Both fighters have flung racially tinged barbs at each other — McGregor told Mayweather to “dance for me, boy” and said he himself was half black “from the bellybutton down”; Mayweather said he was fighting “for all the blacks around the world.”
The racial animosity cuts deeper than a few comments.
Mayweather had spent more than a decade embracing his status as the undisputed king of fight sports villainy: brash, derogatory and eager to flaunt his money, while trying to brush aside a record of domestic violence convictions.
Then along came McGregor, a mixed martial artist from Ireland, who used a boldness that rivaled Mayweather’s to reach the peak of stardom in the fast-growing Ultimate Fighting Championship universe, in which fighters use their fists and feet and can wrestle opponents down. Even though the two men competed in different sports, they became fast rivals.
Now, as they prepare to fight, McGregor is claiming most of the fan support, while Mayweather is asking a pointed question: Is there a racial double standard?
“He’s arrogant, he’s cocky, he’s this, he’s that, he’s unappreciative,” Mayweather told reporters of how his antics have been received, while McGregor has exhibited similar behavior “and they praise him for it.”
To some, the very fact that McGregor has an opportunity to make nine figures in his first professional boxing match speaks to a racial double standard.
Mayweather, 40, has compiled a 49-0 record since his professional debut in 1996. Although McGregor, 29, has proved to be a devastating striker en route to a 21-3 mark in mixed martial arts, this will be his first professional boxing match.
Holmes, the defending champion and the victor in the 1982 fight, drew a comparison to the $10 million purses that he and Cooney — each undefeated entering their bout — received when they met in the ring.
“If it wasn’t for the white guy that I was fighting, we wouldn’t have gotten $10 million,” Holmes said. “If I would have fought five brothers, we wouldn’t have got that much money.”
McGregor’s earnings might have come down to his marketability.
“McGregor is in many ways a cheap imitation of Floyd’s ‘Money Mayweather’ persona,” Todd Boyd, a professor who studies race and pop culture at the University of Southern California, wrote in an email. “But McGregor is white, he’s younger, and his clowning comes with an Irish accent. All of this seems to have endeared him to some in the media and many fans as well. McGregor is being celebrated for the same things that Floyd has been denigrated for.”
But one important difference between Mayweather and McGregor, Boyd noted, is that Mayweather has been in serious trouble with the law related to domestic violence and has served jail time. And even though the crowds at promotional events have leaned heavily in McGregor’s favor, Mayweather has welcomed — and made plenty of money from — people who cheer against him.
So it is difficult to quantify how much of the support for McGregor is from people who like him as opposed to those who just want to see Mayweather lose.
McGregor said he did not believe that there was a double standard in how he was treated compared with Mayweather, and he noted that he had his fair share of detractors.
McGregor has been criticized for some of his racial remarks during the promotion of the fight. He gyrated on stage during a promotional event, calling it “a little present for my beautiful, black female fans.” In an interview on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” McGregor seemed to refer to black boxers in a scene from “Rocky III” as “dancing monkeys.”
McGregor insisted that he was not making race an issue in this fight.
“I’m not saying that there are not people on both sides that have this mind-set where it’s black versus white, and this type of thing,” he said. “But it’s certainly something I do not condone. I’m disappointed to hear the way sometimes it’s been portrayed. But I suppose it’s just the nature of the game, with the way things are going on in the world at the moment.”
His comments came before white nationalists’ protests over the planned removal of a Confederate statue led to violence in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12 and subsequent disputes across the country.
Regardless, racial friction has frequently been embedded in boxing, and sometimes used to make money.
The first major race war inside a boxing ring in the United States came when James Jeffries was coaxed out of retirement in 1910 to fight Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, in an unsuccessful effort to reclaim the title for the white race, as many white Americans, including Jeffries, framed it. The fight gave birth to the term “the Great White Hope.”
Subsequent years brought a series of matchups driven by race and ethnicity — Mexican-Puerto Rican, Mexican-black, black-white. And promoters have been unapologetic.
Using race in a promotion made sense, King said, because it was tapping into society’s true feelings. He was not promoting or causing hate, he said, but was rather revealing the racism that had always been there. For instance, King recalled that before the Holmes-Cooney fight, which Holmes won, an older white woman had approached Cooney and said, “Do it for us, Gerry.”
King added: “If you’ve got a white man that they figure has the opportunity to win, you sell what’s deeply ingrained into the psyche of my fellow Americans. You sell them on their false beliefs, and therefore, it’s not false to them. It’s reality to them. It ain’t perpetuating hate. The hate’s already there.”
Stephen Espinoza, the general manager of Showtime Sports, which is broadcasting the Mayweather-McGregor bout, said the fight was primarily about two athletes at the top of their disciplines proving who was best, but he acknowledged that such events were often seen through the trends of the time.
“The interesting thing to me personally about boxing is it’s always been a mirror of society,” Espinoza said. “The sport has always been reflective of everything from U.S. immigration trends to socioeconomic and demographic trends.”
The diversity of boxing has been reflected in Showtime’s audience. The network said its boxing telecasts attract a viewership that is, on average, 35 percent black and 30 percent Hispanic.
The U.F.C., on the other hand, tends to attract a whiter audience, in both viewership and attendance at matches.
For the Mayweather-McGregor meeting, the combined disciplines may attract a more diverse audience, though as a boxing match, it may have to pull more of the weight in any effort to unify racial and ethnic groups.
“Ultimately, when you get these disparate groups that end up enthusiastically rooting, you get sometimes a combustible environment,” Mr. Espinoza said. “Generally, these are national and ethnic rivalries, which are confined to the sport. One of the things that boxing does well is that it brings together a multicultural, multigenerational audience in a way that can be a bonding experience.”