Mayweather vs. McGregor pits both sports against each other. If McGregor wins against an undefeated champion, boxing as a sport may be humiliated, and its rules and traditions may appear outdated. On the other hand, if Mayweather trounces McGregor, the UFC star may suffer a significant blow to his reputation and see his sport’s second-class status further entrenched.
The fight is about the supremacy of marketing and social-media hype.
Promotion has long been integral to prizefighting. In the late 1880s and early 1900s, promoters used print outlets, such as the celebrity magazine the Police Gazette, to publicize fights and capitalize on gambling interests.The rise of radio and television later transformed boxing into a mainstream spectator sport in the 20th century. Today, Mayweather and McGregor are using social media at a level unprecedented in previous boxing matches or other sporting events. The fighters initially teased the matchup on Twitter and Instagram as an apparent joke in the spring of 2016. Dana White, the president of the UFC, first dismissed the prospect, but the fan excitement eventually prompted him, as well as Mayweather and his team, to embrace the idea.
The fact that fan interest was enough to convince promoters to stage the fight—and disregard criticism from journalists and other experts—may have fueled the media pushback. Furthermore, as the public cuts down on cable and satellite services, combat sports may need to further investigate distributing content via social media (following the NFL’s recent experimental deal with Amazon). If the fight turns out to be the boring mismatch that has been predicted, the critics will be vindicated. The ultimate numbers drawn by the fight in sales and pay-per-view buys will be a referendum on the utility of social media to construct and promote events like this.
The fight is about who Mayweather and McGregor are—and where they come from.
A significant part of the promotion and story of any bout is the fighters’ backgrounds. During part of my course, students examined texts that delve into the appeal of the hometown hero. In his book Cinderella Man, a chronicle of the Irish American fighter James Braddock, Jeremy Schaap describes how boxing “was rooted in its ethnic and racial rivalries, which were exploited by promoters and relished by fans, many of whom were immigrants or first-generation Americans.”
In the 1930s, Max Schmeling—a German who wasn’t himself a Nazi but whose talent made him a favorite of Adolf Hitler’s regime—came to be symbol of Nazism for many Americans. Max Baer, who faced Schmeling in 1933, wore a Star of David on his shorts to emphasize his Jewishness (even though his actual heritage was uncertain). Schmeling’s later fights with the African American boxer Joe Louis were also promoted as a challenge to Nazism, with some sources saying Franklin Roosevelt told Louis before his rematch with Schmeling in 1938, “Joe, we’re depending on those muscles for America.”