Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
Fights that don’t make a lot of sense are still proposed on a regular basis. Since the Ultimate Fighting Championship began encouraging its fighters to be their own matchmakers, practically every show some fighter will issue a challenge for a fight that has little to no chance of being made. They will challenge opponents that are injured or that have a fight booked already or that are way out of their league in terms of resume and star power.
It isn’t as if these sorts of fights exist only in hypotheticals, either. Sometimes these completely nonsensical fights get made. In the past month, the UFC scratched a compelling bout between Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Valentina Shevchenko for the women’s flyweight title in favor of Shevchenko-Sijara Eubanks. The reason in theory for the move was to make the Madison Square Garden card more marketable, when of course the new bout didn’t accomplish that goal in the slightest. When fan reaction bore this out, the UFC sensibly axed the new fight and went back to the original Jedrzejczyk-Shevchenko contest.
With so many MMA organizations, fighters and shows, it’s understandable that strange fights are going to come up on a regular basis. Still, even in that atmosphere, it’s bizarre that in the last week the biggest mainstream MMA story has been a theoretical boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and Khabib Nurmagomedov. Mayweather continues to discuss the fight publicly, and Nurmagomedov has indicated interest, as well. UFC President Dana White felt the need to shoot down the idea publicly rather than just ignoring the subject. It’s a remarkable level of discussion about a completely baffling fight.
When Conor McGregor agreed to box Mayweather, there was little reason to believe the fight itself would be particularly competitive. However, there was ample reason to believe it would be a box-office bonanza. It was MMA’s biggest star against boxing’s biggest star, the most popular figure in one sport against the greatest villain in another. It was not only a major spectacle, but fans tuned in hoping that maybe McGregor’s power could help him pull off a colossal upset against the aging boxing legend.
Mayweather-Nurmagomedov superficially seems a lot like Mayweather-McGregor, which is likely why Mayweather is thinking about running that first fight back. However, the two fights have more differences than similarities. The dynamics that made Mayweather-McGregor work are for the most part absent in Mayweather-Nurmagomedov. To begin with, the novelty factor is gone. A top MMA star against a top boxing star in a boxing ring hadn’t really happened, certainly not on anything approaching the level of Mayweather-McGregor. There are always diminishing returns when it comes to repeating the same gimmick. The MMA striker McGregor couldn’t get to Mayweather, so now the MMA grappler Nurmagomedov is going to try?
The problem goes deeper than repetition or Nurmagomedov’s likelihood of success. MMA fans knew that McGregor was unlikely to win in the first place. The key was that they hoped that he would and thus watched for the chance that the surprise might come. By contrast, there is no such fan clamoring for Nurmagomedov to pull off the shocker. Nurmagomedov is a respected fighter but not a beloved one to the North American audience like McGregor. Nurmagomedov is a growing fan favorite in Russia and that part of the world, but that isn’t where most pay-per-view buys come from.
Mayweather’s biggest fights have consistently come against beloved figures. Oscar De La Hoya, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Manny Pacquiao had massive fan followings. Mayweather is different than most combat sports superstars in that he needs a good opponent more because he is the villain. Fans largely watch fighters like McGregor, Chuck Liddell or Georges St. Pierre because they want to see them win. A bigger opponent is more marketable, but there is still a hook just to seeing them perform and expecting them to get the feel-good win.
Mayweather, by contrast, gets fans to watch hoping he will lose. If fans don’t have an emotional investment in that opponent, the bottom can fall out. That’s what happened against Andre Berto in what was billed as Mayweather’s retirement fight. With beloved fighters, a retirement fight can draw very well even without an impressive opponent because fans want to celebrate their hero one last time. That’s not the dynamic with Mayweather, and that’s the problem with Mayweather-Nurmagomedov.
Mayweather-Nurmagomedov would be a contest where few watching would think the underdog could win and not that many would be excited if he did. That’s a bad combination. Putting aside the question of who is right and wrong in the extended rivalry between McGregor and Nurmagomedov, it’s not hard to figure out who most fans are behind. A battle of antagonists isn’t what you’re typically looking for on pay-per-view.
Beyond Nurmagomedov-Mayweather not being nearly the attraction that the two fighters seem to think it would be, there’s also the question of opportunity cost. Mayweather has been discussing a second fight with Pacquiao that would bring him a lot more money than a fight with Nurmagomedov. It’s a riskier fight than Nurmagomedov to be sure, but it’s still an opponent he beat once before. Nurmagomedov, meanwhile, could be building on the momentum from his win over McGregor in the UFC. Losing a flat boxing match with Mayweather isn’t the best of follow-ups.
It remains to be seen how long discussions about a prospective Mayweather-Nurmagomedov bout linger. With Nurmagomedov facing a potential suspension and the tensions between his camp and the UFC not entirely resolved, it could be a point of conversation for some time to come. Whether the idea fades quickly or it has some staying power as a talking point, the parties involved would be better off recognizing sooner rather than later the folly of it all.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.