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The Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor fight is about the green, but also about black and white

The great white hope or great white hype?

In the world of combat sports, anything is possible. Even the Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor superfight, which became a reality on Wednesday. Although separated by sport, with Mayweather the pound-for-pound and pay-per-view king of boxing, and McGregor, the reigning face of the Ultimate Fighting Champion (UFC), the cross-combat sport fight between the two on Aug. 26 in Las Vegas offers what their respective sports cannot: record-breaking revenue, and a “great white hope” that has long eluded championship boxing.

Race is a big part of boxing’s venerable history and the UFC’s meteoric rise. Since 2000, the UFC has skyrocketed from a $2 million to a $4 billion franchise. UFC fight cards involving their two biggest stars, Ronda Rousey and McGregor in particular, net between 1 million and 2 million pay-per-view purchases, topping everybody in the boxing game (except Mayweather). Boxing, on the other hand, has continued to decline.

Once the second-most popular sport in the U.S., boxing in its early days featured a stable of white champions —such as Jack Dempsey and Rocky Marciano — who captured the attention of white men, who then filled stadium seats for fights. With Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, who claimed the title in 1908 and held it for seven years, promoters scrambled to line up a slew of white fighters to reclaim the “world’s greatest title.”

Nearly three decades after Johnson, two bouts between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling intersected with World War II, and the geopolitical and racial dimensions of the fights made them global spectacles that were far bigger than boxing. Beginning in the 1960s, the sport witnessed a virtual disappearance of white superstars, particularly in the celebrated heavyweight division, moving Muhammad Ali to claim, “Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up.”

WBC/WBA welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. works out at the Mayweather Boxing Club on April 14, 2015, in Las Vegas.


The sport’s white fan base was still strong during the golden era of the heavyweight division, and promoters scrambled to pit a white contender opposite Ali’s unapologetic display of blackness to keep their attention. Yet, while Jerry Quarry and George Chuvalo made for dramatic promotions that capitalized on race and the black vs. white binary, Ali always came out on top. Gerry Cooney, the heavyweight division’s last viable great white hope, was knocked out in 1982 by the superior fighter Larry Holmes in a highly anticipated fight shamelessly promoted around race and allegations of “reverse racism.”

The decline of the heavyweight division, and the disappearance of visible white champions in the sport at large, gradually led to the exodus of the white male market from the sport. Today, boxing is widely regarded as a niche sport supported mainly by black, Latino and immigrant fan bases, and its modern stable of superstars – Mayweather, the Filipino icon Manny Pacquiao, Mexico’s Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, and hard-hitting Gennady Gennadyevich Golovkin, aka “GGG” – embody the demographics of the sport’s biggest fan bases.

With no great white American hope in the ring, and no promising contender on the horizon, boxing is still without what it needs to capture the attention of the coveted white male fan base. McGregor, far more the mixed martial artist than boxer, offers what the sport has long fantasized about: a brash, charismatic showman outside of the ring who not only talks a good game, but delivers by way of victories and the brutal knockouts fans crave. Especially the legions of white male fans who have come to adore him and flock to the UFC en masse to see his fights.

Since Dana White assumed leadership of the UFC in 2001, the league became boxing’s greatest competitor. While boxing failed to produce visible white champions, White and the UFC opened the door and actively promoted a diverse range of fighters, prominent among them white fighters, that would eventually become the biggest brands and most familiar faces of the MMA world. McGregor not only follows in their footsteps, but since his rise in 2014, has become the sport’s biggest superstar ever. His pay-per-view numbers shattered previous records, and the McGregor brand has become a household name that transcends the world of combat sports. Certainly, McGregor’s success is largely attributed to his showmanship, fighting style and, most importantly, his ability to back it all up by winning.

However, in a world (of combat sports) where the racial identity of the champion is big business, McGregor’s whiteness has maximized his ability to cash in, and the UFC to reap even greater dividends.

White and McGregor, Mayweather and his de facto promoter Al Haymon – the central figures behind the Mayweather vs. McGregor superfight – are intimately familiar with the specific demographics that follow their respective sports, and understand the salience of race in a showdown that pits boxing’s longtime kingpin with the UFC’s biggest star. For the sport of boxing, the superfight will summon the white male fan base and its enormous dollar back. For probably just one megafight, or if McGregor could pull off a near miracle, present boxing with the larger-than-life white fighter it has not had in decades.

For McGregor, fighting Mayweather offers him an opportunity to make more money than he ever has from a fight in the UFC. Although his November 2016 victory earned him an estimated $12 million, the largest total purse in the sport’s history, the superfight with Mayweather stands to bring McGregor much more than that amount. Mayweather – whose undefeated record (49-0), air of invincibility and brash displays of money and materialism paved the way to blockbuster pay-per-view numbers – is the only opponent in the world who can bring McGregor the enormous paydays he seeks.

With two fighters unified by flamboyance and mouths made for trash talk, but separated by sport and race, a Mayweather vs. McGregor promotion will be epic. More than epic, it will be must-see television. The buildup of the fight will showcase, front and center, two supremely confident and charismatic fighters backed by their legions of adoring fans.

Mayweather has a predominantly black and Latino fan base who not only takes to his otherworldly skills within the ring, but also the larger-than-life persona he has strategically cultivated beyond it. Mayweather fans do not order a Mayweather fight for a knockout, but because they have become smitten with the character, or, in a sport where connecting with a depleting fan base means everything, the caricature. “Money Mayweather” carried himself more like a rap star than a prizefighter, throwing money just as often as he did jabs while promoting a fight.

While McGregor’s whiteness has fueled his success in the UFC, a league predominantly supported by a white male fan base, Mayweather’s representation of blackness has garnered considerable criticism, but attracted millions upon millions of paying spectators. Race has been at the center of their respective climbs within boxing and MMA, and standing between them when they meet inside the ring will be what the world of boxing has long waited for – that elusive hope of greatness to be re-bestowed on the crown of a white champion, and in the minds of the white men they so desperately want back as fans.

The buildup for the Mayweather vs. McGregor superfight offers that hope. On the other hand, the actual fight itself is nothing but hype. For McGregor, it’s a cash grab. On the other hand, for Mayweather, the real opponent is not McGregor but another white fighter — Marciano — who finished his celebrated career at 49-0. Beating McGregor would also mean beating Marciano, and by retiring at a perfect 50-0, Mayweather would at once vanquish boxing’s last great white hope, and the fighting Irishman who carries his sport and the hopes of his white male fan base on his shoulders.

Khaled A. Beydoun is a law professor at the Wayne State School of Law, and a Scholar in Residence at the Harvard Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society’s Initiative for a Representative First Amendment. He is the author of the critically acclaimed book, American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear.