If you think there's any chance that UFC featherweight champion Conor McGregor and retired uber-pugilist Floyd Mayweather, Jr., are going to box each other in Las Vegas, I have an email from an aristocrat in East Africa that I'd like you to read. Just give him your routing number, dude.
McGregor-Mayweather is the new Ronda Rousey-Mayweather—a fight that's too unworkable and too fantastical to ever happen and that we can't stop talking about, even if only to dismiss it. But while the slimy gender-versus-gender dimensions of that fight ensured it would never happen in a pre-apocalyptic world, both McGregor and Mayweather have coyly fanned the flames of a potential bout in recent days, feeding our delusions that the fight might go beyond idle talk.
They certainly know their audience. Going back to Gracie versus Tyson, the idea of two household names crossing combative sports boundaries for a big fight that will never, ever happen has a timeless charm. These what-if match-ups are fodder for message board discussions, a prompt for words to fill dead air and dead space. But why do we give so much oxygen to things that have no chance of ever coming to life? Why does a fight like Mayweather-McGregor—or, maybe, Amir Khan-McGregor—captivate us so much?
The possibility of Mayweather-McGregor actually happening emerged in British tabloids, an arm of the media that's maybe not so familiar with the contractual limitations that would prohibit McGregor—the UFC's biggest star of the moment as well as its most estranged—from fighting while employed under Zuffa, the obstacles to sanctioning a bout between one of the pound-for-pound best boxers to ever compete and an athlete making his boxing debut, or the fairly obvious differences between boxing and mixed martial arts in general. We all occasionally conflate fighting as a single, consistent entity, but a hypothetical 12 rounds between a boxer and an MMA fighter is a cue to pick one form of fisticuffs over another—the "MMA vs Boxing" caption on the Photoshopped fight poster that McGregor tweeted is testament to that. When you pick Mayweather's jab or McGregor's left hook, you're pledging allegiance.
That said, the debate over whether boxing or MMA is "better" is one of the most insufferable parts of watching and following combat sports, and it sucks that it's still part of the background noise. There are no great epiphanies waiting inside this debate. Beyond the gloves and the punching, boxing and MMA are each so different, so particular, and so complicated that one sport has almost nothing to do with the other, and there's no neutral ground to test the merits of an athlete from one sport without putting his opponent from another at a disadvantage. We've already seen James Toney take on Randy Couture, and we learned nothing except that a former UFC champion beats a former boxing champion under MMA rules. (Shocking!) In boxing, Mayweather would chew up McGregor not because the Irishman is a worse athlete, but because he has no boxing record and he'd be going against one of the best ever. And unless fight sports finds its Bo Jackson, you won't ever see an athlete competing and winning at the pinnacle of both.
And that's exactly what's so intriguing about the possibility of McGregor-Mayweather. Through less jaundiced eyes, it's like a real-life DC and Marvel Comics crossover in a way that an overfed James Toney collecting a check and going out without landing a punch was not. For all of the polarized feelings that McGregor has drawn, especially in the wake of losing to Nate Diaz, he is a superlative fighter and a champion. Mayweather, meanwhile, is only sort of retired, and one of the objectively best boxers to have ever competed at 49-0. These are great athletes and mainstream celebrities who would share an unlikely context. That it could manifest into a thing we could experience—that we could ever see Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather sharing the same piece of real estate for a common sportive purpose—fuels the same craving to witness something fresh and unexpected that makes watching sports worthwhile in the first place.
A big fight booking follows the same basic blueprint on its way to fruition: it simmers, it intrigues, it becomes familiar and eventually dull, it manifests into beauty or tedium and a win and a loss, and it becomes part of history's dustbin. But what-ifs are deathless. A fight like McGregor-Mayweather captures the imagination, and it never leaves the realm of speculation for the letdown of the real world. The only way to kill it is to book it.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.