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Top MMA storylines of 2017: 1. Mayweather vs. McGregor


The lights were dim inside the UFC Performance Institute. It was quiet, except for the voice of one man: Conor McGregor.

McGregor had just been handed a smartphone. On it was a video of he and Paulie Malignaggi sparring. The never-before-seen clip had just been leaked by UFC president Dana White minutes earlier.

For a couple of weeks, McGregor and Malignaggi had been bickering over whether or not McGregor dropped him during the session. The brief video seemed to support McGregor’s assertion: It appeared like the Irishman knocked Malignaggi down.

Esther Lin, Showtime

“Does that look like a push?” McGregor asked MMA Fighting’s Ariel Helwani, who was interviewing McGregor as he watched the sequence for the first time.

McGregor and Helwani were sitting on a boxing ring inside the UFC Performance Institute. The inside of the ring was adorned with the logo for McGregor Sports & Entertainment, the UFC lightweight champion’s promotional organization.

Two weeks later, McGregor would be inside a different boxing ring, one enclosed within T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Floyd Mayweather would be the opponent standing across the way.

This moment, McGregor staring at a grainy video of him sparring Malignaggi inside a UFC facility after hosting a media workout to promote a boxing match with Mayweather was an encapsulation of just how strange 2017 was for mixed martial arts.

In truth, this past summer changed the combat sports game forever.

When 2017 started, the buzz about a potential Mayweather vs. McGregor boxing match seemed artificial. Manufactured. It had to just be a way for both men to shine more light on themselves and increase their chances at bigger paydays in their respective sports. That was the conventional wisdom.

The first five months of the year were filled with a seemingly harmless flirtation between McGregor and Mayweather. Surely, McGregor would come back to the UFC and defend his lightweight title at some point and the boxing talk was all nonsense.

In June, conventional wisdom went out a five-story window. And so did everything must people thought they knew about the UFC and boxing and the relationship — or lack thereof — between the two. Mayweather vs. McGregor was announced as a reality June 15, through both fighters’ preferred communication method: social media. A few hours later, UFC president Dana White and Mayweather Promotions CEO Leonard Ellerbe were hosting a joint press conference in Vegas.

How could any of this be real? Even after the announcement, some thought it still wouldn’t happen. Why would the UFC let its golden goose cross over into a different sport against one of the greatest of all time in said athletic endeavor? McGregor was 0-0 in boxing; Mayweather was 49-0.

Money, of course, was the answer. Everyone involved made a windfall when the fight did indeed take place Aug. 26. Mayweather said he hauled in around $300 million; McGregor said he made about $100 million. Three months later, White said the UFC had its best year of all time and since the promotion didn’t glean a single 1-million-buy pay-per-view event in 2017, it’s pretty obvious what moved the needle the most: the boxing match that was never supposed to happen.

Mayweather vs. McGregor ended up the second biggest pay-per-view event of all time at 4.3 million buys, just behind Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao in 2015, which came in at 4.6 million. MayMac was the talk of the summer in all of sports, for better or for worse. And one of the more covered and talked about athletic events in recent memory.

Mayweather beat McGregor by TKO in the 10th round, though the actual result doesn’t matter as much as the impact, present and future. McGregor never truly had a chance despite all the promotion. Yet he didn’t make a fool of himself, either. Some had him winning the first few rounds even.

But what a promotion it was, right? In July, the MayMac World Tour was a traveling circus, hitting Los Angeles, Toronto, New York and London in the span of four days. Each stage confrontation between McGregor and Mayweather got more ridiculous — and more vulgar — as the tour went on.

The opulent and excessive festivities peaked in Toronto and went downhill hard in New York. The Toronto stop was one of the greatest examples of fight promotion in history. Brooklyn, 24 hours later, was a head scratcher, with McGregor awkwardly — and offensively — joking about accusations of racism. A day later in London, Mayweather called McGregor an anti-gay slur.

Along the way, from when the fight was announced in June until it took place at the end of August, Mayweather and McGregor roped in every great — and every terrible — aspect of building a fight, from wealth to race relations to questions about each other’s manhood. P-words and b-words and f-words flew all willy nilly.

The Malignaggi situation was an odd subtext. He was supposed to come to the UFC Performance Institute to help McGregor prepare for Mayweather in July. After just two sparring sessions, he departed when McGregor’s team leaked photos of the practices that made Malignaggi look bad.

By the time White released that edited footage, the rivalry between McGregor and Malignaggi was as big as the one between McGregor and Mayweather. Each one of them continued to stoke the flames, up until fight week when Malignaggi worked on the Showtime broadcast and had a confrontation with McGregor. Somehow, McGregor made Showtime executive Stephen Espinoza a villain in all of this, too — which was either another brilliant piece of promotion, real-life paranoia or a bit of both.

Looking back on it now, it all seems like a fever dream. It has gone from “Is this really going to happen?” to “Wait, did that really happen?”

It did and the aura of Mayweather vs. McGregor has had a lasting effect on the UFC and the sport of MMA. That’s how a boxing match ended up being the biggest story of the year in mixed martial arts.

McGregor has not yet returned back to the Octagon since winning the lightweight title in November 2016 and recently White said he wouldn’t again until next summer. After making $100 million in one night, McGregor doesn’t have all that much incentive to return to the UFC for a fraction of that rate.

Meanwhile, multiple UFC fighters have expressed an interest in crossing over to boxing, like McGregor did. White, himself, is going to be embarking on boxing promotion in 2018 under the Zuffa Boxing brand.

Mayweather vs. McGregor wasn’t just the biggest MMA story of the year or the biggest boxing story. It might have been one of the biggest sports stories and it was a pop culture phenomenon that stretched through the majority of the 12 months of 2017.

The shockwaves from the mega-bout don’t show any signs of letting down any time soon. Mayweather and McGregor have knocked combat sports off course for good. Just last week, there was hullabaloo about Mayweather potentially fighting in the UFC.

It has all come full circle, from absurd talk to reality, back to absurd talk. But after Mayweather vs. McGregor actually went down in 2017, nothing in the fight game seems all that impossible anymore.

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