LAS VEGAS — It’s approaching 2:30 on Sunday morning and Conor McGregor is standing on an elevated stage on top of a DJ booth, looking down at an endless expanse of his adoring fans. The group pushes forward, their bodies mashing against one another. Some stand on couches or tables, climb aboard shoulders or railings, scale pillars and palm trees, just to catch one glimpse. They stretch thousands in all directions. Their phones are held high, camera flashes illuminating the scene, their eyes are all fixated on one man. Their hero, their champion. They hold up giant poster boards of his face and begin to chant olé, olé, olé, like they had been throughout the week. McGregor, surveys the scene, pumps his fist in the sky, puts on his sunglasses, wraps a green, white and orange Ireland flag around his shoulders and stretches his arms out and overhead in triumph.
It’s about four hours after the UFC champ was beaten by Floyd Mayweather—the best boxer of his generation— in a 10th round TKO. If you had missed the fight and just showed up to the after party at the Encore Beach Club, the only clue you’d have that McGregor may have lost that night would be the black-and-blue shiner that he is sporting on his left eye, which is swollen, but only slightly. Besides, it matches the green, blue and beige three-piece paisley suit he is wearing.
He is handed a microphone. His disciples quickly quiet.
“I f—ing love every single one of you,” McGregor says. “Thank you all so much. It didn’t go our way but we’re going to party like it went our way. I hope you all have a good f—ing night.”
Then he retreats to the cordoned VIP section, through the heavily guarded doors behind the stage, and then into the family and close friends even more exclusive VIP section, which is raised above the middle of the dance floor, roped off, the perimeter flanked by mammoth security on all sides. He lounges on an orange, suede couch that wraps around a table. Buckets of ice, carafes of Avion Tequila and multiple bottles of 15-liter Ace of Spades champagne, which sell for about $35,000, fill the table. As he settles into his corner seat, a gold-plated watch peeks out from his sleeve.
Thirty-six hours earlier, McGregor was sitting in the backseat of a car with his agent, Audie Attar, driving from his Las Vegas home to T-Mobile Arena for his pre-fight weigh in on Friday night. He was quiet, subdued, soft-spoken in a way that would be very different from the persona he’d soon display on stage. The two have been together since McGregor began his UFC career, not long after the fighter was collecting 180 euros a week off of welfare. During the 15-minute drive, they reminisced about their journey together, how fun the ascension has been, how far they had come. They reflected on the long road traveled, and the hopefully even longer road ahead.
“Let’s go make history,” McGregor said, as the car pulled up to the arena. “Let’s go shock the world, and then let’s keep building.”
Sure, the final outcome of the fight did not have turn out exactly as he had hoped. But he proved all of his doubters and critics wrong. He showed he could box. He showed his whole shtick isn’t just a gimmick, that, beyond the bravado, there is substance. And, as he surveyed the party going on around him, it’s clear that his ultimate goal was attained. Conor McGregor owned Las Vegas all week. He ascended to a level no UFC fighter ever has. He’s going to pocket over $100 million on the fight—and he believes this just the first step.
“I can’t tell you exactly what’s next,” McGregor said after the fight. “But I know something will be next. Right now I’m in the stage of forever money. I can carry on living my life, carry free and enjoy life.”
Just two miles down the road, Floyd Mayweather is pulling up to his strip club, Girl Collection, in a $4 million red Bugatti, arriving at his own after party. He had been to the club every night before the fight, and entrance tonight cost $500 for general admission and tens of thousands for a table and bottle service. The strip club—or as Mayweather puts it, “Gentleman’s Club”—is one part of his post-fight career plan, along with his burgeoning promotion company, Mayweather Promotions. After the fight ended earlier, Mayweather confirmed and reconfirmed and then reconfirmed again his plans to retire. He said he now will to devote his attention to those other endeavors and that he hopes to find the “next Floyd Mayweather that can sell millions.”
Mayweather’s legacy will always be complex, convoluted, always be difficult to place in boxing history. He clearly is the best fighter of his generation, and arguably the best defensive fighter of all-time. Many would argue that he is one of the top-10 greatest fighters of all time, his name up there with Muhammad Ali, and Sugar Ray Robinson and Sugar Ray Leonard and Joe Louis and Willie Pep—and, yes, Rocky Marciano, the man that Mayweather just surpassed for the most wins (50) in a career without ever suffering a loss.
