Estimated Reading Time : 6 minutes 32 seconds
Many moons ago, in my mis-spent youth as a tortured Catholic high school student, I had to do a book report on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness for my English class. I was a deplorable student, ranked last in my class, so having to get up in front of everyone to give an oral report on a book I didn't want to read was something that filled me with dread.
Luckily for me I discovered that my favorite movie at the time, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, was loosely based on Conrad's novel. This gave me an in with the book and actually inspired me to read it, which was a big deal for me at the time as I almost never read books. I ended up really loving Heart of Darkness, and was so glad that Apocalypse Now was my rough guide to the book.
As I prepared for my oral report, the newspaper (Unlike books, I did read the newspaper, well…at least the sports section) was filled with stories on the build up to a prizefight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler. I had been a huge boxing fan since I was a little kid, watching fights on Saturday and Sunday when the regular networks would air them. It was a golden age of boxing back then, at least for the lighter weight classes, and as I devoured the fights of some of the greats, Leonard, Hearns, Hagler, Duran, Argeullo, Pryor, Mancini etc., I developed an appreciation not only for the art of boxing, but for it's mythic and archetypal power.
The mythic and archetypal power of boxing was on full display in the Leonard - Hagler match up. Hagler was the undisputed middleweight champion of the world and considered one of the baddest men on the planet. Leonard, the golden boy, was an Olympic gold medal winner and a multiple time welterweight champion and was coming off a three year retirement in part due to an eye injury.
Hagler and Leonard were very different fighters and people. Hagler was an ominous and foreboding, no nonsense fighter with a shaved head and perpetual scowl, whereas Leonard was an athletic, flashy, handsome, charming, and camera friendly fighter who said and did all the right things.
I was a Leonard fan, I loved the way he fought and how he carried himself. To me, Hagler was overrated, having fought in a weak weight class (middleweight) and, unlike Leonard, never having the courage to step out of his comfort zone to find top flight talent in other divisions to fight. I lived in Boston at the time of the fight and Hagler was from Brockton, Mass. so I was surrounded by Hagler fans, and as anyone can tell you, there are no more obnoxious fans than Boston sports fans, and I was mocked continuously for my support of Leonard.
In the lead up to the fight, there were stories in the paper about how awful Leonard looked in his training camp. He looked off, and old and out of shape. He got knocked down repeatedly in sparring sessions and Boston sportswriters openly worried that Hagler may really hurt Leonard, so much so that they worried for his life. I didn't believe those stories, I had a hunch that Leonard was working an angle and was getting into Hagler's mind, but I did find that "his life may be in danger" narrative intriguing. The idea that Ray Leonard was going into the ring to literally (and mythically) fight for his life against this superior, seemingly invincible opponent, one that is symbolic of his psychological shadow, made me think of Heart of Darkness and its protagonist Charles Marlow who goes up the river deep into Africa to face Kurtz, who embodies Marlow's, and mankind's, shadow.
So now that I had not only my favorite movie, Apocalypse Now, but my favorite fighter, Ray Leonard, to draw on for inspiration, I wrote up my book report and prepared for my oral presentation. To me the hook was pretty simple, that the story of Heart of Darkness was not some remote thing to look back upon, but was integral in people's lives today, in the here and now. We are all Marlow/Willard/Leonard who must make the journey up the river or into the ring to face our shadow.
The Leonard - Hagler fight was on a Saturday night, I gave my presentation the following Monday morning. I was beaming because I had been right in my prediction of a Leonard victory, with Sugar Ray winning a "marvelous" 12 round split decision, and my classmates were fuming and pretty angry about it. As I gave my presentation I felt their wrath as they laughed at me and mocked me unmercifully. To be fair, as I said, I was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, so whenever I did anything in school it was expected that people would laugh at me, but still, this time it really stung because I was so invested. As I finished my report I still felt pretty good about what I had written, I thought it was easily the best thing I had ever done, and I was proud of the amount of work I had put into it and the fact that I had the insight to "crack the code" of Heart of Darkness and make it relevant even to the lives of the dopey kids in my class. While my classmates mocked me, I thought my teacher would see my genius, or least be appreciative.
