Ken Early: Mayweather learned quickly not to take his eyes off McGregor

Mayweather will try to make his opponent feel lost and lonely in the boxing ring

Conor McGregor likes to counterpunch. Like the best counterpunchers, he reacts not to the punch, but to the intention to throw the punch. That’s how he has time to strike before the opponent realises what is happening. If you want to read someone’s intentions you have to understand where they are coming from. You need a kind of intuitive connection with the opponent.

He’s the same as a performer. McGregor works best when he is feeding off the emotional energy of his audience. He needs to feel that connection. It doesn’t always have to be the same kind of emotion. It could be signalled by the cheers of a crowd of Irish fans in Dublin or Toronto or Las Vegas, or the catcalls of a crowd of Brazilian fans in Rio de Janeiro, or the rapt eyes of an interviewer he is hypnotising one-on-one. All he needs is to get a feel for the audience and he easily gets into a flow.

Take away that connection and the flow breaks down. When the questions are negative, or when it feels like it’s just him, when he can’t read the signal, when he’s only getting silence or white noise in response, the usual note of conviction can start to sound a bit wobbly. These are the moments when uncertain thoughts can seep through cracks in the shell of positive self-talk in which he long ago encased his mind.

At least it sounded like something along those lines happened at Wednesday’s final press conference for the so-called Money Fight, which, in keeping with the Showtime house style, was extremely boring with too many speeches by corporate drones and with no fans present – not the sort of environment in which McGregor usually thrives. It featured the display of a jewel-encrusted golden “Money Belt” which reflected the organisers’ apparent – and possibly correct – belief that simply hyping the amount of money at stake in the fight will increase the amount of money people spend on the fight.


When it was McGregor’s turn to speak he stood at the podium looking out at the anonymous expressionless faces and spoke into the hush.

“You should have all kept your mouth shut,” he told the journalists, as they sat there keeping their mouths shut. “You should have left me over in that other game where I’m from, that more ruthless game where we bounce heads off the canvas and drill them into the floor . . .”

The daily Embedded video revealed McGregor backstage after the press conference talking with UFC president Dana White. He mentioned the size difference between him and Mayweather and predicted the fight would be a "massacre".

“I was like, man, I’m gonna feel sorry for you. You should have left me where I was. I was all right where I was.”

You should have left me over in that other game, you should have left me where I was . . . was there some small part of his mind that was wishing they had?

If so, this renegade neural cluster has since been ostracised into silence by the rest of McGregor's brain. In his conscious mind, at least, he is convinced that this is a good decision and that he is going to win this fight. This belief is contagious: when you talk to people who spend any time with him they all think that he has at least a good chance, despite all the evidence to the contrary. They will remind you that Floyd Mayweather is 40, they will talk about the possibilities of the clinch, they will say that this is fighting and anything can happen in fighting.

Paulie Malignaggi suggested that McGregor was an out-of-control ego surrounded by yes-men, but the fact is that McGregor has also convinced half the world he is going to beat Mayweather. Many of these people may know nothing about boxing, but McGregor's mesmeric power cannot be doubted: he makes people believe, whether in person or on YouTube. It's this quality, more than his victories in the UFC, that has turned him into the only fighter on the planet big enough to tempt Floyd Mayweather out of retirement.

When you look at how his career has developed over the last couple of years, you find yourself wondering if this Law of Attraction might have something to it after all. The Law of Attraction, which has shaped McGregor's mindset for many years, is a form of magical thinking that teaches, essentially, that whatever you visualise will become reality – if you can believe in it sincerely enough. At this point, McGregor is to the Law what Tom Cruise is to Scientology.

A little over two years ago, he appeared on Conan O'Brien's chat show to promote his fight against Chad Mendes at UFC 189. O'Brien pointed out that McGregor was in a similar weight division to Mayweather, who had just defeated Manny Pacquiao in what was then the biggest-grossing fight of all time.

“If you’re asking if I’d like to fight Floyd, I mean who would not like to dance around the ring for one hundred and eighty million dollars?” McGregor said. “It would be something that appeals to me very much.”

The idea that McGregor might fight Mayweather did not seem a serious possibility at the time. Neither did the idea he put out a couple of months later in an interview with Ariel Helwani, that he was looking for his next contract to be for nine figures, that is, a hundred million dollars plus.

To appreciate how insane this sounded coming from a fighter in the UFC, you need to understand something about how that company operates. The only people getting seriously rich out of the UFC are the owners. They run an uncompromising corporation that aggressively suppresses any hint of union organisation and keeps employee wages down to the absolute minimum. The fighters receive about 10 per cent of the organisation’s total revenue, which means they are collectively underpaid by a factor of at least five compared to players in other major American sports. Nine figures? As a UFC fighter, his purses were always going to be a lot closer to nine euros than nine figures.

