Damian Reilly

Fighting chance

If the ‘billion-dollar bout’ happens, Conor McGregor ought to lose. So why do I expect the opposite?

Fighting chance
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Middle age is OK by me. National Trust membership, a Waitrose loyalty card, lying on the sofa drinking red wine and yelling at the telly — since I turned 40, this stuff all just feels right. But by a mile, the best consolation of middle age I’ve found is the cagefighter Conor McGregor and living vicariously through his kicks, punches and verbal smackdowns.

How dull my previous enthusiasms for cricket, tennis and football now seem by comparison with the heroic derring-do of this 28-year-old killing machine, a former plumber from Crumlin in Dublin.

Damian Reilly is joined by Matt Christie, editor of Boxing News, to talk up McGregor's chances:

It’s not just the sheer honesty of the sport he has mastered or the megawatt charisma he exudes every time he opens his mouth (sample quote: ‘Whoever said it’s tough at the top is talking absolute shite’). More than anything, it’s the meticulous, balletic beauty of the manner in which he metes out jaw-dropping violence whenever he fights. It speaks to a part of me that before middle age I didn’t know existed. Put simply: to my mind, a Conor McGregor fight is without doubt the most thrilling spectacle in sport.

Never heard of him? Don’t worry, you soon will. Very shortly McGregor will become the most famous sportsman on the planet. After more than a year of will-they-won’t-they, a boxing match with never-beaten Floyd ‘the Money’ Mayweather will be announced, probably for September, and McGregor’s fame, limited today mainly to fans of mixed martial , will go stratospheric. Already, it is being called the first billion-dollar bout.

On paper, McGregor doesn’t have a prayer. His opponent has a legitimate claim to be called the greatest boxer ever. Mayweather’s record stands at 49 wins, 26 by knockout. One more would take him past Rocky Marciano’s similarly unblemished record.

And boxing is not McGregor’s game. He is a mixed martial artist — he fights with kicks, he grapples, and he is an expert at the ‘ground and pound’, which involves sitting on a prone opponent’s chest, pinning his arms down with your knees, and thumping him in the face until he squeals for mercy and surrenders. This is not allowed in boxing. Nor, sadly, is choking — cutting off an opponent’s air supply with a forearm across the throat — all part of a normal day’s work for McGregor. He will be fighting a deadly opponent with nine-tenths of his considerable armoury of skills prohibited at the outset.

Mayweather, it must be remembered, has ducked no one in his career: Oscar de la Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Manny Pacquiao, Canelo Alvarez and Miguel Cotto, each on paper better boxers by many factors than McGregor, all stepped into the ring with Mayweather and tasted defeat.

And yet I believe McGregor stands a good chance. Not just because his left hand is both exquisite and brutal. Not just because he has demonstrated again and again that his speed and coordination let him take great liberties with the space-time continuum. But because I suspect it is his destiny to shake up the world.

He has a record of overcoming the odds in the most thrilling manner possible. Two years ago, he beat José Aldo, then widely -considered to be the best mixed martial artist alive, in 13 seconds. Last year he overcame the Brazilian jujitsu specialist Nate Diaz, a considerably heavier man who had beaten him in their first fight, over five almost unbearably exciting rounds. And last November, he beat Eddie Alvarez to become the UFC’s first ever two-weight world champion.

Conor McGregor is a man who specialises in upsetting the odds and doing precisely what consensus says he can’t. The mixed martial commentator Joe Rogan says he is a ‘freak athlete’, able to generate punching power comparable to that of George Foreman. The respected MMA trainer Firas Zahabi says his left hand carries ‘the touch of death’.

Obviously, these attributes will be useful when he fights Mayweather, but I believe primarily it will be McGregor’s bottomless desire to prove everyone wrong again — ‘Doubt me now,’ he said after beating Diaz — that will carry him through.

There are plenty of good reasons Spectator readers should join me in supporting McGregor when he takes on Mayweather. For a start — and without wishing to seem too pious an observer of a sport in which men try hard to beat one another unconscious — it must be said that Mayweather is a convicted beater of women with a lengthy track record of assaults.

McGregor, on the other hand, despite his flashy lifestyle — he posts endless photos of himself driving Lamborghinis or wearing Gucci mink coats on social media — is a committed family man whose childhood sweetheart, Dee Devlin, is expected to give birth to their first child in May.

And away from the bright lights of fight hype, McGregor has often demonstrated that he is thoughtful. He has spoken eloquently, for example, on the importance of social equality and gay marriage, and also on the necessity to get on in life without expecting help from anyone:

‘I’m focusing on me. I’m focusing on my family’s security, my family’s financial security. That’s all I can do… I wish everyone well, but you need to focus on yourself. You need to stop putting your hand out. Everyone’s hands are out, everyone wants things for free. You’ve got to put in the work, you’ve got to grind, you’ve got to go through the struggle, and you’ve got to get it.’

Floyd Mayweather most certainly should beat Conor McGregor in a boxing match — beat him easily, even. But when the pair do eventually meet, no doubt in the middle of the night for people in Britain, there will be a very excited middle-aged man on a sofa in Putney who will be expecting a different result.

Go on, Conor. Shake up the world.