AUGUST 20, 2017
THE PUNCHER’S CHANCE. We hear that phrase all the time. It’s been wedged into the American lexicon and it isn’t going away. Maybe it was Valley Forge or Bunker Hill that made us believe the guy with no chance always has a chance. Maybe it points to something ancient in the human brain, something within that makes us believe a physical contest is at its source a force of will. It’s a reassuring thought that nudges doubt into the unused storage space of our minds. Like so many things in life that are there to comfort us, the puncher’s chance is a vague reassurance that usually fails to show up when it matters most.
It won’t mean a damn thing August 26.
That’s when Conor McGregor will lose to Floyd Mayweather in what should be spectacular fashion. The fight will last exactly as long as the masterful Mayweather wants, and most anyone who knows boxing agrees on that point. Fans don’t want to accept this. They believe in “the puncher’s chance” largely because they’re not really sure just how impossible the task is that lies ahead of McGregor. To most fans, fighting is just two guys hitting each other. It’s not. Great fighters have earned their skill with years of training and thousands of rounds exchanging punches with other professionals. For the average viewer it’s hard to understand just how huge the skill difference between these two men is. Enough people believe McGregor has at least some chance of winning that, absurdly, this fight … no, not fight — farce, atrocity, sideshow … has a very good chance of being the richest combat sports event in history.
Various talking heads have been right to say that McGregor will be pissing into the wind when he makes his boxing debut against the undefeated and excellent old pro. But there remains a virulent strain of silliness — I’m being generous — among some big media personalities. The loud and theatrical Stephen A. Smith won’t stop with the puncher’s chance nonsense even though he admits Mayweather’s victory is a certainty. As painful as it is to listen to, Smith almost certainly doesn’t believe what he’s saying. He gets minor points for that. Still, there are genuine attempts among sports writers and personalities to think up a scenario in which McGregor could actually win. Among the daftest stories to be published about this sham is from the almost always excellent sports, pop culture (and sometimes politics and tech) website The Ringer. In “The Case for McGregor,” the author, Chuck Mindenhall, lays out some flatly fanciful ideas for how McGregor might win. Still, he had to write something, and it’s much more interesting to try and figure out how the impossible could be possible than how the inevitable is inevitable. They can all be excused for producing content they know will reach an audience, even if that content might be ludicrous.
But then there’s the matter of the odds. At 225-1 in favor of Mayweather, the betting line was appropriately astronomical. Now some book makers are offering Mayweather bets of 3-1. That’s insane.
Why? Why the hell do people want to believe McGregor can actually win? Why not just accept he’ll be reduced to a quivering mound of flesh?
Because the puncher’s chance is bigger than fighting. It’s getting that job you’re not qualified for. Earning a big advance for a novel about Kim Kardashian time traveling to medieval England. Or somehow talking someone of superior intelligence and looks into a date. People want to see the limits of the puncher’s chance tested. And this is a hell of a test.
McGregor won’t win. Absolutely not. For Mayweather, hitting him will be as easy as it would be for an adult to smack a child. That’s not hyperbole. Oh, you disagree? You have questions? Give me your hand. I’ll walk you through this.
You: You’re an idiot. McGregor’s size will be too much.
Me: No, you’re an idiot. It won’t. He might weigh more but he doesn’t know how to use leverage to make his strength an advantage.
You: But he’s in Floyd’s head. He called him illiterate and that always pisses off Floyd.
Me: Mayweather’s a pro. It won’t matter.
You: But McGregor is an MMA fighter, he’ll know how to fight dirty.
Me: No way. Landing an elbow so it looks like an accident is really, really hard to do. He has no practice with that, or intentionally hitting low.
You: Okay, but Floyd has trouble with lefties. He’ll have a hard time with the angles Conor will use.
Me: Also stupid. Manny Pacquiao, a lefty with championships in eight weight classes, presented no problems.
You: But he punches really hard.
Me: If you say so.
You: He’s Mystic Mac! He’s The Notorious Conor McGregor! He always finds a way.