After I finished, my teacher, a middle aged crone of a woman whose name I thankfully cannot remember (my psyche no doubt protecting me), came up and sneered to the entire class that she couldn't believe I brought up "that stupid fight" and how "maybe I should stop watching movies and read a book" for once in my life. I was crestfallen, but as is my nature, I was not made mournful by my teacher's rather mean-spirited criticism, instead I let the rage inside of me grow and pulsate to such a degree that, like my mythical Irish forefather Cuchulainn, I must've been burning a bright fiery red that no cold sea could douse.
The teacher, in all of her academic wisdom, gave me a "D" for my paper, no doubt deciding giving me an "F" may very well result in a life-threatening incident that just wasn't worth the risk. What made me the most angry about this situation was not my grade, or the teacher's insults or my fellow students belittling laughter, what bothered me was that I had written a piece that was actually quite brilliant, if I do say so myself, and well beyond my teacher's limited intellect and mind. She thought I was a moron, and maybe rightfully so, but the truth was that she didn't understand my report not because I was a fool but because I was speaking in a language, that of myth and archetype, of which she was illiterate. Despite a "D" being vengefully written in red ink on my paper, if I had the sense to have kept it, it would be something that I am sure I would be proud to this day.
You may be asking yourself, "what the hell does your 'stupid' book report and the Leonard -Hagler fight have to do with anything?" Great question. What it has to do with is that this Saturday night Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor square off in a boxing match in Las Vegas, and the build up to this fight has reminded me of that time back in 1986 in the lead up to the Leaonard - Hagler fight. While I think Mayweather - McGregor is a cynical money grab, so much so that I, a big fight fan, will not be watching it, preferring to save my hard earned money for the much more worthy Canelo Alvarez - Gennady Golovkin bout next month, that doesn't mean that Saturday night's fight has no mythic value at all, it does, you just have to look really hard for it.
In the fight on Saturday, we have a great fighter, Floyd Mayweather, who is 49-0 as a boxer and is considered one of the best, if not the best, boxer of his era, taking on Conor McGregor, a man who has never boxed professionally and is treated by boxing professionals like the novice that he is. McGregor is an overwhelming underdog, and every boxing expert is picking Mayweather to destroy him, much like Hagler was the big favorite in 1986 and Leonard the afterthought.
McGregor has never boxed before but he is no joke as a fighter, for he has made a name for himself fighting and winning titles in Mixed Martial Arts with the UFC. McGregor is a champion MMA fighter, and if this fight were in an octagon or in the street, Conor would beat the living hell out of Floyd in no time at all, but sadly for McGregor, this fight is in a boxing ring.
All of that said…there is one thing intriguing about this fight. Mayweather is such a heavy favorite, and deservedly so, that the narrative surrounding the fight has a familiar ring to it. There is talk of McGregor being in danger of getting really hurt, of how he has zero chance to win and how this is all a sideshow and Mayweather is unbeatable. Sound familiar? To me, it sounds exactly like the build up to the Leonard - Hagler fight. Although, to be fair, the similarities between Leonard and McGergor are nonexistent, as Leonard was one of the most accomplished boxers of his time before squaring off with Hagler, but the mythic narrative being set up for Mayweather - McGregor is somewhat reminiscent of Leonard - Hagler.
The similarities between Mayweather - McGregor and Hagler - Leonard strain and crumble under closer inspection, but there is another competition that has a mythic narrative around it that is eerily reminiscent of the Mayweather - McGregor fight...the presidential election last November between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
One of the things this fight and the election have in common is that there is no hero, as both the participants, Mayweather and McGregor, are pretty loathsome individuals, just like Hillary and Trump. This is not one of those classic, Ali-Foreman, good vs evil type of stories, so much as it is an evil versus evil story. If the villain from Rocky III, Clubber Lang, and a cross between the villain in Rocky IV Ivan Drago and Rocky V villain Tommy Gunn fought, then this would be its equivalent. The loud mouthed, woman beating, money hungry Mayweather fighting the loud mouthed, untested, money hungry McGregor is not exactly a fight that will pique the archetypal impulse in the collective.