“Rocky Marciano is a legend,” Mayweather said when asked about the milestone and his legacy. “I had some great fights I had some boring fights, but at the end of the day I’ll be remembered as a winner,”
But it’s more complicated than that. Sitting in his office about a week before the fight, Stephen Espinoza, the head of Showtime Sports and a man who has worked closely with Mayweather over the last decade, tried to put Mayweather’s career in perspective. Espinoza said that he believed the criticism of Floyd’s career is undeserved. Many say that Floyd picked easy opponents, or great fighters at the most opportune time— either when they were a shade too young and ascending, or a shade too old and descending. But the truth is that Mayweather has fought several Hall of Fame boxers in his career. And he has beaten every one of them.
“There’s this strange revisionist history that goes on after he fights,” Espinoza says, referring to how Mayweather selects his opponents. He points out the Canelo Alvarez fight, in 2013. Alvarez, one of the best fighters in the world right now, was considered, heading into the fight, as too big, too strong, too young and that this was going to be the best chance for anyone to beat Mayweather. Then Mayweather won easily, the narrative became, well, Canelo wasn’t ready. He wasn’t good enough yet.
“The problem when you are as skilled defensively as Floyd is, he neutralizes opponents and really doesn’t get credit for what’s done,” Espinoza says. “Boxing fans are uniquely cannibalistic in some ways. They want that blood and guts. Sometimes the fans want to see you bloody and walk through fire to get there. Because of the nature of his personality, the nature of his performance, he doesn’t seem to get the credit he deserves.”
Saturday, Mayweather gave the fans what they had hoped for—at least more so than he had in a decade. He took punishment in the early rounds. He attacked McGregor, charged at him, squared off with him in the middle of the ring, the two fighters traded blows. He was punched, sometimes hard. He did have to walk through the fire—relatively speaking, for a Mayweather bout—to get there. And he did stop a fight before it went 12 rounds, like he had repeatedly promised for months, for the first time since 2011.
“I felt like I owed the fans a last hoorah,” Mayweather said, on the post-fight dais. “I wanted to go out with a bang.”
Those around him say that for the last couple of months he has seemed at peace. That retirement suited him. That he was content never fighting again, and only came back before this fight against McGregor provided him with a unique opportunity, allowed him to put on yet another spectacle never before seen in sports. And, yes, of course there is the payday.
“All of us do foolish things sometime, but I’m not a fool,” Mayweather said. “If I see the opportunity to make $350 million in 36 minutes, why not? I had to do it. This is my last one, you guys have my word. I had a great career.”
If he does in fact stay true to his word, he will retire having very rarely been hit hard, let alone seriously challenged in a fight. But, even after he accomplished all of that, even after proving in the middle and late rounds last night that he was the most calculated boxer ever, able to dissect opponents, break them down, this was still not Floyd Mayweather’s night. This night belonged to Conor McGregor, who would be partying well after Mayweather left his club.
At McGregor’s private table in the VIP section within the VIP section, he is drinking tequila mixed with orange juice. He is sitting beside his girlfriend and six blonde women, all with skintight dresses and ample cleavage. He is surrounded by an ever-growing mass of people. They walk up to the table, one after the other, and reach out to touch McGregor. He gets up to take pictures with every single one of them. Family members come over to kiss him on the cheek, to tell him they love him, that they are proud of him, that he’s the true champion.
“It was a hell of a match,” McGregor says.
He’s asked where his Notorious Irish whiskey is, the five-year aged, hand-crafted, triple-distilled, single-pot spirit, bottled in Ireland, that he plans to release to the public soon. He was enjoying it on stage at his post fight press conference— “Oh that whiskey taste so good. I’m going to take over the Irish whiskey world.”—yet at his table, it is nowhere to be found.
“It’s gone,” he says. “Finished it.”
Throughout the night he takes in excess of 500 pictures, and that is not hyperbole. Fans approach him just about every second, one after the other. They surround him, follow him, as if they are compelled by a gravitational force, as if they are in his orbit. Security tries to move them back away from his table. But McGregor stops them, says that is not necessary. He is soaking in the moment. He hugs them, kisses them. Despite the chaos, there is no danger to McGregor here. The fans just want to be near him. The ones below the elevated stage, in the normal VIP section, reach over the railings, just to touch him. He takes one of the fan’s cell phones, turns around, and takes selfies with them. He takes another cell phone and does the same. Then another.
