By: Sean Crose
Way back in 1889, John L Sullivan, the recognized heavyweight champion of the world, battled the rugged Jake Kilrain in Richburg, Mississippi. The two men fought with bare knuckles, and were allowed to throw each other to the ground. Sullivan was said at one point to have sat atop and choked Kilrain. The fight went on for over 70 rounds under the blazing Mississippi sun. Sullivan ultimately emerged victorious after Kilrain’s team feared their man would die if he kept going and stopped the match. Make no mistake about it – Sullivan was one hell of a fighter.
Yet Sullivan proved not to be much of a boxer. For in 1892 he fought James J Corbett in a wildly publicized bout in New Orleans. This time, the combatants wore gloves…and the rounds lasted three minutes each. There was no tossing each other to the mat allowed…and the match was held in a ring. What’s more, Corbett was a boxer, not a fighter. He was tough as nails, but the San Francisco native had never fought outside of an organized contest. To Sullivan’s dismay, Corbett proved to be elusive in the ring, employing footwork and maintaining distance. An exhausted Sullivan was subsequently knocked out on the 21st round. The technician had defeated the fighter. Boxing would never be the same.
Fast forward to 2020. UFC star Conor McGregor steps into the octagon after a long absence and two defeats, one to fellow mixed martial artist Khabib Numagomadov, the other to boxing great Floyd Mayweather. McGregor’s opponent on this night is the aging but legendary UFC star Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, a man who, though past his prime, can end a fight in a wide variety of ways. Questions surround McGregor as the first round begins. Can he retain past glory? Does he still have his passion? Is he simply washed up? The Irishman subsequently ends things in forty seconds. That’s forty seconds. Make no mistake about it – McGregor is one hell of a fighter.
Like Sullivan, however, McGregor isn’t much of a boxer. Which is probably why top names throughout the boxing game are once again dying for a piece of him. As good and as tough and as impressive as he is – McGregor hasn’t shown nearly the skill set needed to succeed in boxing. His single boxing match, to an aging and retired Mayweather, ended with him being stopped in the tenth round, thoroughly exhausted, as that other great fighter Sullivan had been exhausted when he too crossed paths with a boxing specialist. People like Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao, and Terence Crawford might not want to battle McGregor in a parking lot – and they certainly don’t want to cross paths with him in the octagon. In the ring, however, McGregor is likely all theirs, a pinata stuffed with untold millions of dollars and the hopes of college kids who truly and mistakenly believe being a good fighter instantly makes you a good boxer.
All of this seems almost a bit unfair to McGregor. Yet the man knows what he’s getting into should he return to the ring – and he still seems bound and determined to do so. Nothing if not ambitious and self aware, it’s clear McGregor feels he has something to prove after being saved by the referee in his bout with Mayweather. He has nothing to prove, though, except in the octagon, where plenty of tough competition eagerly awaits. The showy UFC legend may somehow land himself a boxing title at some point – there seems to be constellations worth of them out there. If McGregor faces another top boxer again, however, even an over the hill one, he does so at his own peril.