Mayweather and McGregor — and the BIG3 — win big in Las Vegas
Boxing, basketball, big money — and Cardi B was there, too
LAS VEGAS — The energy is unavoidable. You sense it even when boarding your flight. And you surely feel it when the pilot announces over the plane’s intercom, “Welcome To Las Vegas.” Affectionately and historically dubbed “Sin City,” Las Vegas — in particular, a belt of themed resort casinos, dive bars and restaurants known as the Strip — has an energy unlike any other city. Not Miami, not New Orleans, not New York or Atlanta, but Vegas remains an adult utopia with a seemingly never-ending supply of vices. “Cigarettes, cigars, liquor, money and sex,” says one visitor to the Strip. He’s eagerly sipping from a Fat Tuesday beverage container. “If I get three of the five, it’s a great trip! If I get all five, that’s how you do Vegas, baby!”
On the weekend of Aug. 25, Vegas’ usual energy — the rush of high stakes both inside and outside of casinos — is amplified. The Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor cash grab had all the makings of a Sin City extravaganza. Bright signs smother the airport and are tattooed on taxis, on billboards and on trucks rolling up and down Las Vegas Boulevard. Vendors are, in effect, makeshift Money Team street teams, pushing hard everything from T-shirts to posters to key chains. Las Vegas is the unrivaled epicenter of the boxing universe. Riddick Bowe vs. Evander Holyfield (and the parachute guy) happened in 1993. Oliver McCall openly cried in the ring fighting Lennox Lewis in 1997. And Mike Tyson destroyed Bruce Seldon in less than two minutes in 1996 — rapper Tupac Shakur was of course mortally wounded in a drive-by shooting after the fight.
Mayweather Jr., Las Vegas’ favorite financial son, collected on another nine-figure payday — he of course won the Saturday night fight in a 10th-round technical TKO. The two mega egos, with their elixir of talent, controversy, star power and a promotional world tour that oftentimes boiled over into racial, anti-gay and misogynistic overtones, sold the fight. But at what cost to themselves and to a sport on the hunt to return to national prominence but never fashioned as the choirboy of American sports?
Yet for all the discussions running up to the fight about why supporting what was dubbed, among other things, the “battle of the brands” was bad for boxing and bad for morality purposes, little if any of the talk about domestic violence and race-baiting crept onto the casino floors. In Vegas it was 100-plus degrees, yet the streets were awash in shirts and caps on men, women and children: TBE, “The Best Ever,” and TMT, “The Money Team,” in support of Mayweather. And McGregor’s contingent roved the streets draped in the flag of Ireland, as well as overly cocky but well-played “49-1” T-shirts.
Big-time Vegas fights have always been a gathering space for the movers and shakers of Hollywood, sports and organized crime. Legends are made. Icons are immortalized. But even this weekend felt different.
Saturday morning in a Vegas casino is a zombieland. On Aug. 26, as on other weekend mornings, patrons stumble into elevator bays. Eyes crossed, shirts halfway tucked in. Alcohol, marijuana and sex are any given elevator’s aroma. At the tables and by the slots, cigarettes are chain-smoked and liquor is never-ending.
But step outside the air conditioning and buffets and there’s a festive energy around the Aria, the MGM, Cosmopolitan, Luxor and any other hotel on or near the Strip. Floyd fanatics seem to be outnumbered by McGregor maniacs but don’t seem bothered by the influx of men and women of Irish descent (or just fans of Irish culture) invading the city in hopes of McGregor pulling off one of biggest upsets (if not the biggest) in sports history. If it looked like Mayweather’s fans are black and McGregor’s are white, that wouldn’t be off the mark. The lines of allegiance were largely, unsurprisingly drawn by the competitor who looked most like them. Nothing in boxing sells quite like race.
But the fight is not the only sporting event popping off in Vegas. The culmination of Ice Cube’s inaugural BIG3 season assumed the role of #MayMac’s early undercard — and the undefeated Trilogy hit the jackpot. The festivities took place at the MGM Grand Garden Arena — roughly a 15-minute walk from the T-Mobile Arena. Cedric the Entertainer and 50 Cent made appearances, and folks swarmed them with cameras. The place was a fashion show — Yeezys, Jordans, Louis Vuitton and Gucci cuff bracelets, golf outfits, sky-high wedge heels, bright headscarves, shoulder-grazing hoop earrings — and the rawest throwback jerseys imaginable. There was the Los Angeles Lakers’ James Worthy, the Philadelphia 76ers’ Allen Iverson and, by far the winner of the entire weekend, a Charlotte Hornets Master P jersey.
