Sky Sports News announced it as the sporting event of the year, if not the decade. Most newspapers didn’t even mention it – yet if Sky is right, the boxing match between Floyd Mayweather Jr and Conor McGregor is bigger than the London Olympic Games, bigger than Usain Bolt’s world records, bigger than Roger Federer’s 19th grand slam victory, bigger than all the achievements of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
So why aren’t the serious sports pages interested? Presumably because they don’t consider it serious sport.
Mayweather is a professional boxer, unbeaten in 49 fights and regarded as one of boxing’s classic master craftsmen. McGregor is a champion in something called mixed martial arts, an activity that involves kicking and rolling about on the floor. He has never boxed professionally. He hasn’t got a chance, experts say.
It may not be serious sport, but it’s serious money. The purse has been guessed at $300 million, split, it’s speculated, something like 75–25 in Mayweather’s favour. Sky – and it would be cynical to suggest this is why it’s making such a fuss of the event – is charging £19.95 on pay per view.
If it’s not serious sport, what is it? Presumably it’s entertainment. Like wrestling. But in the same way, it has to pretend to be serious sport. Such events need this faux-seriousness to make them entertaining.
It’s interesting to note that real sports are moving the other way. They are trying – sometimes with desperation – to be more like entertainment. Cricket is the perfect example: the incredible shrinking game, down from five days to one brief evening of 20 overs each way with fireworks, regular detonations of music and dancing girls. Either they’ve lost faith in cricket, or they’re trying to provide cricket for people who don’t really like cricket.
I’ve always held to the view that sport is quite different to entertainment and that professional athletes have no obligation to entertain. Rather, their job is the struggle: to seek victory with sincerity, to achieve personal fulfilment and – rarely but wonderfully – universal excellence.
We watch sport because of that struggle. Sometimes it’s exciting, sometimes it’s genuinely wonderful, at other times it’s frankly dull… Though often what some people find boring fascinates the connoisseurs: a chess-like goalless draw, a fraught stalemate session at a Test match, dressage. Watching is a privilege, and we who watch have no right to expect anything except commitment to victory. Entertainment is for wimps.
Fewer and fewer of the people who run sport agree with this. Most of them are more interested in power than sport, and in sport, power comes from money. It’s widely accepted that to make money from sport, you must sell it as entertainment.
The snag in the Mayweather-McGregor entertainment is that it might not be very entertaining. The boxing world predicts a one-sided encounter – master against novice. That’s the way the bookies see it, too. It’s like Christmas: six weeks of frenzied anticipation leading to inevitable anticlimax.
In real sport you don’t know what happens next, and even in this hybrid of sport and entertainment, you can’t be entirely sure. Some give McGregor a wild outsider’s chance, claiming that his lack of experience is actually an asset, and that his consequent unorthodoxy married to his fighting spirit will be too much for Mayweather. After all, Mayweather is 40 (McGregor is 29), and says he’s not the fighter he was two years ago.
Or maybe he’s just saying that to add interest to the fight… and make more money.
By Simon Barnes
Mayweather v McGregor is on Saturday 26 August at 12 midnight on Sky Sports Box Office