Then he decides, he might as well walk down to their area and take pictures with them all. Besides, they are his people, and this is his night, and they are all celebrating together. He’s swarmed. He’s hugged. One girl kisses his hand and then pretends — or possibly doesn’t pretend—to faint.
He climbs back to his main table, where he sits with his coach, John Kavanagh, and his striking coach, Owen Roddy. They have their arms wrapped around each other. Roddy has trained McGregor since he first embarked on an MMA career. Kavanagh grew up with McGregor in Crumlin and has been with him not just his whole career but also his entire life.
Three weeks earlier, in a gym in Las Vegas, Kavanagh spoke about how he felt McGregor was being disrespected as a fighter. He said McGregor wouldn’t turn his fight against Mayweather into a street fight, but would instead out-box him. Yes, he knew McGregor’s style would be unique, different than what had ever been seen before in a boxing ring. But he saw that as an evolution for the sport that has been stagnant in its ways for hundreds of years.
“I believe when the boxing community watches this fight, there will be a lot of them changing their training methods Monday morning,” he said then. “I think a lot of boxing is stylistically you have to have a certain [style]. There are certain rules you cannot break. Well, rules are made to be broken.”
While he may not have accomplished that full paradigm shift that they hoped for, McGregor proved that his unorthodox style could be effective. As the three men sit on the couch together, they nod and smile and appear to be content, and yes, still disappointed with what they set out to accomplish and what they managed to.
“It’s bittersweet,” says, Attar, McGregor’s agent. “We didn’t go in there just to do that. Went in there to really win. But we are proud.”
At 4 a.m. the party is still at full capacity, the crowd hasn’t dissipated. McGregor is still taking pictures, still being hugged. He’s smiling and dancing and wearing sunglasses, drink in hand. At 5 a.m. he walks out the doors and heads outside, to the main general admission party, where hundreds upon hundreds of fans are still there. They fill every inch of the outdoor portion of the club, where a ticket for as low as $20 could have granted you admittance. He doesn’t want to just isolate himself with the VIPs, these are the true fans. He is mobbed on all sides, and spends 15 minutes to takes pictures with every one.
Soon he retreats back to his table. The carafes are empty, the bottles dry. The booze has all been finished on the table— despite being restocked regularly. But McGregor still wants another drink. It is procured from elsewhere, and handed to him over his shoulder.
At 5:30 the sun begins to rise in the sky. The lights come on in the club. McGregor is standing now, talking with two friends, talking through his fight with Mayweather round by round. He’s explaining how he felt he won at least the first three rounds, if not the first four. He’s describing how Mayweather first came out looking to box, and how he felt that he had out-boxed him. He’s in a boxing stance dipping and feigning punches, simulating what happened. He notes how Mayweather then changed his strategy and went defensive against the ropes, and McGregor again picked him off. But then Mayweather made his third strategy change—McGregor puts both hands up to his forehead and dips his chin, demonstrating what his opponent did—that was what ultimately changed the fight, turning the tides in Mayweather’s favor.
But McGregor still believes he could have won, if they hadn’t stopped it. He believes he was simply fatigued—or “bolloxed,” as he says they say in Ireland. To the unbiased viewer, that seems unlikely: the referee put a stop to the fight because McGregor looked like he could no longer protect himself, saving the obdurately proud fighter from suffering more punishment. But he believes if he made it back to his corner after the 10th round, he could have gotten a second wind and still had a chance. He wanted to just be able to find out what could happen.
It’s 6 a.m. and the sun is now fully in the sky. There are only about two dozen people left.
“We’re closed,” a security guard says, ushering the last remnants of the party out the door. “You guys literally partied till the music turned off and the sun came out.”
Those last few inside leave as slowly as possible, wandering gradually toward the door. They walk past one security guard, and then turn around to catch one last look at McGregor. He’s still standing on the stage, still dissecting the fight, still throwing punches. The club may be closed, the floor may be empty, but McGregor remains. He doesn’t appear to be in a rush to leave.
Maybe Conor McGregor will never have another night quite like this one. It would be hard to top. Or maybe he will. No one expected him to make it this far, to surprise so many. He wasn’t supposed to be here. But he is here. And he doesn’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon.