When you sign up for life as a sports fan, you are knowingly introducing darkness and moral complication into your life: To look clearly at the world of sports is to want to look away. Greedy owners jacking up ticket prices at billion-dollar concrete monstrosities they conned taxpayers into buying for them. Athletes beating their girlfriends and being punished with multiyear guaranteed contracts worth millions. Television deals bringing in so much money teams have no incentive to cater to fans who have cheered for them for generations. Toxic masculinity leading to regressive social politics compared to most other major American institutions. The Wilpons. Little League dads. Middle-aged men yelling at each other on television. The New England Patriots. Rain delays. Security lines. Chris Christie, talk-show host. AstroTurf. To love sports is to grit your teeth and wait for the transcendent moments that make all the ugliness worth it.
But even the most steeled sports fan couldn’t have prepared for this sports summer. I’ve been make-my-own-charts-on-steno-pads obsessed with sports for my entire 41 years on this Earth, and I have to say, I have never seen anything more profoundly dispiriting than the buildup to August’s Floyd Mayweather Jr.–Conor McGregor boxing fight. I can feel chunks of my soul falling off just thinking about it.
Where to start? During a four-day “international press tour” in mid-July, Mayweather called McGregor a “pussy” and a “bitch” so often that they seemed less like epithets than verbal tics. McGregor responded with some “bitches” of his own and a custom-made pinstripe suit with the words FUCK YOU printed on it, before telling Mayweather to “dance for me, boy.” He then called Mayweather illiterate and in an interview referred to African-American sparring partners as “monkeys,” a day before he insisted he couldn’t be racist because he’s “half-black from the belly button down.” Mayweather responded to this level of discourse by calling McGregor a “faggot.” This was over four days. The fight is still four weeks away. I’m not sure we’re going to survive long enough to witness the actual fight. I am not sure we will want to. This is making the living envy the dead.
The whole spectacle is a desperate cross-over cash grab. Even at the advanced age of 40, Mayweather is considered one of the best tactical boxers of all time, but he’s probably not going to need most of those skills because in McGregor he is fighting someone who has literally never been in a professional boxing match in his life. As MMA and UFC have taken market share and popularity from boxing over the past 20 years, boxing greats like Mayweather have run into a problem: There are no household names left for them to fight. Thus, Mayweather is dipping into the ranks of the UFC in some sort of Tough Guy Face-off, a battle-sport version of Godzilla vs. Mothra. Athletically, this is roughly the equivalent of LeBron James playing basketball against Yoenis Céspedes. McGregor is going to get killed.
This is, of course, all leading toward what could be the biggest pay-per-view event of the year ($99.95 if you want to watch it in HD) and, potentially, of all time: The financial details of the contract haven’t been disclosed, but Mayweather is expected to make at least $100 million from it (and maybe a lot more), money that’ll come in handy considering he still owes the IRS $22.2 million from 2015 alone. The scariest part, though, isn’t that this nightmare shitshow is happening; it’s that this is, in fact, the best thing the sport of boxing has going right now. Which is particularly embarrassing considering that this will be the first professional boxing match for one of these gentlemen.
McGregor is a 29-year-old from Dublin best known for a spinning side kick leading into a left cross (oh, and for once telling a Brazilian opponent that “I would invade his favela on horseback and kill anyone who was not fit to work”). The growing popularity of MMA has turned him into a folk hero, particularly among the sort of angry white young fans in black hoods who are, as Deadspin put it, “a mass of people who used to like wrestling but are mad the wrestlers can’t really say ‘bitch’ anymore.” He is a fine MMA fighter, but he’s more known for being obnoxiously brash and saying crazy racist things about his opponent than he is for his skills. Which makes him, depressingly, one of the hyped newcomers in boxing, a sport, I repeat, he has never actually participated in.
These days, Floyd Mayweather is renowned for doing more to protect his undefeated record and reputation than to challenge himself against the best fellow boxers of his generation. That he is even still fighting is a bit sad, though he would never admit it, and in recent years he has been avoiding anyone who could hurt him—finally cashing in on the much-derided Manny Pacquiao super-match once Pacquiao was old and beaten down (their bout is, until possibly next month anyway, the most profitable PPV of all time). In case you’ve forgotten, this is a man who has served prison time for beating the mother of his children and has skated on charges involving multiple other women. All the stories of Mayweather’s brutality toward women were rehashed before the Pacquiao fight, and that didn’t stop it from becoming a massive moneymaker.
Mayweather and McGregor met each other for the first time at the start of their press tour, but they immediately, effortlessly, fell into an Astaire-Rogers routine of bottom-of-the-boat, Dumpster-fire deep-diving. There is no good guy here: This is meant to inspire revulsion. With no actual boxing to sell, that is all that’s on the menu. Your hatred is part of the package. Your hatred is what’s keeping this machine cranking.
It almost feels beside the point to use this as another data point in the “boxing is dying” file. If anything, spectacles are the only things keeping boxing alive, like a sports TV network stopping its ratings from flatlining by screaming about Colin Kaepernick’s hair; when you have no other options, appeal to the worst of humanity, start banging loud things together, and see how many suckers you can con before somebody turns out the lights. But blaming the sport of boxing for this is shortsighted: There are a lot of great boxers, from the all-around brilliance of Andre Ward to the knockout power of Gennady Golovkin to the electricity of Roman Gonzalez. But you’ve never heard of those people, because the public is much more interested in watching two assholes sling insults that seventh-graders are too woke to use at each other. Years of graft and corruption in the sport have led to this, of course, but we’re all happy lemmings jumping off the cliff.
The CEO of Mayweather Promotions, a man named Leonard Ellerbe, gave up the game in one of the “press conferences” in a Trump–to–Lester Holt fashion. “This shit is big,” he said, according to Deadspin. “You can’t get mad at us. We figured this shit out. We figured out a way to take this to another level. We did this! It’s called entertainment. We’re in a society now that it’s what people want to see. People are intrigued about the Kardashians!”
And of course he’s right: Like Trump, we’ve caught them all red-handed, but we just sort of blink dumbly and go along with it all anyway. This ridiculousness, this abomination — we’re so disgusted by it that we’re going to give Floyd Mayweather, a horrible person, more than a hundred million or so to bat around for a few minutes a guy who doesn’t really know how to box. The only reason baseball and football and basketball haven’t reached this level is because they’re not as desperate as boxing (and Mayweather) is. But give them time. When you have nothing to sell, sell the spectacle. Sell the racism. Sell the hate. It is becoming increasingly apparent that, collectively, we prefer it to the real thing anyway. We get the sports we deserve. This is just the start.
*This article appears in the July 24, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.