’s because the vast preponderance of fans in town for the fight are currently standing outside T-Mobile Arena, double-fisting beers before noon, draped in Ireland flags, chanting olé, olé, olé, and patiently waiting hours to pour through the gates to watch two men in their underwear stand on a scale for their pre-fight weigh in.
Floyd Mayweather may call Las Vegas home, but this week Conor McGregor owns it.
There are Ireland flags with McGregor’s face on them. There are Ireland flags with the words “F--- The Mayweathers” printed across them. There are Ireland flags that read, “If McGregor knocks out that Mayweather fella we will have f---ing sex tonight and everything.” There are Ireland baseball caps and Ireland top hats and Ireland fedoras and Ireland sombreros. There are Ireland soccer jerseys and Ireland rompers and green and white three-piece Ireland suits doted with shamrocks. Throughout the arena, these fans in Irish garb are dancing and singing and hugging and drinking—it’s Saint Patrick’s Day but the patron saint of Ireland has a giant tattoo of a gorilla on his chest and a tiger on his stomach, with the words MCGREGOR and NOTORIOUS flanking it.
Shane McCusker and Gareth Mims are holding beers in each hand, an Ireland flag wrapped around on their shoulders as they stare out, in blissful anticipation, over the empty stage. Both are 23 years old and they hail from Tyrone, one of the six historic counties in Northern Ireland, in the province of Ulster, on the southwest shore of the Lough Neagh lake. They, along with 13 friends, flew from Dublin to Las Vegas on Thursday—a 24 hour flight—and have yet to go to sleep. Or even their hotel room. They were up all of Thursday night playing blackjack and roulette. They lost $1,000, each.
“But we don’t give a f---,” Mims says.
“Because of Conor f---ing McGregor.”
Mims owns a pub back home and McCusker works in construction. They’d been saving up money for the past year, just in case this fight ever actually became a reality. So now, here they are. They paid $100 to get in to the weigh-in and don't even have tickets for the fight on Saturday. They don't expect to be able to see it in person. They just wanted to be near it. And all 15 in their crew are predicting McGregor to win by knockout, in under four rounds.
Just down the concourse, Marcus Deegan, 47, is strutting around T-Mobile arena, fans stopping him at every step to ask for a picture. He’s from Australia but has lived in Vegas for 15 years, working as a host for “Thunder From Down Under,” which bills itself as an Interactive Australian show featuring chiseled male dancers, seductive routines and cheeky humor. But when Deegan is not working, he’s impersonating Conor McGregor. Today he’s wearing a blue suit, black loafers, oversized sunglasses and the patented McGregor beard/haircut style. He says one year he dressed up as McGregor for Halloween and “people lost their f---ing minds.” So now he’s gone to every one of McGregor’s fights since UFC 189— he gets his hair cut from the same barber that McGregor does, at Elliot & Co in Vegas. Today Deegan is being treated like a visiting dignitary.
In a five-minute span, he’s asked to take dozens upon dozens of photos. One man in a Mayweather-branded TMT (The Money Team) T-shirt sidles up, sheepishly, and asks for a selfie. He’s asked why he wants a photo, when it’s clear where his allegiances lie in the fight. He shrugs. “It’s Conor, man.” So it goes for Mayweather today, even among his own acolytes.
As it gets closer to three o’clock, the fans begin to migrate towards their seats. The now familiar chants of Olé start up again in one section, and then are joined in by another section all the way across the arena, and then by another section in the upper deck, until the whole place is reverberating. As the weigh-ins for the undercard fights come and go with little attention paid, the McGregor faithful push their way towards the front, hanging their bodies over railings. Over and over again, security guards tell them they must return to their seats. And the fans comply, walk up the aisle, and then over to another section and down another aisle, and then hang over another railing, until another security guard comes down to start the process over again.
When the P.A. announcer says, “If you are a Team McGregor make some noise,” the sound is deafening. When he then follows with, “If you are Team TBE, The Best Ever, the Pay-Per-View King, make some noise,” boos rain down like a monsoon. McGregor struts out of the tunnel, sunglasses flipped open, wearing only an Irish flag and Irish color-themed Bose headphones. His fans shriek, they yell, “I can’t believe it’s Conor McGregor,” and “oh my god, oh my god.” They don't know what to do with their abounding supply of energy that appears to be bursting out of their pores. As McGregor walks past and onto the stage, one girl turns to her friend, grabs her by her face, leans in and says, calmly, “I can die now.”
McGregor bounces around, pointing toward his adoring fans, feeding off their love and devotion as Mayweather slowly makes his way out of the tunnel. He’s understated in a white TBE hat and white TMT shirt. He’s smiling and nodding, as if the scene unfolding around him amuses him. It is the first time in his career he’s ever been the quietest guy in the room.
Despite there being concerns this week, McGregor weighs in at 153 pounds—safely under the limit—and then flexes and screams and flexes again. When Mayweather gets on the scale, McGregor comes over to yell at him and has to be restrained, as Mayweather points and laughs. He weighs in at 149.5 pounds. The Money Belt, made with 3,360 diamonds, 600 sapphires, 300 emeralds and alligator skin, a fake belt made up specifically for this fight, is displayed.
The two fighters go face-to-face, and Mayweather, again, smiles and nods as McGregor yells “you ain't sh-t” and “I’m going to make you pay” and “I’ll break you right here.” Then he inches in even closer, eyes wide, tongue out, mouth open, and screams in Mayweather’s face. The 11-time boxing champion is non-plussed. He doesn’t blink.
After the fighters are separated, McGregor is asked, what does it say that this crowd seems predominantly for you? He looks out to the screaming masses, hanging on to his every word, and shrugs. “Las Vegas is our town,” he says, and he is not wrong.
Off to the opposite corner of the stage, Mayweather is tying his shoes—making a very clear point that he is not paying attention to any of the spectacle happening around him. Yes, he knows there is little support for him in this arena. And he knows this town that he calls home has forsaken him and found a new hero. But he also knows that 47 fighters have tried to beat him, and 47 fighters have failed to beat him. He appears to be genuinely unconcerned.
“Tomorrow, it comes down to the fighters,” he says. He looks out at the crowd, booing him lustily. “The fans can’t fight for you, it comes down to the two competitors,” he says. “Fighting wins fights.”
The weigh-in ends. The fighters leave the stage. The crowd disperses. Except for a group of about one hundred Irish fans who remain, singing and chanting and swaying back and forth, for over an hour after the event ends. They refuse to leave. When they run out of Irish chants, they make up their own. They find a guy in a TMT shirt and chant “you won’t win” while pointing at him. They chant “let’s go mental” because, well, that is what they are doing.
Zab Judah walks past the mass of the Irish McGregor faithful. The four-time former world champion boxer, who lost in a unanimous decision to Mayweather 11 years ago, seems to be enjoying the scene.
“It's an extravaganza,” he says.
It sure is. Ireland has taken over Las Vegas. It is Conor McGregor’s town. It is Conor McGregor’s world. At least for today. Judah sees that changing soon. He sees what Mayweather also sees. A massive mismatch, because one guy is a boxer, and one guy is not.
“I don't see the fight going past the fourth round,” Judah says. “This is boxing. McGregor can't grab the guy, can't take him down, can’t kick him. He has to stand and fight.
“And he’s gonna get hurt.”