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Floyd Mayweather Jr. v Conor McGregor World Press Tour - New York

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Mayweather-McGregor and the death spiral of American sports

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I used to work at the American casual dining chain Bennigan’s, and it’s really helped me think about the impending shitshow that is the Mayweather-McGregor fight.

This was in the death spiral days of their lifespan as a business, meaning no one had come up with a new idea at Bennigan’s for at least ten years, maybe longer. Instead, every “new” idea at Bennigan’s consisted of combinations of old ideas mashed together. This explains why, at some point, it is likely that the “onion ring-loaded tater skin” existed on the menu.

I’m not sure of that, though. I tried to block the whole experience from my brain because it happened at a very bad time in my life, when I was playing The Sims too much, didn’t know what I wanted to do, and lived off tips from sunburned Floridian office park drones biding their time between work hours and their inevitable and expensive semi-monthly DUI arrests.

What I do remember: The kitchen staff grumbling as they were told to stack the same ingredients in a thousand different ways, usually with gigantic hangovers, and often while having loud arguments with their girlfriends on flip phones and listening to Korn and DMX on an ancient boom box. They knew it was horseshit, and they pulled it hot out of the fryer and threw it on the plates because it was their job.

It was when I realized that to a very depressed person, Baudrillard might be right: Our culture might be a corpse, and everything you see in it and confuse for life might just be the nails and hair of the corpse still expanding after death. That’s a weird conclusion to come to while watching someone plate up a Monte Cristo and an order of the same chicken tenders the restaurant had served for twenty years plopped on top of a bucket of soggy penne noodles and recycled cajun sauce from a recently cancelled menu addition—IT’S BAYOU CHICKEN PASTALAYA Y’ALL—but it’s where I went.

I think about this moment in my life a lot. I also think about how people reacted when I told them how bad something was, that it was inedible, that it was actually the same things crammed together in increasingly ghastly and baroque combinations. I didn’t do this on purpose at first—it was an accident, a moment of complete frustration when someone ordered something terrible and I finally lost all hope when someone spotted a new Frankendish and asked, with a moment of deranged excitement, “is that...good?” I’d tell them the truth: It was crap, and I wouldn’t spoon it into a pig’s mouth with a stable boy’s filthiest shovel.

It almost never failed. With a confident nod, usually, and a gleam of conviction in their eye, the customer would sit a little straighter in their chair and declare: “I think I’ll try that, then.”

This may be where we’re at. I’ll limit it to sports, though you can feel free to take that dynamic and sprint as far as you want with it. The NFL is bad, so bad that even its own fans will declare it a blight on their own lives. Baseball is boring, college football is increasingly regarded as a tax dodge and festive violation of every labor law ever written, and NASCAR and the NHL have entered the “maybe I’ll just apply for a real estate license and see what happens” stage of late adult wage-earning. Horse racing is working as a greeter at Wal-Mart; Soccer continues to get promising jobs at startups that flame out after six months. (But there’s still so much potential, they say.)

The NBA is cool. We’ll just leave the NBA as being completely cool, and the lone, shining exception to the hellscape of modern American sports. I know it has problems, and I also know I would like one pocket of blissful ignorance to hide in while the rest of the world happens.

Boxing is American sports’ prized zombie. When it shows up, everyone freaks the hell out and pays attention. It’s horrifying, arresting, contagious, and probably a bad thing for anyone concerned with human life. Hang out around it too much, and it will eventually eat you. Boxing, as a major sport, isn’t exactly alive—but it’s certainly not dead, and when there’s an outbreak people can’t pay attention to anything else.

It’s also one of those sports that can easily break quarantine as a discipline. They can crash all the way over into something else entirely. That something ends up being less like a sport, and more like pure, horrific, and inevitably absurd spectacle.

Floyd Mayweather Jr. v Conor McGregor - News Conference Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Spectacles are an American tradition—not always a smart one, or a safe one, or even a sane one, but a tradition nonetheless. My personal favorite is the Crash at Crush, where an otherwise unremarkable railway agent in Texas decided that colliding two steam engines at full speed would make a great event. The boilers on both locomotives exploded shortly after impact, and killed two or three people sitting too close to the action, but otherwise he was completely right.

It says something real about the year 1896 that a.) a “fun” event killed some of its spectators, and b.) no one’s exactly sure whether it was “two or three” dead.

A spectacle—at least for me—crosses the line from sport when it gets out of being a carefully regulated matchup with set rules and disciplines, and breaks into being something that people will watch simply to see it done, rules and form be damned. The 1970s, with the birth of cable television and expansion of pay-per-view programming, were great for them in particular.

For instance: In 1976, Muhammad Ali fought Antonio Inoki, a Japanese professional wrestler, in Tokyo. The results were confusing for everyone involved, the crowd chanted “MONEY BACK” at the conclusion of the fight, and judges declared the fight a draw. Later, the wrestler Bret Hart, who worked for Inoki at the time, would claim the Black Muslims threatened Inoki with serious bodily harm if he so much as tried to touch Ali—which, in retrospect, is probably why Inoki spent most of the time half-heartedly kicking Ali in the legs.

