By Charles Jay
Back in December 1993, there was a one-night 16-man heavyweight tournament taking place at what was then Casino Magic in Mississippi. One of the competitors who was signed into the field was a guy named Joe Savage, who was billed as “the bare knuckle champion of Great Britain.” He had a look that was menacing enough for the occasion. Reportedly he had won 42 fights in a row on that underground circuit. Legendary stuff, right?
Well, they were on a press tour to promote this event, which was being peddled on pay-per-view, and on the tour’s stop in Los Angeles some of the tournament entrants, two of whom were former heavyweight champions, decided they wanted to find a gym so they could work out. Everybody went over there, and the ex-champs (Bonecrusher Smith and Tony Tubbs) wound up in a sparring session. Savage watched this, apparently in horror. He didn’t realize it was like THAT. Shortly thereafter, the story goes, he pulled out of the tournament, claiming injury. The next time – and the last time – he was seen was in April 1994, as he went to Canada for his pro boxing debut against Bert Cooper. He came out aggressively, but about a minute later courtesy of a few Cooper lefts and rights, his professional boxing career was over, just like that.
It’ll be a fortunate turn for those plunking down upwards of a hundred bucks on pay-per-view that Conor McGregor isn’t likely to experience that kind of rude awakening in HIS pro boxing debut, but make no mistake about the fact that when he steps in with Floyd Mayweather, it’s going to be a vastly different universe for him.
At the same time, even the most severe McGregor critics shouldn’t kid themselves; he may not be a professional boxer, but he isn’t a non-fighter either. One of the more insightful things that has been said about him came from Freddie Roach, who asserted that while it would be almost impossible to get McGregor ready for a real pro fight within three or four months, he might be able to do it in three years. I don’t think that was meant as an insult; any boxer who is starting a pro career is going to take at least a few years to be legitimately competitive at the main event level.
We can’t say that McGregor would ever be ready for a guy like Mayweather, no matter what he did, but he does have some of the basic rudiments of a successful hands-only fighter. For example, he has natural power in that left hand, and that isn’t something you can teach just anybody. It can, under certain conditions, be a great “equalizer.” An if there is a remote chance for him to make some noise, that’s how he’s going to do it.
Is it enough of a chance to justify a wager at 4-1, 6-1 or even 10-1? No, he might be able to make a credible showing, relative to expectations, but there are fundamental barriers to victory that he is going to be facing; barriers that are going to be too much to overcome.
In boxing, defense really counts for a little more than it might in MMA. And Andre Berto, the last man to fight Mayweather, had a few interesting things to say about what to expect. For instance, he points out that while most boxers – including himself – think about mounting and sustaining an offense first and foremost, while Mayweather is of the “defense first” philosophy. As such, he is making himself hard to hit and exercising patience, as he waits for the opponent to make a mistake, at which time he can capitalize.
And what might a first-time pro boxer, with no competitive experience other than as a junior in the amateurs, be expected to do when he is in there with a mulitple world champion?
That’s right – make mistakes. In fact, more than usual, we’d suggest.
Also, although strikes (punches) are a legitimate part of mixed martial arts, the fighters in MMA are not necessarily conditioned to throw jabs as a principal part of their arsenal. That is not a criticism of them; it’s just not something that is really necessary to control the action. And if you’ve been around boxing, you notice that the first thing an amateur is taught is how to throw the jab, which is hailed by responsible teachers as the most important punch in boxing. If you haven’t been around the sport, just ask a trainer about it.
The jab can serve to open things up for all other punches that follow. And it takes months and months to learn how to throw effectively and consistently. Believe me, the jab is not going to be a weapon for Conor McGregor in this fight. That right hook comes across slowly. When it gets down to it, the key is landing that left hand. Gee, do you think that Floyd knows this? Frankly, McGregor’s chances are predicated on Mayweather making himself available to be hit, when you think about it. If the only thing Floyd has to worry about is the left hand, it makes McGregor, by definition, a one-dimensional fighter. In other words, it makes him rather tailor-made for a defense-first fighter who is pretty good at it. And Mayweather did a smart thing coming in at 149.5 pounds, as speed and quickness are going to be the operative factors for him.
It might be as simple as Mayweather continually moving to his left against someone with no schooling in terms of cutting off the ring. We’re not talking about Floyd running, mind you, but just exhibiting even subtle movement, which would have the effect of making McGregor lunge and miss and throw himself off-balance while he’s doing it. And of course, if Mayweather, who turns defense into offense, lands counter punches, he’ll do anything he wants from there. And we may be giving McGregor too much credit by assuming he’ll hang in long enough to allow Mayweather’s advantages to take their cumulative effect.
So what could McGregor do to stick around for a while, if we were advising him?
Well, he could be as awkward and unorthodox as he could possibly be, remembering that Mayweather had a hard time with an unconventional guy like Marcos Maidana, at least the first time they fought. That might make HIM harder to hit, and allow him to throw from angles Mayweather hasn’t, as a matter of routine, been accustomed to. From this standpoint, it is probably best that he did not bring in a conventional boxing trainer, because Floyd would most certainly enjoy seeing someone in front of him who is trying to be conventional.
He could constantly be on the move, in an attempt to make Mayweather pursue him. And then his game plan would be to pop in with the left hand, again from odd angles. OR he could try to make Mayweather work three minutes of every round, by crowding him and rough-housing him, with little concern about getting points deducted, as long as he isn’t inspired to start kicking or head-butting (for which he could incur a heavy financial penalty).
Do you know what has the potential of thwarting all of these grandiose game plans? A legitimate ring general, with twenty years of pro experience. Could that, by chance, be Floyd Maywweather?
Look – McGregor’s opponents are great athletes, but, by and large, they aren’t all that well-schooled in defending strikes, not are they jabbers or deft counter-punchers. And it goes without saying that they don’t have the shoulder roll and the check hook and all the other nuances that Conor will see, perhaps for the first time in his life.
This is a whole new world, and it promises to be a world of trouble. And it is hard to fathom that McGregor could stand up for a dozen rounds under championship boxing conditions, regardless of how “light” a puncher Floyd is perceived to be. And do you think Mayweather would want to leave anything in the hands of the judges if he doesn’t have to?
If you’re the sporting type (i.e., if you’re betting), you can lay a price of about -150 (3-to-2), or maybe a little higher, that Mayweather ends this inside the distance. And even if you lay anywhere from -500 to -600 on Mayweather (and please allow for a higher price) for a win – however it comes – you’ve got value.
Recently I was on a radio show discussing this fight, and the host had most obviously been sold on McGregor – perhaps by twenty seconds of sparring footage with a retired fighter (Paulie Malignaggi) that was carefully cherry-picked, then released. This host really couldn’t explain how McGregor could realistically win, but was quick to point out how Miguel Cotto hit Mayweather a number of times. I want to be polite in circumstances like this; I didn’t want to grill him with questions like “What makes you think McGregor, a noviec boxer, will hit him as many times as Cotto?” At the conclusion, as I was bid adieu, the host went to his commercial talking disdainfully about those of the “boxing culture” and the “arrogance” about the attitude they all seem to have toward an MMA fighter entering their arena.
And I was thinking that it might be kind of arrogant when you continue to deny what all the boxing people are trying to say to you.
Well guess what? Maybe – just maybe – those boxing folk DO know what they’re talking about.
Check back tomorrow, if you’re still out there.