“You headed to the fight?”
This was the most asked question on the journey from NYC to Vegas, with a stop in Phoenix. At every gate, on every plane, the question was asked as if the answer secured admittance into a secret club. If you answered yes, you were granted general admission, but then came part two of the questionnaire, “Who are you rooting for?” with the answer either solidifying your membership or your referral to another club. My answer is always, “Floyd is going to win.” It’s Friday, Aug. 25, 2017, at noon and the biggest weekend in boxing this year.
Since the announcement of what was billed as the “superfight” between the undefeated and retired boxing champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. and two-title holding UFC MMA fighter Conor McGregor nearly three and a half months ago, people have been forced to choose a side. Both confident, both champions, both capable, so the decision seemed to fall on who you liked better or at least who you could tolerate the most. Where most title fights seem to identify a clear-cut good guy versus a bad guy, a la Pacquiao vs. Mayweather, this fight, slated to be the most watched in Pay-Per-View history, was bad guy vs bad guy. Both fighters have their fair share of unlikeable moments in and out of the ring and talk more trash than at a Saturday morning pickup game of basketball between your neighborhood’s should-have-been NBA stars. I mean, at one press conference McGregor wore a suit that had “F**k You” printed so thin it gave the appearance of pinstripes, at another he called Mayweather a “bitch” and asked why he had on a backpack if he couldn’t read (a jab at rumors that Mayweather was illiterate), and at another called him “boy.” The latter resulted in Mayweather calling McGregor a racist, to which the always charming McGregor said he was Black from the belly button down (by the way, we saw your outfit at the weigh-in McGregor, issa lie). Let the race-baiting begin.
So here I am, in Sin City, and tasked myself with talking to people before the fight to get a gauge of who had the most supporters on the ground between the two. To make it a little more interesting (because, Vegas) I tried to predict who would be the fan’s favorite before they answered. Seeing what had turned into a mini-racial war, with people likening a vote for McGregor to a vote for Trump (ironically, McGregor denounced Trump as president and some MAGA supporters sided with Mayweather during the fight), I had developed a “foolproof” prediction system: If they are Black they are rooting for Mayweather; if they are white they are rooting for McGregor. As I approached the MGM and saw the shiny, black Money Team tour bus surrounded by fans, I quickly realized this might have worked on Twitter, but in the land of unpredictability that is Las Vegas, not so much.
In Vegas, TMT paraphernalia was everywhere and worn by people of every race. Taking pictures with strangers and shouting “F**k McGregor” came as easily as breathing. I asked a Black woman, a white man, and an Hispanic man why they were rooting for Mayweather, and after being looked at as if I had six heads, I got the following replies:
“He’s the only one who is a real boxer.”
“Always bet on Black.”
“McGregor isn’t even American.”
My first few hours in Vegas it seemed clear. Mayweather was by far the fan favorite. Until about 4 am. At 4am Vegas turned into mini-Ireland. Tricolor flags, thick accents, and Irish fight songs flooded the MGM Grand and the streets. The party had just started, and though it seemed obvious why Irish people were rooting for McGregor, I went to talk to them anyway. I found a man who wasn’t from Ireland at all, but rooting for McGregor. Curiously, I asked him why, prepared for some MAGA answer, but what I received was a combination of earnest disturbance and ignorance. He is from Vegas and said Mayweather was a bad guy. When I asked him why he said, “He’s just horrible. He has a history here in Vegas, and everyone here knows what I’m talking about.” Then he told me we should change the name of BET to be more inclusive of everybody. After explaining to him that BET was created at a time when we didn’t see ourselves equally represented in music and on television in the way we should have, I went to test my luck with the Irish. It’s 4:30 am and I’m riding an escalator with a sea of Irishmen. One gives me the green, white, and orange flag and inducts me to team McGregor. I asked him if he watches boxing. He said, “No. I don’t watch UFC either but I watch Irishmen. I am an Irishman. And this one is going to make $100M. Why wouldn't I want him to win? That’s why we all want him to win.”
As it is now technically the day of the fight, three things became evident. Mayweather supporters were outnumbered on the ground, this started to be less about race for people in Vegas and more so a mix between nationalism and seeing a good fight, and Vegas is hot as hell. People from Ireland flew between 13 and 20 hours to root for a guy simply because he represented who they were. Others were in Vegas to bet on Mayweather simply because he was a sure thing as the only boxer in the ring. They didn't care that they weren’t going to the actual fight; they just wanted to make their presence known and witness a historical fight while meeting old friends and making new ones.
At the fight, I decided to miss the first round to get celebrity predictions on who was winning. I used the same high-tech prediction engine, if they are Black they are rooting for Mayweather. Again, this only was half true. While some, like retired football player Lamar Williams and his son happily told me they were rooting for Mayweather, others like Too Short told me he just wanted to see a good fight. Then you had Mr. Black Excellence himself, Sean “P Diddy” Combs give me the sound bite of the night, “We have to support everything Black. Everybody follow BET.com and Revolt.” So I guess my predictions weren’t too far off. Still I was curious to see how fans reacted in the stadium. Would the all-out race war be enacted at T-Mobile arena? I found an empty seat and watched fans interact. A guy who was a McGregor doppelganger had on a colorful, sequin filled blazer and was standing in the aisle jeering at Mayweather. A Black guy in all black and gold TMT paraphernalia pulled out his phone, “Look at this clown.” Here it was the tension that every outlet seemed to hint at the entire week leading up to the fight. “Oh, I’m a clown,” McGregor 2.0 asked. This was the part where I was convinced they didn’t watch WorldStar in Ireland. Rule 1, never tempt a Black man with a camera phone pulled out. “Yeah,” Baby Floyd replied. Ok, this was it. Ireland was walking up to Floyd. “Well, we are about to be clown best friends because I’m going to be on your ass all night.” He’s walking up to him and extended his hand. Wooooorld staaa- Oh. No WorldStar. They hugged it out. And that was how the rest of the night went. It became clear by the third round that people just wanted to see a good fight between two bad boys in the fighting world. Ireland was out in full force, and when Floyd won in the 10th round by TKO, he thanked all of Ireland for coming out to support the fight, to which they cheered raucously.
The racial divide presented itself post-fight again in hot takes from sports analysts almost condemning Mayweather for winning the fight while simultaneously exalting McGregor for participating. But for the people in that Vegas arena on Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017, they were satisfied witnessing an entertaining fight. There was no great race war, just a great fight between two people who happen to be of different races.
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(Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)