More to the point: When Evel Knievel tried to jump the Snake River Canyon riding a glorified bottle rocket, he signed up investors to broadcast the attempt on closed-circuit TV. He enlisted, among others, boxing promoter Bob Arum and the WWE’s own Vince McMahon. The story had a heartwarming conclusion: Knievel’s chute partially opened on launch, he then drifted off course and landed short of the canyon rim, survived with minimal injury, and everyone involved lost money.

These may seem like dispatches from a crueler, weirder, older nation you can laugh at from a safe distance. Reader, you may not, because in 2004 there was a televised hot-dog-eating competition between Kobayashi and a grizzly bear standing in front of an American flag.

The announcer Michael Buffer—again, boxing pops up here—made what might have been one of the greatest pieces of live sports commentary ever here when he beheld the bear taking a break after demolishing well over half his plate and said: “He doesn’t know it’s a competition.” This competition also featured forty-four dwarves pulling an airliner in a race against an elephant who was also pulling an airliner. This program made no bones about being anything other than a series of actualized problematic bar bets. Why yes, it was put together by Fox. Why did you ask?

There can’t be too much spectacle at once, if you’re into selling it for a living. Ask a WWE fan about how hard it is for anyone to measure that out properly. You’ll probably get a long, well-supported argument about “exactly what is wrong with Raw,” and detailed thoughts on how the WWE has mismanaged their biggest prospects, but it all centers around how spectacle—the thing the WWE in particular depends so much on—needs to be managed very, very carefully. Too much, too fast, and the audience can overdose and tune out with a quickness.

Mayweather-McGregor is clearly something beyond a fight. Categorically, it’s a spectacle, something between a dare and a show. Like all spectacles people will watch—not for the competition, but for the fact that it’s happening at all. Like a lot of spectacles, it seems to always involve someone from the boxing world, one of the last places in American sport happy to openly write checks for outright bloodsport* and eye-grabbing horror.

*Football at all levels, for legal purposes and brand management reasons, still likes to pretend it doesn’t do this.

The question for me is this: Is this something new, and ultimately depressing and calculated on a whole new level, or is it just another drunken wager made real? Netflix makes money leaning on data to produce things it knows its customers want—i.e., the now famous story about them producing House of Cards because the numbers already showed that it might work. People who liked Kevin Spacey also liked political thrillers; people who liked political thrillers also liked David Fincher; people who liked all of those things would probably like a political thriller franchise starring Kevin Spacey, and produced by David Fincher.

Netflix—or anyone else with the numbers—can do this all day. So can the people who make sports for you, and they very well might. With ratings falling for the NFL and a general panic setting in about the viability of large, bulky sports contracts, there’s no reason to think Mayweather-McGregor isn’t just a one-off spectacle, but the beginning of what is at least a steady sideline revenue stream based exclusively off the combination of existing ingredients.

Floyd Mayweather Jr. v Conor McGregor World Press Tour - New York Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

This isn’t saying that LeBron James will finally provide a real, visible answer to the question “Could Malcolm Gladwell beat you in a footrace” in a pay-per-view. Or it might be, and I’m completely wrong about what a sport is or isn’t, and how much pure, nihilist spectacle people might want in their lives at any given moment. Maybe the 2016 election changed that for me on a personal level. Maybe that goes back to watching people get told how bad something was, and watching them defiantly order it out of spite, contrarianism, and an unbending need to assert their unvalidated judgment at all times—even when doing that made no sense whatsoever, and in the end benefitted the worst people imaginable.

Maybe, at the very least, someone can make money off of it. It’s entirely possible that that’s the only real result or lingering after-effect here. After all, even if there’s not the actual possibility of something new and real in the fight, it’s another tried and true American business model at work: The chicken finger pastalaya, the combination KFC/Taco Bell, the Expendables franchise, the man-versus-bear fight you never knew you wanted, but watched anyway.

What that thing is probably depends on the observer’s mood. Mayweather-McGregor could be read as a kind of crowdsourced event, the start of something new made real, the beginning of something that ends with a sumo wrestler at last playing meaningful snaps at defensive tackle in an NFL preseason game because...well, because enough people wanted it to happen, and they showed up to watch it. It could also be one of the oldest tricks in the book: A guaranteed, for-pay disaster, built by cynicism and greed, and validated on the viewer’s part only by a desperation for something like novelty and a persistent morbid curiosity.

It could be the future of all sports, or none. I can’t decide which. That’s the problem right now with sports. Correction: That’s the problem with almost anything at any moment at all, really. It’s so hard to decide what’s alive, and what’s dead. What might be simply shambling forward through momentum alone.

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