Let me briefly complete the above conversation in this paragraph: the most glaring reason this will be a waste of time is that one guy has had 49 professional boxing matches and the other has zero. McGregor simply isn’t used to seeing the movements a pro boxer makes. If Mayweather jabs from his hip, a basic punch, it will be something McGregor has hardly ever seen. And he’ll have no experience timing Mayweather’s straight right hand. Why? Because MMA is a completely different sport with more ways to attack an opponent. That makes footwork and defense totally different. MMA fighters stand more square to their opponents to defend against take downs and deliver kicks. The same stance is terrible in boxing. It makes fighters easier to hit and forces them to wind up their punches. McGregor won’t even be used to standing like a boxer.
Okay, so now we agree McGregor won’t sniff victory unless Mayweather takes a dive or suffers a serious injury like a torn Achilles tendon. So why do people care? There’s a few reasons for that, and Mayweather’s undefeated streak is a big part of it.
The zero in the loss column works for him, but it’s bad for almost everyone else in boxing. Fighters have become obsessed with avoiding losses in hopes of earning the largest possible paydays. That’s often a mistake. Very few fighters are good enough to go undefeated, even if everything goes perfectly. Muhammad Ali wasn’t in this category. Matched right, Sugar Ray Robinson was. Harry Greb too. It takes an unbelievable talent, and usually good matchmaking. Everyone who can’t remain undefeated, which is most fighters, can still benefit from losing in entertaining fashion. But boxing, with its numerous warring promoters, has splintered. There is no coherent narrative they all subscribe to, so whomever has the loudest voice, which appears to be Mayweather, in a sense speaks for the entire sport. That’s as good a reason as any for why the goose egg matters so much. Mayweather has successfully made his zero extremely valuable. People either believe he is “The Best Ever” as he claims, or they tune in hoping to watch him lose.
Retiring as an undefeated champion became a thing with the great heavyweight Rocky Marciano. He was plodding and powerful, known for wearing down more skilled opponents. They’d hit him until they tired, which was always before he did, then he’d club them to the canvas. He went 49-0 using this strategy, which was the only way he could fight anyway, then retired and died in a plane crash. That’s the genesis of this unbeaten talk. The only other champion who never lost was Ricardo López (he had 51 wins and one technical draw, so he was effectively undefeated), who no one talks about because he was little; he never did get the acclaim he deserved. The fact is he was a far more technically sound fighter than Floyd Mayweather, something a lot of fight experts consider fact. That means talent obviously isn’t the main driver in boxing. Showmanship doesn’t necessarily carry the day, either. It did for Ali, but Mayweather is as boring to listen to as he is to watch. It’s the undefeated record and the hatred he inspires that keep people watching.
Losses matter far less in mixed martial arts largely because fans don’t give a damn about records. There are a few obvious reasons for this. The profane president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Dana White, has waged a war against the idea that losses diminish a fighter. That’s smart. It allows his beaten fighters to maintain value for subsequent bouts. He’s the loudest voice in MMA, and people have listened. McGregor has three losses, including one within the past year to Nate Diaz. Such a recent loss often looks horrible on a boxer’s resume. Not with McGregor. He said all the right things after the loss, then turned around and beat Diaz in his next fight. MMA talk show hosts and even some fans suspect McGregor isn’t even the best fighter in his weight class. It doesn’t matter. Losses in boxing mean that a fighter isn’t as good as the guy who beat him. Losses in MMA mean a fighter just has more to learn or had an off night. That thinking has made it possible for White to make fight fans want to watch, and he has powerful allies to reinforce his message. He’s employed Joe Rogan, who agrees that losses don’t matter, and many other pundits on ESPN and Fox Sports share this opinion. Losses mean less to fans because they mean less to the people who control the conversation.
Boxing, in its current form, has been around since the Queensberry rules were introduced in the mid-1860s. That means boxers have had a very long time to learn how to fist fight. The peak was between the 1920s and 1960s, when it was not uncommon for a boxer to have 20 fights a year. Sugar Ray Robinson finished with over 200 fights, winning 173 of them. For a fighter simply to survive that schedule means he’s incredibly talented. It also means that he’s seen every style there is, and every other fighter out there knows what he can do, too.
But they had a chance to learn because even low-level cards were televised, and fighters could make a solid wage by fighting once every few weeks. The most successful fighters learned how to minimize damage to themselves by adopting some of the best defensive techniques the sport has come up with. Watch old timers like Charley Burley or Archie Moore, and you’ll recognize a few things Mayweather does.