Of course, somewhat like the election with its gender battle, with this fight there is the race factor as Mayweather is Black and McGregor White. But again, while a Black man fighting a White man is usually good for tapping into mankind's uglier instincts, in this case there is no "good guy" to cling to on either side so it is much less compelling as a racial drama then say, the Jack Johnson - Jim Jeffries "Great White Hope" fight in 1910, or even the Larry Holmes - Gerry Cooney "Great White Hope" fight in 1982. As we learned in the Clinton-Trump election, naked appeals to gender, or in the case of this fight, race, just don't cut it when both combatants are so terribly unlikable.
And finally, this fight is similar to the election because one of the participants is a neophyte. McGregor has never boxed professionally just like Donald Trump had never run for elected office prior to running for president. McGregor and Trump's inexperience led experts to conclude that for their opponents, the consensus establishment picks Hillary and Mayweather, victory was inevitable. Well, in Hillary's case her victory certainly was inevitable, until it wasn't.
Every boxing expert I have read, and every person I have talked to, believe Mayweather will win easily. On paper he certainly should have an easy go of it on Saturday. Mayweather is as smooth, skilled and precise a fighter as we have seen in this generation. His technical proficiency is beyond question. He most definitely SHOULD win easily. But as Hillary Clinton learned last November, SHOULD ain't got nothing to do with it.
Conor McGregor has a tiny thing going for him heading into this bout…he is the unknown. No one knows if he can actually box, or if he can even withstand a single round with Mayweather, who it is doubtful has the ability to knock him out, but most certainly does have the ability to carve him up and humiliate him.
McGregor also has one other thing going for him, he has nothing to lose. If he loses this fight, and even if he is embarrassed, he just collects his money, says "hey, I'm not a boxer, but I am rich" and goes back to MMA. Floyd on the other hand, simply cannot lose. If Floyd loses, his ego and self-image are destroyed, his Self is annihilated. Floyd cannot even contemplate losing this fight, it is too great a fear for him to ever touch upon it. In this match-up, much like Hillary in the election, Floyd is the psychologically brittle one, and this is why I think the fight will not go the way the experts think it will.
My years of watching, studying and training in boxing and martial arts tell me that Floyd Mayweather should trounce Conor McGregor…BUT…there is something in the air, the same thing that was in the air on April 6, 1987 when Leonard beat Hagler, and in the air in February of 1990 when Buster Douglas beat Iron Mike Tyson, and when in June of 2016 Brexit stunned the UK and last November when Trump shocked the world. The impossible is now possible, anything can happen, just last year the Cubs won the World Series and the Patriots came back from the largest defect in Super Bowl history (down 25 points in the 3rd quarter) to win the Super Bowl. In our current time, up is down, left is right, Donald J.Trump is president and cats and dogs are living together. Crazy things are happening and I think some crazy things are going to happen Saturday night in Las Vegas (besides the usual crazy things that happen in Las Vegas).
In the turbulent age in which we live, we must expect the unexpected, which is why I think Conor McGregor wins the fight Saturday night. I think that either Conor McGregor knocks Floyd Mayweather out in the most stunning fashion imaginable, or the fight goes all 12 rounds and Mayweather wins on points. But even if Mayweather gets the decision, it will be Conor McGregor who will have "won" the fight just by going the distance.
God knows Conor McGregor is no Ray Leonard, nor is he Charles Marlow or Captain Willard, but just like Floyd Mayweather he is going into the heart of darkness Saturday night, and while both men will face their shadows, I think Mayweather, like Hillary Clinton, is psychologically unprepared to come face to face with the deepest and darkest fear that dwells within him. McGregor will overcome his shadow, and Mayweather, and teach us once again that we know nothing, especially those of us who consider ourselves experts.
I know, I know, it's crazy for me to pick the underdog McGregor against such overwhelming odds, but just like Conor McGregor, I have absolutely nothing to lose (except the mortgage payment and maybe getting a "D" on this blog post), which is the exactly why he will win.
UPDATE : I was wrong.
GRADE : D-