Taking on Mayweather, Conor McGregor is a vulgar, flashier “Rocky” for our times

Image: USA Today Sports/Joshua Dahl
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Manny Pacquiao said “there is no way he will be able to land a meaningful punch on Floyd.” Mike Tyson thinks that he will get “killed.” The odds against him have stayed at 5 to 1 since the fight was announced. In his superfight against Floyd Mayweather, the experts say that Conor McGregor has no chance.

You could say McGregor is the new Chuck Wepner.

Wepner was a part-time journeyman boxer from Philadelphia who in 1975 got the chance to be Muhammad Ali’s first fight following the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman. Ali had reclaimed his world heavyweight title in spectacular fashion. Wepner was supposed to be an easy bum to swat aside; the odds were 10 to 1 against him beating Ali, the New York Times reported in 1975 (paywall), and he was paid less than 10% of Ali’s $1.6 million. Ali didn’t take Wepner too seriously. “Wepner ain’t even important to me,” he said (paywall), playing with his daughters in front of a reporter.

Instead of folding on the night of the fight, Wepner stayed with Ali round after round—even knocking him down in the ninth. (He probably had stepped on Ali’s foot, but that’s neither here nor there.) Ali ended up battering him for much of the remainder of the fight and he won on a technical knockout with less than 15 seconds of the 15th round to go.

Wepner was an underdog for his time, when the idea of an also-ran going the distance with the champ was the stuff of dreams. His story inspired the Oscar-winning 1976 classic, Rocky, to which they’re still making Oscar-worthy sequels. (The whole saga came full circle when Wepner had a film made about his life recently.)

In taking on Mayweather, McGregor—a former plumber from Dublin who collected a $235 welfare check the week before his 2013 UFC debut—is a flashy 2017 upgrade of Wepner, the perfect everyman for a time when every man wants to pretend he is a superstar. An underdog for the Instagram era. (He has 16.4 million followers, by the way.)

While the cruelest that Wepner could get (paywall) in February 1975 was, “All I can say is that Ali is a good-looking man, but I’m going to wallop him in the face,” McGregor is a first-class, modern-day shit-talker, unfiltered and uncensored. He is the sort of person to describe his power as deriving from the “confidence that comes from my big ball sack, and I know when I smack you, you’re going down” and, after being accused of racism, replies that he is “half-black from the belly button down.”

McGregor dominates his sport even though he’s only had 10 UFC fights. He made $34 million last year. He drives around in Rolls-Royces and wears $30,000 Gucci mink coats to his press conferences and has epiphanies, as GQ Style was told, inside a Dolce and Gabbana store in New York with a man with a “yacht tan,” leading him to demand even more money from the UFC. He brags about money more than his opponent, whose nickname is ”Money.”

But despite living every moment like he’s the favorite, McGregor plays the role of Rocky in this fight.

He should be used to it. He was an underdog against Jose Aldo, whom he knocked out in 13 seconds. He was an underdog to Nate Diaz, whom he went up two weight classes to meet. (He lost that fight, earning a lot of respect, then became a superstar when he won the rematch the same year.) And he’s in the biggest battle of all now. As he himself said, “No one’s done this shit before, you gotta give me that. No one’s done this. No MMA guy has crossed over like this.”

At least Wepner was a boxer, with a record of 30 wins, nine defeats, and two draws before meeting Ali. McGregor is 0-0, having never had a professional boxing match, against a man who is 49-0. But McGregor is 11 years younger than Mayweather, whereas Wepner was two years older than Ali. That youthful energy could make a world of difference. And as his former sparring partner, Paulie Malignaggi, said, if McGregor is “winning certain moments of the fight, even if he loses in the long run, people will talk more about what Conor did than Floyd winning.” Now that would be a Rocky movie.

One thing that both men shared was a huge sense of self-belief but, as Wepner found out when he faced Ali, the margins are very fine on these sorts of things. On the night of the fight, Wepner bought his wife a “powder-blue negligee” and told her to wear it that evening because she would be sleeping with the heavyweight champion of the world. After the fight, with two shut eyes and a broken nose, Wepner came back to his hotel room to find his wife in her negligee.

“Am I going to Ali’s room,” she said, “or is he coming to mine?”