The Mayweather/McGregor world tour defied expectations, to say the least. In the battle of words, where Conor McGregor was projected by many to hold a significant advantage, both men showed wild inconsistency. During what could generously be described as an ‘eventful’ press tour, combat sports’ more abhorrent qualities took center stage.
The verbal battles largely took place in the realm of the masculine id, with each man dismissively comparing the other to women, and belittling each other with playground fare such as “bitch” and “pussy.”
Each of the four tour stops provided its own standout face-palm moment. In Los Angeles, McGregor goaded Floyd Mayweather with chants of “dance for me, boy.” Though he seemed to grasp the nature of his poor word selection, he doubled down in Toronto, repeating the barb yet again. Under fire for those perceived racial slights, McGregor decided to clear the air in Brooklyn, declaring himself black “from the bellybutton down” before gyrating as a backhanded gift to his “beautiful, black female fans.” The end result was certainly his most objectionable moment of the press event’s first three legs, though Mayweather would mount a ferocious comeback in the fourth round, bringing the London crowd to a chorus of boos with a homophobic slur.
For his part, McGregor had previously skirted a fine line between ill-advised and directly inflammatory. Over these events he seemed to discard any pretext of cultural sensitivity, especially in the world tour’s closing days.
Even long-time supporters, such as Skip Bayless — who has historically defended and elevated McGregor with reverent hyperbole — were quick to acknowledge the objectionable nature of the Irishman’s comments following the Brooklyn debacle. Bayless addressed the situation during his Undisputed talk show with co-host Shannon Sharpe.
“At the end of the night, I tweeted that Floyd won by default.” Bayless said. “Because Conor McGregor’s behavior for me — even for me, big Conor fan — was so over-the-line disgusting, it was so not funny, it was just so very wrong, that I said ‘that’s it, you just managed to do the impossible. You just turned Floyd Mayweather Jr. into a sympathetic figure…’”
MMA is a reactionary space when it comes to many topics, but race is particularly provocative. Fighters such as Aljamain Sterling, Kevin Lee, and Tyron Woodley have all spoken out at length about the difficulties faced by people of color in mixed martial arts. With the experiences of these highly accomplished black athletes in mind, it is difficult not to at least empathize with Bayless’ position.
There was a tone-deaf quality to McGregor’s earlier barbs, but his presumed attempt at a rebuttal of any racial narrative came off as, at best, poorly considered or, at worst, an embrasure of the criticisms levied against him. While speaking to media backstage following the event, he attempted to clarify his position.
“That doesn’t really sit well with me. I’m very multi-cultural, I’m a multi-cultural individual, I don’t have any ill feelings towards any- I don’t even see color. I just wanted to say something and have a little bit of fun with it.”
However, the statement “I don’t even see color” is a weighted one. As psychotherapist Sam Louie wrote for Psychology Today:
“When well-meaning people with good intentions say, ‘I don't see color’, an ethnic minority will internalize that as meaning, ‘You don't see me’. Part of the problem with our country’s desire to be ’post-racial’ and color-blind in terms of seeing the inherent worth of an individual regardless of skin color, is that you can dismiss all the concerns, experiences, and real-world issues of racism that plagues this country from both an individual and larger societal level.”
This is not to say that Conor McGregor is a racist; he doesn't seem to harbor any negative feelings toward people of color. But, he does seem to be defiantly insensitive to their experiences and dismissive of how his comments could be construed. It's the kind of dimestore indifference that perpetuates racism and downplays its impact, which has an enabling effect. There is a line between cultural insensitivity and outright bigotry, a line which the Irishman has proven willing to skirt for the purposes of promotion.
As McGregor walked that line, Mayweather prepared to redraw some borders. Not to be outdone, he crossed said line before dowsing it in gasoline and setting it ablaze during May-Mac's London swan song, in what would be the tour’s most overtly prejudiced moment.
“You punk, you faggot, you ho,” an energized Mayweather blurted at a jeering McGregor. A fitting finale for a press tour which largely consisted of the two calling each other “pussy”, “bitch”, or using “girl” as a pejorative.
There is more to this than just sensitivity, or common consideration for one’s fellow human being. This type of trash talk is, flat out, bad. There’s little entertainment to be had from two men barraging each other with the same, tired insults which have littered combat sports for decades.
McGregor, in particular, is too gifted an orator to consistently resort to this level of verbal warfare. The UFC lightweight champion is marketed less for his crude mouth and more for his poised confidence, his clever rebuttals, and flamboyant wit. Try to recollect his most memorable and oft-repeated lines; how many of them contain the word “bitch”?
Most likely, readers will remember lines such as “we’re not here to take part, we’re here to take over”, and his six-word destruction of Jeremy Stephens. Even when an oft-repeated line contains mundane pejoratives (think Jon Jones’ “hey pussy, are you still there?”), the impact is contained not in the expletive, but in the context of the statement.
For examples of trash talk done right, look no further than former UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz. Cruz is known for his deeply analytical mind, a quality which manifests both inside and outside of the Octagon. Where “the Dominator” shines on a microphone is in his propensity for making opponents sound utterly incompetent without ever indulging in cliché. His barbs are calculated, specific, and executed with a fundamental cold-bloodedness which separates him from his contemporaries. And he does it all with eloquence, poise, and minimal profanity.
While Cruz’s multi-minute diatribes are an art unto themselves, where McGregor has always excelled is in his ability to produce condensed, memorable soundbites, the likes of which are perpetually used and reused in the UFC’s promos for months or years to come.
We saw little, if any, of that from McGregor during this ill-fated press tour. Instead, the bulk of the action consisted of questioned masculinity and references to female genitalia. Four consecutive press conferences will, inevitably, result in some repetition, and some lazy banter, but neither man ever really produced anything else. Ball-swinging machismo battles are a staple of combat sports promotion, but such rivalries tend to become boring, quickly. For every successful pay-per-view promoted on the back of two grown men comparing each other to women, there are dozens of main card and undercard bouts which struggle to garner any attention while the contestants scream “bitch” and “pussy” into the void.
These tactics are old hat for Mayweather, a dusted-off toolbox from an era when the “Money” persona was yet to materialize. This is no excuse for his actions, his uninspired trash talk merely serves to illustrate further that he has no apparent motivation, or desire, to do better. His seasoned fans probably aren’t expecting any higher level of discourse from the boxing great.
McGregor, who seems to take great pride in his wit, is capable of more. When he spent four consecutive days questioning the testicular fortitude of an opponent who was reading from the same playbook, the feeling that he could do better was pervasive. As a promoter, as an orator, and as a representative of MMA, Conor McGregor can most certainly do better than that.