By John Mehaffey
Truly bizarre television footage available on YouTube shows Muhammad Ali, the swiftest moving heavyweight boxer in history and gifted with dazzling speed of hand and foot, kicking ineffectually at a figure resembling a crab on its back sliding along the canvas.
The occasion was a 1976 stunt staged in Tokyo when Ali, who needed to keep earning big money to sustain an extravagant lifestyle and an extensive retinue of camp followers, agreed to fight Japanese professional wrestler Antonio Inoki.
Accounts differ over the agreed rules, but the result was a 15-round bout in which Inoki remained on his back trying to kick Ali’s legs for the majority of a contest that was unsurprisingly declared a draw.
Fast forward 40 years and this Saturday a U.S. television audience estimated at 50 million will watch 40-year-old American Floyd Mayweather, undefeated in 49 fights in five weight divisions, take on 29-year-old Dubliner Conor McGregor over 12 rounds in Las Vegas.
An 11-year age gap would suggest McGregor holds the advantage over Mayweather, a master of defense who wants to overtake former world heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano and become the only person to remain undefeated over half a century of championship fights.
Amazingly, though, McGregor, has not fought in either an amateur or professional boxing match. Instead, he is the lightweight champion in the mixed martial arts phenonomen called the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), launched in 1993, which combines kicking, punching and wrestling.
A mix of celebrity, showbusiness and, above all, money.
The lure of Saturday’s fight for the contestants is obvious. According to U.S. media reports, Mayweather, who has not fought for two years, will earn more than $200 million while McGregor will amass around half that figure.
Less obvious is the immense interest in the contest, spurred largely by social media but also generating a fair amount of interest in newspaper sports sections and television and radio sports shows.
It seems preposterous that a master of his craft such as Mayweather would have any trouble against the heavily tatooed Irishman, who attracted thousands of fans waving Irish flags when UFC made its debut in New York City.
Yet large wagers are being placed on an upset in the world’s gambling capital based partly on McGregor’s superb physique and explosive left hand plus the eduring appeal of an underdog.
Still, Saturday’s fight is firmly based on a potent mix of celebrity, showbusiness and, above all, money rather than sport, as Mayweather Promotions CEO Leonard Ellerbe explicitly acknowledged during a promotional tour.
“You can’t be mad at us,” he said. “We figured out a way to take this to another level. We did this! It’s called entertainment. We’re in a society now that it’s what people want to see. People are intrigued about the Kardashians.”
John Mehaffey worked for four decades as a journalist in New Zealand, Australia and Britain, including 33 on the Reuters Sports Desk covering seven summer Olympics plus World Cups and world championships in athletics, soccer, cricket, rugby, amateur boxing and gymnastics. He wrote extensively on sports news including drugs in sport, the readmission of South Africa to international sport and corruption in cricket. He was appointed Chief Sports Reporter in 2001.