Out of Bounds?

September 01, 2017

Multiple Pages
Out of Bounds?

The young man at the supermarket checkout asked me if I would be watching the fight. “No,” I said, “more a media event than sport.” He wasn’t convinced. He would be paying to watch it, and he was backing Conor McGregor to win. I didn’t say he hadn’t a chance. Strange things can happen in the boxing ring. How many thought Buster Douglas would beat Mike Tyson? Precious few, maybe not even Buster himself. Then again, McGregor might get lucky, catching Mayweather early with a big punch. Or there might be a fix—to promote an even more lucrative return.

Then again, Mayweather, though hailed as the outstanding champion of the present day, is now 40. The years might be catching up with him, as they have caught up with even the greatest champions in the past—Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, even. Still, there are cases of boxers older than Mayweather flourishing. George Foreman was in his middle 40s when he won a version of the world heavyweight title, and “ageless” Archie Moore may well have been pushing 50 when he gave Rocky Marciano one of the hardest fights of his career.

“The fact is that even when there are superficial resemblances between sports, switching successfully from one to the other is very difficult. ”

More to the point, Mayweather hadn’t fought for almost two years. He might be rusty. His reflexes, which have made him such a great defensive boxer, might have slowed. He almost certainly wasn’t quite the man he was five or six years ago. So, yes, defeat was just conceivable.

Just conceivable, but of course it didn’t happen. He won comfortably, as he was all but sure to do. McGregor isn’t a boxer—though, if he chooses, he may become one. He’s a UFC champion, and the no-holds-barred fight game is utterly different from boxing. I might have enlarged on this to my young friend at the checkout counter, but there were already people queuing behind me, doubtless impatiently. So I didn’t.

The fact is that even when there are superficial resemblances between sports, switching successfully from one to the other is very difficult. Take, for example, rugby union and rugby league. They stem from the same root and have much the same scoring system. In both games tries are scored by touching the ball down behind the opposition’s goal line. There are many examples of players who have been successful in both codes; the New Zealander Sonny Bill Williams is one such today. Union and league are certainly closer to each other than boxing and UFC.

Nevertheless, more than twenty years ago, shortly before rugby union went professional, there was considerable interest when it was announced that the two factions would play each other. At that time Bath were the outstanding union club in England, Wigan the outstanding league one. There would be two matches, one under league rules, the other under union ones. In the first, Wigan won very easily, by more than fifty points, as I recall. In the second, Bath won, though not by so wide a margin. The discrepancy may have been partly because the professional league players were then fitter than the amateur union ones, and partly because league defenses were then better organized than union ones. Yet the lesson was clear: It’s very hard to transfer your talents to a different sport, even when the two sports have much in common or are even superficially much the same.

There are points of similarity between tennis and squash. Both are played with a racket and a ball, and I would suppose that anyone who is good at one of these games wouldn’t be bad at the other. Nevertheless the courts are different and the equipment is different. Roger Federer is a supremely good tennis player—the greatest of all time, in the opinion of his fans. I suppose he might adapt quite well to squash. Yet I’m even more certain that if Federer were to challenge either of the past two World Squash champions, the Egyptian Karim Abdel Gawad or the Frenchman Gregory Gaultier, he would be as much at a loss as McGregor was against Mayweather, while conversely he would beat either of them 6–0, 6–0 on the tennis court.

There are, of course, numerous examples of people who have excelled at more than one sport, though this is rarer now in these days of more intense specialization. But the point surely is that to match the best in any sport you have to serve an apprenticeship. Conor McGregor might have had a chance to beat Mayweather (though it would still be unlikely) if he had fought several times under boxing’s Queensberry rules. But, of course, he might have lost any of these fights, and even if he hadn’t, the Mayweather fight might have been less of a media affair and therefore a lot less lucrative. As it is, he has made a fortune by engaging in a fight that no reasonable person thought he had much chance of winning. So he can laugh all the way to the bank—as, of course, can Mayweather.

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