Sunday’s fight between the UFC’s Conor McGregor and now-retired boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. was a clinic on how to handle cheap shots in boxing. From illegal holds to hammer and rabbit punches to punches below the belt, there was nothing McGregor considered beneath him in his effort to throw Mayweather off his game. Toward the end, I half expected McGregor to step on Mayweather’s toes and land a few quick body blows.
But despite all the dirty moves, and despite the referee’s inexplicable refusal to dock any points from McGregor for continuing such behavior even after the second and third and fourth warning, Mayweather remained a true professional and carried himself with a quiet dignity.
I’m sure everyone who watched the fight was aware that McGregor was doing things that were highly unusual in boxing, but I want to make crystal clear just how illegal they actually were. When Mayweather would try to separate from clinches, he had to guard the back of his head, leaving most of his face and body wide open, not only anticipating but also entirely sure that McGregor would target there.
That is like if anyone guarding Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors had to play the entire game with their hands cupped around their groin.
Including head-butting and kicking, what McGregor did Sunday night included some of the most dangerous fouls a boxer can commit, capable of causing permanent brain and nerve damage. And in the case of a rabbit punch, which McGregor was so happy to dish out multiple times per round, it has even led to a fighter’s death in the past.
It was completely unacceptable, yet McGregor got away with it. And in the aftermath of the fight, it has been almost wholly ignored.
From McGregor fans, and even from notable sports personalities such as Skip Bayless, I have heard justifications ranging from “Well, he’s a UFC fighter, so of course he’ll be a little rough” to “Maybe they should just change the rules of boxing to allow such moves.”
The former reasoning lacks any sense, as many of the same moves are illegal not only in MMA but also in most combat sports. As to the latter argument: The rules of boxing are specifically in place to protect a fighter’s career and life as much as possible. It might be hard to imagine that a sport in which the goal is to knock the daylights out of the other guy takes measures to ensure safety, but referee Robert Byrd’s decision to call a TKO on McGregor on Sunday night is proof of that fact.
Before Byrd ended the fight, McGregor had already lost the strength to keep his guard up. He was able to stay standing with his awkwardly wide stance, but anytime Mayweather would close the gap between them, McGregor either stumbled to the other side of the ring or fell on Mayweather in an illegal hold.
Call it what you want — pride, indomitable will, pure stupidity. After round four, McGregor was drowning. Byrd simply decided to drag McGregor out of the pool while he was still breathing rather than lug an unconscious body out on a stretcher.
Mayweather and most boxing experts knew before the fight that Mayweather would be held to a higher standard than McGregor would be. McGregor would be able to get away with cheap shots, and if Mayweather complained, he would look weak. We also knew that at the end of the day, McGregor would be the one saved by the referee.
But despite all this, and despite knowing just what type of person McGregor was or how he would fight, there was something I found incredibly uncomfortable and disturbing about a loudmouthed, trash-talking white man — who had earlier referred to Black people as monkeys, who had told Mayweather, a Black man, to “dance for me, boy” — getting away with all the illegal moves he committed, not just by the referees but also by the public.
When a fighter is known for taking illegal shots, we are very quick to call them a dirty fighter. When Mayweather responded to Victor Ortiz’s headbutt with two “cheap shots” of his own, or when Roy Jones Jr. landed a rabbit punch and a low blow on Bernard Hopkins, that was all the media focused on. In the case of Jones Jr., there were many on television who called for him to retire.
So where is the media outrage toward McGregor? He threw cheap shots. He threw rabbit punches. He landed punches below the belt. He is known for the occasional head-butt. Why are we praising his performance when we criticize others? What’s the difference between him and all the other fighters I named?
In the wake of Charlottesville, Virginia; of Colin Kaepernick being blackballed by NFL teams for speaking out against this country’s oppression of Black people; and of everything Donald Trump does and says, McGregor fits perfectly into the narrative of white privilege. He gets away with so much more than nonwhite people could, and he is praised where others would be criticized.
McGregor took his entire act from Black men. His nickname, “The Notorious,” is a clear rip-off of Biggie Smalls. His “Mystic Mac” trash-talking, round-calling persona is entirely inspired by Muhammad Ali, the Louisville Lip. Even the trend of fighters flaunting their wealth on social media was started by none other than Mayweather himself.
And yet the media criticized Ali for being too talkative. They criticized Mayweather for being ostentatious. In the NFL, they called Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks “a thug” for shouting in an interview. But they love it when McGregor does it. Oh man, do they love it.
The public perception toward athletes, and boxers in particular, has always been affected by and wholly inconsistent based on race. Jack Johnson, the first Black heavyweight boxing champion, was constantly pit against white fighters, each of whom the media would call “the Great White Hope.” And when Johnson beat them all, rather than being praised for his dominance in the sport, he was arrested for consorting with a white woman and had to flee the country.
Joe Louis, the second Black heavyweight boxing champion, was pit against Hitler-supported boxer Max Schmeling in a fight that was marketed by Nazi Germany as definitive proof of Aryan superiority. Louis knocked out Schmeling in the first round. Rather than being brought together by patriotism, the overall media response was largely reflected in the comments of Henry McLemore from the United Press, who called Louis “a jungleman, completely primitive as any savage.”
But when McGregor relied on illegal tactics, he was praised as the scrappy underdog, rather than named a dirty fighter.
And even though most of us watched Sunday’s fight to escape from the real world and relax with friends, it illustrated just how deeply race issues permeate into every aspect of our lives and our culture — and how many of us have the privilege to not realize it.
Haruka Senju occasionally covers professional boxing.