There’s a certain novelty factor that goes into Cube’s creation. Retired hoopers, most of whom are household names to the true NBA fan, are out there playing hard, jawing at each other. But there’s beautiful in seeing names like Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Al Harrington, Mike Bibby and more take the floor once more.
Between the semifinals and the final game, a 4-point shot contest takes place. Fans flocked to the half-court with the dream of earning $500 — cash. The shooters gave it all they had, some even in dress shirts and hard shoes, but when the league’s face, Iverson (weeks removed from a suspension for missing a game) emerged, the energy of the room changed. Hair braided, rocking Detroit Tigers fitted, fans flock toward him for selfies and autographs. Iverson seemed a bit checked out — perhaps from a night of partying the night before at Drai’s with folks such as Meek Mill, Chance the Rapper, 50 Cent, Draymond Green, Paul George, James Harden and more.
Yet if Iverson had any competition for most-in-demand famous person on the Big3’s big day, it was Cardi B, who was the queen of the entire weekend. Fresh off performing song of the summer “Bodak Yellow” at the Mayweather-McGregor weigh-in, Cardi was halftime performer of the BIG3’s title game. With the famed Jabbawockeez dance crew riding shotgun, Cardi captivated the crowd. Considering Cardi’s tour of Vegas events, and her rumored engagement to Offset of Migos, no one in Vegas had more of a flagship weekend than the new hip-hop and pop star Cardi B — except Mayweather.
By Saturday afternoon, anticipation of the fight is feverish. The energy in the casinos is ramped up. It’s 103 degrees, and McGregor fans take to The Strip with the Irish flag in tow. The music blasting from cars fits the vibe: 21 Savage’s “Bank Account,” Cardi B’s aforementioned banger and a never-ending loop of Drake, Future, Young Thug and Kendrick Lamar.
Marijuana smoke blends with cigar smoke. Red cups are in the hands of men and women for as far as the eye can see. While the fight has been billed as a circus act that no one wants to watch, the streets of Vegas are a different collage. The allure of history — all kinds of it — is too much of a pull. There’s Mayweather — as polarizing, and yet as dominant, an athlete as has ever been seen — with the possibility of ending his career 50-0. There’s McGregor, the face of mixed martial arts, but who also became the bigger heel in the weeks leading up to the fight with unabashed race-baiting. Would it even be a fight? Would the race factor be enough to sustain interest for 12 rounds, presuming McGregor could make it that far? How long would it take before McGregor, even on instinct, reverted to his kicking MMA ways? Or could he actually pull off the equivalent to the impossible in sports and remove the goose egg from Mayweather’s loss column?
“So what do you think is going to happen?” This from a gentleman who flew all the way from Florida for the fight.
“If nothing else,” I say, “the first few rounds should be entertaining as hell.”
It wasn’t about betting who was going to win. It’s about betting how long the fight will last. Up to $80 million was bet on the fight, making it the most wagered-upon event in the sports history. Two $1 million bets were placed on Mayweather on Thursday — one more $1 million bet than got placed on this year’s Atlanta Falcons-New England Patriots Super Bowl. That’s the allure of Mayweather — he’s a walking check. The safest bet in sports even if he’s one of the most hotly debated topics.
“That’s where the money is,” dude tells me. “I’ve got it going 9.5 rounds. No way Conor lasts longer than that.”
Inside T-Mobile, the energy is loud. Tight security. Pink’s Hot Dogs. Shake Shack. Maybe not an official sold-out crowd, but very nearly, and jam-packed. With the undercards out of the way (one fight in particular was kind of grimy) the main event had arrived, albeit with a delay.
McGregor’s image on the JumboTron elicited an overwhelming wave of positive cheers. The roar definitely made it seem like there were more McGregor fans in the building. Chants of “Olé, Olé, Olé” erupted throughout the evening, at times making a boxing match feel more like a soccer match. Mayweather’s image in the ski mask elicited a mixed reaction. Face it, dude can be hard to cheer for — personally or professionally.
On his own home turf (Mayweather has lived in Las Vegas since the ’90s), Floyd was stepping into a tiger’s den. It felt more like Dublin than the Strip — very similar to the 2007 fight when Mayweather decimated Ricky Hatton and throngs of English fans invaded Vegas, making the MGM Grand feel like an away game for Mayweather. But would Mayweather let the hysteria affect him in front a who’s-who of A-listers such as LeBron James and his wife, Savannah? Sean “Diddy” Combs, as well as his ex Jennifer Lopez and her beau, Alex Rodriguez? James Harden, Travis Scott, Quavo of Migos, actor Don Cheadle — all of them and more were seated in the lower bowl.
But even so, an undeniable racial tension hovered within the arena. It’s the United States, it’s boxing, and everyone seemed to understand the factors at play. Whether either two admitted the mood at play, it was more than apparent. McGregor’s entrance and the subsequent crowd reaction lifted him to the ring as The Notorious B.I.G.’s 1997 “Mo Money, Mo’ Problems” (featuring, of course, the aforementioned Combs) served as the back end of his soundtrack. Meanwhile, Mayweather’s entrance in a mask — F— a fair one I get mines the fast way / The ski mask way — was poetic in its own right of his impending payday, and perhaps a nod to his partner in crime, 50 Cent, and Biggie Smalls. The actual walk-up music though was Meek Mill’s 2011 hit “I’ma Boss,” which features the lines At the fight, we watchin’ Floyd/ We on the floor.
The 10th-round TKO came as no shock. Mayweather defeated a man making his professional boxing debut — and a man obsessed with repeatedly punching him in the back of the head. But the overwhelming mood as people exited the arena was one of true enjoyment. Mayweather’s fights, in recent memory, have lacked the awe factor of an all-time great talent. His long-awaited showdown against Manny Pacquiao failed to live up to the hype. And his 49th victory against Andre Berto was a glorified sparring session.
Mayweather’s willingness to charge McGregor shocked an entire arena, but as the rounds passed by and McGregor’s legs began to resemble wet noodles, Mayweather — and, more importantly, the Mayweather contingent — tasted blood. The crowd rose to its feet to witness McGregor’s last stand and what could and should be the final blows of Mayweather’s future Hall of Fame career. And then the fight, more engaging and entertaining than most anyone expected, was over.
“We gave the fans what they wanted to see. I owed them for the Pacquiao fight,” Mayweather said afterward. “I had to come straight ahead and give the fans a show.”
Jubilation spilled over into the Strip and the surrounding casinos. Blackjack tables were flooded with high rollers and wannabe high rollers. Craps tables featured more of the same. Waitresses whipped around trays of drinks as chips were won and lost at even faster speeds. This was Vegas at work. Hours after the fight, a group of Mayweather fans were still celebrating the victory, and taking particular enjoyment in trolling a group of McGregor fans.
“Might as well take that s— back across the pond,” one said, referring to the “49-1” shirt.
“That s— might as well be toilet paper!” his lady friend shouted. “All it’s good for is wiping your a– with now!”
The Mayweather fans walked away laughing and smoking cigars and kept the party going as they disappeared into the lights, sounds and vices of the Strip. The McGregor fans couldn’t do much except drink, and walk away.
James, a valet at the Aria Resort & Casino, has been a Vegas local for 17 years. It’s home. And so he has some advice. “On big fight nights, just watch your back,” he says sternly, yet warmly. “I’ve seen a lot of things. Be careful.”
It happened almost 21 years ago, but Tupac Shakur’s unsolved Las Vegas murder in Las Vegas remains an unhealed wound in the city. ‘Pac is on countless T-shirts in Las Vegas during Mayweather-McGregor weekend. His music still blasts from cars. Light heavyweight Badou Jack, who beat Nathan Cleverly and sent him into retirement Saturday night, walked to the ring to Shakur’s 1996 classic “Ambitionz As A Ridah.”
The corner of Koval Lane and Flamingo Road looks just like any other bland and busy intersection in any other American city. Just seconds from the Las Vegas Strip, it’s the rap equivalent to the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. spent his final moments. Even on a blazing hot 10 in the morning, energy at the intersection is eerie. An invisible bloody history stains the pavement.
Rap’s greatest ball of energy — symbolically, its clenched fist and face full of tears — was physically extinguished here. The shooting took place just hours after Tyson-Seldon. You envision Tupac and Suge Knight pulling up to the stoplight. You see an assailant’s arm extend from a vehicle. You hear the shots. You see Tupac’s body jolt as bullets shatter his chest. You see the getaway car drive into the Vegas night and into a mystery that will likely never be officially solved.
It’s then you realize Vegas is so much more than a geographical fling. It’s so much more than the sex, the drugs and the gambling, the high-end malls and celebrity chef restaurants. Vegas is much more than its nickname. It’s home to many. It’s history to more. Vegas is a crater of sport and culture.
Hopefully, Mayweather’s career is done. Unfortunately, Tupac never recognized the totality of his. It’s the story of the weekend in Las Vegas. Even when you win, there’s always something else to lose.