Sure, martial arts are ancient. But it wasn’t that long ago that people figured out Brazilian jiu jitsu was essential for any complete martial artist, and even that form, perfected by the Gracie family, has experienced recent improvements. Fighters are still trying to figure out how to put it all together. Demetrious Johnson, Anderson Silva, and Georges St-Pierre are among the first to have come close, and all would likely make the top-five all-time pound-for-pound list. But fans know no fighter has the whole array of skills when they turn pro, and they are used to fighters vastly improving throughout their careers, so losses don’t mean a fighter isn’t talented. It just means he has more to learn.
Even the best MMA fighters start late. Occasionally you’ll see fighters on TV who don’t even know how to throw a punch. Guys like that will either go extinct or be relegated to the very lowest levels of the sport. Fans know that, and they know the best is still to come. Jon Jones, who recently regained his light heavyweight title, is as dangerous and skilled as they come. He’s undefeated in a sport where virtually everyone loses at some point (he has one disqualification loss, which is absolute bullshit). He’s that good, and he started at 21. What if he’d started at 10, like a lot of the best boxers?
So, back to McGregor: when he lost to Diaz, fans figured he was too small or had the wrong game plan, but they wanted to see him try again. His fight with Mayweather is the successful sale of the “how far has he come?” narrative to which MMA fans hold fealty.
Fans and fighters talk about heart all the time, but the two sports view it a little differently. If a boxer quits in a high-profile fight, he’s covered in a stink that’s hard to overcome. The legendary Roberto Durán, perhaps one of the best five boxers ever, did it, and many think less of him. Victor Ortiz, a Mayweather-knockout victim and the sort of actor who has appeared on Dancing with the Stars, and various hot garbage films like The Expendables 3 and Southpaw, quit more than once and earned near unanimous derision.
Then there’s McGregor. In the second round of his first fight with Diaz, he took a punch that clearly buckled his knees. He’d later admit that he tried too hard for a knockout and tired in the second round. That would be an image shattering admission in boxing. Diaz, the bigger, more experienced man, slapped him around before it went to grappling. The surprise wasn’t that the two went to the ground — Diaz is renowned for his submission skills — the surprise was that McGregor took the fight to the canvas. During one of Rogan’s fight discussions on his podcast, his guests wondered aloud if McGregor had given up. It certainly looked that way.
It would almost be like a boxer who stopped throwing punches. But MMA fans didn’t care. McGregor talked his way out of it, saying everyone who takes chances can lose, and that he would learn from his loss and take it like a champ. Fans rewarded him by showing up in record numbers to watch him narrowly defeat Diaz in a rematch a few months later.
Now no one calls McGregor a quitter.
You know those grills, the ones you plug into the counter and cook chicken or a grilled cheese sandwich? They’re called Foreman grills, and in addition to being awesome, they’re named after George Foreman, who reclaimed the heavyweight title at 45. People said he had a puncher’s chance, too, and it turned out that they were right.
He spent nine rounds getting the shit beaten out of him, lulling the 27-year-old Michael Moorer into a false sense of security. Then, in the 10th, Moorer stopped circling the big man and stood in front of him before eating that famous right hand.
That was all it took. One concussive shot from one of the hardest punchers ever. Oh, and a puncher that had an elite ring IQ and a 72-4 record.
It was a satisfying end to the puncher’s chance story line. He became the oldest champion in boxing history (until Bernard Hopkins beat that record in 2011 at 46) and grew his fortune by tens of millions through endorsements. And that’s the final piece of it, the trappings of success brought by an unlikely victory. The puncher’s chance doesn’t apply to finding parking in your urban neighborhood at midnight — that’s just dumb luck. The puncher’s chance only applies to situations where victory needs to be won and where victory would be life altering.
McGregor’s life is already altered. He landed that most unlikely of victories by becoming so popular and visible that he could get the biggest fight available in a sport in which he has never before competed. The puncher’s chance is about the victory, not the punch, and McGregor is already lapping up the endless success his popularity offers. The only question becomes: How long can his popularity survive? The way he loses on August 26 will begin to answer that for us. He has a puncher’s chance of stretching it out.