Yet here we are, on the day when Conor McGregor collects the biggest debut purse in the history of boxing. The nine figures have become reality. The day he signed that contract must have been a day of triumphant vindication few of us will ever get to experience.

The only problem is that now he has to box Floyd Mayweather, who may represent one of those occasional jagged edges of objective reality that have the power to pierce anyone’s bubble of belief, no matter how seemingly bulletproof.

It’s not to denigrate McGregor’s past opponents, some of whom were great fighters, to observe that he has never come up against anyone on Mayweather’s level. The thought that you have to face the most skilled opponent of your career, while having to leave half of your own skills at the door, would be sobering for anybody. But that’s the price of admission to Floyd’s world.

McGregor says Mayweather has never fought anybody like him, and that is at least half true. The true part is that Mayweather has never fought anyone with McGregor's unorthodox background, and like everyone else, he has to wait to see what surprises the Irishman has in store. This falls under the heading of what McGregor is calling "Bruce Lee shit" and the prospect of him showing us something we haven't seen before is one of the attractions of the fight.

“I don’t feel boxing is the style of fighting that can beat Floyd,” McGregor told Conan O’Brien, back in 2015 before even he seriously believed he’d one day be fighting him. “But saying that, there are many, many forms of fighting that can beat him.” Unfortunately those forms of fighting are all illegal in the boxing rule set. If it’s legal in boxing, it’s nothing Mayweather hasn’t handled before, and he knows how to push the boundaries of legality better than anybody.

When McGregor tells people why he is going to win, one of his themes is that Mayweather is small: small legs, small core, small head, brittle hands. And it’s true that compared to McGregor, Mayweather is slightly built. But he’s never succeeded because he was the most powerful fighter. He succeeds because he has been the cleverest.

When you watch Mayweather fight the things that stand out are his eyes – in the most literal sense, they stand out from his face, wide open – he scarcely seems to blink. We associate wide eyes with fear, but the reason fear makes the eyes open wide is to maximise the field of vision. Mayweather is not afraid. He’s watching the opponent and he doesn’t want to miss anything. Everything is a potential clue to what happens next. This is why Mayweather has only suffered one official knockdown in 49 fights.

Mayweather has eyes everywhere and he learns from what he sees. Even on the promotional World Tour last month you could see Mayweather studying McGregor, working him out, and changing his strategy to counter him, just as he would do in the ring. In the second tour event, before a crowd in Toronto containing thousands of Irish fans, Floyd engaged with McGregor’s antics on stage. He visibly reacted to McGregor’s barbs, even laughing at some of his jokes, and he got involved in some cheesy back-and-forth involving a bag full of cash and an Irish flag. This was a mistake: McGregor made him look silly and brought the house down.

At the next show in New York we saw a different Mayweather. He had decided that the best way to deal with McGregor is to ignore him. If your opponent is good at reacting in the moment to what you do, then give him nothing to work with by acting as though he isn’t there. The strategy happened to dovetail nicely with Mayweather’s own cold, calculated, withdrawn personality. He’s won 49 fights being cold, calculated and withdrawn.

So when McGregor paraded about in his polar bear coat and bawled insults directly into Mayweather’s ear, Mayweather pretended to be looking at his phone. Faced with this magnificent indifference, McGregor’s bombast fell flat. His frustration was obvious. He probably expected Floyd would play ball. They were both supposed to be hyping the fight. These one-sided exchanges were boring. But then, so were most of Mayweather’s title defences. He’s never cared about entertaining the fans. His aim is not to lose, and nothing else matters.

None of McGregor's UFC opponents ever dealt with him so skilfully and the evidence of Mayweather's long career suggests he will take the same approach to the fight. He will not do what McGregor wants him to do. He will not be like Jose Aldo and come charging out of his corner straight into a knockout punch. He will not be forced to participate in a spectacle. He will stymie, frustrate and confuse. He will try to make McGregor feel lost and lonely. If the fight is boring, that means he's winning.

And he has to win, because losing this fight would be the worst thing that ever happened to him. His sense of self is based on being unbeatable more than it’s based on being rich. If he loses his record to a converted MMA fighter, the money he will earn – twice as much as McGregor – won’t compensate for the disgrace. Money Mayweather knows all about money and what it can and can’t do. If he loved it as much as he says he does, he wouldn’t have been so eager to squander it. For Mayweather, money is not an end in itself, only a convenient numerical way to demonstrate his superior status. The Showtime people don’t understand it, and maybe Conor McGregor is only finding out, but there really are more important things at stake in the Money Fight than money.