In the spring of 2015, boxing held the world’s attention. After years of failed negotiations, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao finally faced off, pitting the sport’s most popular stars in a battle for supremacy. Networks, from CNN to ESPN, provided saturating coverage, while traditional sports media outlets like The New York Times and Sports Illustrated did the same.
It was boxing’s moment, its chance to hook millions of casual fans.
It was a disaster.
History will record Mayweather-Pacquiao as a box-office success. With 4.6 million pay-per-view buys and well over $600 million in total revenue, the fight stands as the richest in boxing history. It was also arguably its most disappointing. Mayweather fought a cautious, tactical fight, outpointing Pacquiao en route to a unanimous decision.
With its largest non-traditional audience in decades, boxing came up short.
“For one night, boxing was king again,” said veteran promoter Lou DiBella. “And it shat the bed.”
Two years later, boxing is once again at the center of the sports universe. On Saturday, Mayweather will face Conor McGregor, the popular UFC fighter and the only man to hold UFC titles in two weight classes simultaneously. It’s Rocky vs. Thunderlips, Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki. And the public couldn’t be more excited. The fight is expected to zoom well past three million pay-per-view buys and could challenge Mayweather-Pacquiao for the all-time record.
It’s also expected to be noncompetitive. Mayweather is the best fighter of his generation. McGregor is making his professional boxing debut. Mayweather has vowed to stand toe-to-toe with McGregor. Few expect him to do so. McGregor believes his size, power and unpredictability will overwhelm Mayweather. Most expect him to get frustrated early, tire late and lose a lopsided decision.
“The fight is a complete joke,” Top Rank CEO Bob Arum said. “If McGregor really thought he could win, he would have fought a 10-round fight against some journeyman [to prepare]. I don’t think he can beat anyone in boxing.”
The likelihood of a Mayweather blowout leads to the question: Will boxing take a hit for it?
Mayweather-Pacquiao dealt the sport a body blow. Public backlash was fierce, manifesting itself in depressed pay-per-view sales.
“It cast a shadow for a while on pay per view,” said Mark Taffet, former HBO senior vice president in charge of pay per view. “It was one of the fights that had the greatest differential that I can recall between expectation and delivery. On pay per view, where people paid a lot of money and are very demanding, we felt there was a negative impact.”
Added Arum, “The pay-per-view numbers were constantly hit. Pacquiao never recovered.”
Yet as Mayweather-McGregor approaches, fears about fallout from the most likely outcome are minimal. “This is a spectacle, not a fight,” DiBella said. Said Arum, “The problem isn’t for the sport, but for the suckers that are pissing away $100 to buy it.”
Taffet cites the expected pay-per-view success of the middleweight showdown between Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez next month as proof that Mayweather-McGregor exists in a vacuum. Regardless of the outcome of Mayweather-McGregor, Taffet says, boxing fans will flock to the Golovkin-Alvarez fight.
“Baseball and football are two games played with a ball,” Taffet says. “That’s what they have in common. Mayweather-McGregor is as different to Canelo-Golovkin as baseball is to football.”
Indeed, if there is risk for anyone, however minimal, it’s Mayweather. Win, and he collects a nine-figure check, retires at 50-0 and starts the clock for his Hall of Fame induction, in 2022. Lose, and it’s disaster. Mayweather is 40, two years removed from his last fight, but the impact of a loss would be devastating. No fighter identifies with flawlessness more than Mayweather, whose undefeated record defines him. A loss would set up a lucrative rematch, but Mayweather’s legacy would be forever tainted by a defeat to a boxing newcomer.
McGregor, several boxing insiders say, has already won. He was the star of the heavily hyped four-city media tour, with thousands of fans packing venues in three countries to see him. “Think Mayweather benefitted from that?” asked a longtime boxing executive. “That was Conor. That was UFC. This fight is doing way more for them than it is for boxing.”
No one expects McGregor to win, so he can’t lose. No one expects a UFC fighter to step into a boxing ring and succeed, so UFC can’t either. If McGregor lands a big punch, as he did against Jose Aldo in 2015, he’s the biggest star in either combat sport, able to write his own ticket. If he loses, he’s free to return to UFC, where he remains its biggest star.
“For some strange reason, losses [in UFC] don’t seem to mean as much,” said veteran UFC reporter Ariel Helwani, who covers MMA for MMA Fighting. “A year and a half ago, Conor was submitted. He was beat up pretty badly by Nate Diaz. As opposed to boxing, where I feel losses stick with you for a lot longer, [UFC fans] tend to forget.”
Greasing a potential UFC return: McGregor, unlike Pacquiao, likely won’t go down quietly.
“I think it’s a long shot that this fight will be boring,” DiBella said. “No way is it going to be more boring than Mayweather-Pacquiao. I don’t want to be disrespectful to Manny, but he never looked like he was trying to win. The fight really had no moments of extreme interest. McGregor will probably do things to make it interesting.”
And if McGregor can land an Aldo-level punch? The UFC-boxing crossover floodgates could open, however briefly. Tony Bellew, a cruiserweight titleholder who recently moved up to heavyweight, has expressed interest in fighting UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping. Roy Jones has publicly campaigned for a fight against UFC legend Anderson Silva. Fantasy matchups could become reality.
Two years ago, Mayweather-Pacquiao became a referendum against boxing. Today, Mayweather-McGregor has a decidedly different vibe. Mayweather-Pacquiao was billed as the Fight of the Century. Mayweather-McGregor is more circus-like. On Saturday, two combat sports converge. On Aug. 27, they likely go their separate ways.
More Mayweather-McGregor coverage from Yahoo Sports: