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Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor
Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor was not viewed by many as a serious thing just a few months ago.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

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From ‘joke’ to reality: The making of Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor

It was a chance encounter between Floyd Mayweather and a camera man from TMZ that might have jump started one of the most stunning negotiations in the history of sports.

Conor McGregor knocked out Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 on Nov. 12 at Madison Square Garden to become the UFC lightweight champion and the only man to hold two UFC belts in two different weight classes at the same time. Two days later, Floyd Mayweather was in Manhattan’s Diamond District when TMZ caught up with him to ask him about McGregor and the Alvarez KO.

In that interview, Mayweather warned the reporter not to compare him to McGregor, that it was disrespectful. In the eyes of Stephen Espinoza, the executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports, that might have been the spark that ignited everything.

“Floyd just happened to be in New York City that weekend,” Espinoza told Ariel Helwani on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour. “I believe it was TMZ that caught him sort of randomly outside this jewelry shop, obviously jewelry shopping. That’s one of the first times — I don’t believe it was the first time — but one of the first times that Floyd responded. It touched off Conor and then Dana [White] and sort of snowballed from there.

“If Floyd’s not jewelry shopping the Monday after the Alvarez fight and caught by TMZ, I’m not sure we’re talking right now.”

Mayweather vs. McGregor is what everyone is talking about. It has dominated sports television since it was made official last week and permeated into the entertainment that non-sports fans consume, too. The bout will take place Aug. 26 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, but the buzz will carry throughout next two months. Espinoza and Mayweather Promotions CEO Leonard Ellerbe both made mention of a potential world tour of press conferences. “More than a couple” cities, Espinoza said.

Mayweather and McGregor started talking about each other on social media and in interviews as far back as early 2016. But the Showtime exec didn’t really think it was serious until just a few months ago, when he met with Mayweather in January.

“That’s when it really became a reality,” Espinoza said. “I see the stuff on social media just like everybody else. And at first it was just sort of a joke. But then, it persisted, it persisted. In his public comments and his private comments, Floyd has been absolutely consistent. Never mentioned coming back for another fighter other than Conor. He said it enough times and absolutely then you start taking it seriously.”

At that time, Mayweather and Ellerbe knew Mayweather was invested in making the fight happen. The big question for them was whether McGregor could even do it. McGregor is under contract with the UFC and the UFC was the only organization that could promote him in combat sports. UFC president Dana White and WME-IMG brass had to clear it before Mayweather’s side was even able to come to the bargaining table.

White was lukewarm about it at first. McGregor lobbed some barbs the UFC’s way in January and White said at a press conference that McGregor would be in for an “epic fall” if he attempted to do the Mayweather fight without the UFC’s blessing.

White and McGregor got on the same page. On May 17, White said in an interview on an NBA on TNT telecast that the UFC and McGregor had come to a deal on their side of the fight. Approaching Mayweather Promotions and Showtime, Mayweather’s broadcast partner, was next.

“Ultimately, you can’t get stuck in certain situations and not try to work through them,” McGregor’s manager Audie Attar told Helwani on The MMA Hour. “I think for the most part you had two professional parties with us and the UFC and we were able to work through a lot of issues. Hats off to Dana and [UFC general counsel] Hunter Campbell and their team over there. We really rolled our sleeves up and got to work. We got something done that a lot of people didn’t think we were gonna get done.”

That, Ellerbe said, is when talks began to steamroll. The Mayweather Promotions CEO said reports that White was not involved in the talks were ridiculous.

“Realistically, how can you approach making a deal if you don’t have your side under control?” Ellerbe said. “Dana has done a tremendous job and Ari has done a tremendous job getting it done. … Of course [White] was involved. That’s just silly. That’s just silly for somebody to say. That just goes to show that when people don’t have the details, they just speculate. Dana has been out in front of this thing from the word go and he’s done a phenomenal job with getting that side done.”

Once the UFC and McGregor tied up their end, Espinoza said it only took two or three weeks to make the fight.

There were very few hangups in the negotiations, Ellerbe said. The talks surrounding the Mayweather fight with Manny Pacquiao were famously brutal. Neither side wanted to give an inch. Part of that was the rivalry between Showtime and HBO, Pacquiao’s broadcast distributor.

There wasn’t any of there here. The 154-pound weight and 10-ounce gloves were not haggled. Some details, like who will come out last, have not been hammered out, but discussions were smooth.

“Both sides were able to walk away from this deal and everyone was happy,” Ellerbe said. “There was nothing contentious at all.”

It’s incredibly surprising to people who know how these things usually go that it happened as fast as it did. A fight that will make in the rage of half a billion dollars — maybe more — came together with speed.

“It’s striking,” Espinoza said. “It’s remarkable. There’s never been an event this big made so quickly. … There haven’t been the ego and the butting heads that you often see in combat sports negotiations. That’s surprising in and of itself.”

Some have theorized the UFC and parent company WME-IMG were willing to let their biggest star be promoted by another organization in a boxing match because the money they could make in the short term was too good to pass up. WME-IMG purchased the UFC for more than $4 billion last year and have taken out substantial loans. The mammoth Hollywood talent firm has to meet some revenue goals to lessen the weight of those loans, per reports.

Attar thinks the reason why they wanted to do it was probably simpler than that, he told Helwani on The MMA Hour.

“I think more so when you see the public interest in this fight and you see the reaction from the public, that’s an indicator,” Attar said. “That’s an economic indicator. … I do know that they’re smart businessmen. So if the indicators are all pointing towards a mega-event that they can be a part of, I think they just did smart business. They did good business.”

Mayweather vs. McGregor will certainly do good business. There’s no doubt about that. Ellerbe said it was “definitely the plan” to make more money than Mayweather vs. Pacquiao. That fight drew a record 4.6 million pay-per-view buys and pulled in a $72 million gate.

“All parties involved, we see this as a major, major, major event,” Ellerbe said.

The match has come under much criticism. Mayweather is a master boxer, one of the best of all time with a 49-0 record. McGregor is a multi-time UFC champion, but has never boxed professionally. Boxing and MMA are very different sports, though there are similarities.

To the naysayers, those involved with putting the fight together point the finger squarely at the public interest. It was the fans, not them, that forced the issue and made Mayweather vs. McGregor a reality when it was at first a pipe dream, they said.

“I believe this started as trash talking, it was just bantering back and forth,” Espinoza said. “It was a little bit of bravado and then it generated such an immediate response and such a continuous response that each day it just got more and more real.”


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