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The Mayweather vs. McGregor bout is much bigger than boxing

In Oakland, California, the showdown has sparked stark emotions outside of the ring

Who do you like? Mayweather or McGregor?

A recent visit to two vastly different gyms in Oakland, California, revealed a range of stark emotions and hardened viewpoints, from Floyd is crafty/arrogant/unbeatable to Conor is out of his depth/brash/stands an underdog’s chance. By and large, the rooting for either fighter did not seem to turn on race. Opinions revolved more around skill and experience in the ring and behavior out of the ring, boxing vs. MMA, experience vs. youth. Some interviewed acknowledged the hovering presence of race in the promotion of the fight but mostly dismissed that as a seedy aspect of boxing’s culture of hype.

There’s no shortage of opinions at King’s Gym, located on a side street in Oakland’s hardscrabble, industrial neighborhood of Fruitvale. Inside an old garage, the spartan gym is alive with the sounds of heavy bags being pounded and speed bags being peppered by a half-dozen amateur fighters. Young boys, men and women — black, white and Latino — all furiously break a sweat and wait their turn to spar in a 20-foot ring in the back of the gym.

“McGregor is not a boxer, he’s MMA,” said Gilbert Jackson, 47, a native of Ghana who once fought for the British junior middleweight belt. “No disrespect, but when it comes to the art of the ‘Sweet Science,’ it’s not his game.”

To Jackson, who fought professionally for a dozen years, the fight between McGregor and Mayweather isn’t so much about what happens in the ring on the night of the fight but what is going on outside it.

“This is not about Mayweather showing how to fight, but showing his business mind and his promotional mind. McGregor is just a picking to make money — and that’s what the game is about. McGregor don’t know s—, but he can help Floyd sell s—.”

Jackson said he’d prefer that the 40-year-old Mayweather risk his undefeated record against an opponent who would be a genuine threat, such as Errol Spence Jr., Terence Crawford or middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin.

“But that’s the smartest part of all of this — not to fight any of them,” Jackson added. “This is not a dumb man making a dumb move. This is a smart man making a smart move.”

Jackson sits on a training table inside the gym, one of boxing’s vanishing temples. The walls are plastered with old fight posters and photos of the icons of the sport: Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Mayweather himself.

There’s a large banner hanging over the ring saluting the Olympic gold medal of unbeaten light heavyweight champion Andre Ward, who once toiled here.

In a far corner of the gym, near the speed bags, there’s a poster advertising a local closed-circuit showing of Muhammad Ali’s mixed martial arts fight in 1976 with wrestler Antonio Inoki — the bout that spawned the modern MMA. One day, no doubt, a poster from the Mayweather-McGregor bout will be memorialized on the walls of gyms around the world, but how will it be remembered?

The Mayweather-McGregor promotional tour certainly had racial overtones, but Jackson wasn’t bothered, he said, because race has always been a backdrop of fight salesmanship.

“That’s the truth, and it’s always been a part of the game,” said Jackson. “It’s always been the truth, and McGregor is using it to help sell the fight.”

Jackson’s 20-year-old nephew, Mike Mintah, also of Ghana, thinks McGregor has a shot.

“He’s got a deadly right hand,” said Mintah, who is just nine months into his amateur career. “All it takes is one punch, and he’s gonna find it.”

Tanner Norton, a tall, 27-year-old white amateur middleweight, said he’s rooting for McGregor because he likes the brash UFC fighter’s crowd-pleasing style.

“I pick McGregor,” said Norton, “because he’s young; I think that’s gonna be a big factor. He’s going to go for kill shots. I think McGregor is gonna be coming at him constantly with heavy blows.”

In a side office, Chuck King, the 70-year-old owner of the gym, reclines in a swivel back wooden chair. He said he admires Mayweather but thinks the fighter is tarnishing his legacy.

“He should fight somebody, a real fighter,” said King. “This guy [McGregor] is not a fighter. I’d rather see [Mayweather] do something else. You never know what will happen. [McGregor] might kick him. I’d hate to see Mayweather get embarrassed. I’d love to see Floyd just take it to him. Why take the risk?”

A few miles and a couple of decades away from the spartan confines of King’s Gym in Fruitvale is Tapout Fitness, a modern, spacious gymnasium. No fight posters adorn the walls. Instead, floor-length glass windows and mirrors surround the 400 or so members of Tapout. Members pace around the freshly coated polyurethane floor, taking reps on rows of gleaming weightlifting and rowing machines, Cybex and Stairmasters. Flat-screen TVs hang from the walls and pop songs, such as Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” fill the air-conditioned health club.

In the back hang more than a half-dozen heavy punching bags for the daily boxing classes. Eleven amateurs — more than half of them women, some of them housewives or young urban professionals — pound the heavy bags and work on their footwork.

“I don’t like UFC and I don’t like Mayweather,” said Melissa Hernandez, 28, of Oakland. “I can’t go for McGregor, but I hate Mayweather so much.” She said she’s mostly turned off by Mayweather’s boastful persona.

She’s not picking a winner at all and said she hasn’t heard much debate about the bout among her friends.

“It wasn’t as if I was paying any attention,” Hernandez said. “I won’t be watching, no, because I’ll be in Mexico.”

Her classmate Jose Sagon, 28, also of Oakland, argued that the fight is for bragging rights between boxing and MMA fans.

“I want Mayweather because if he loses to MMA, what does boxing have?” Sagon asked. “McGregor is tough, but I think Mayweather will win over 12 rounds. Maybe he’ll win eight rounds to four. But I’ve got more friends who are MMA because of McGregor.”

Sagon believes that there may be a racial element in people’s rooting interests.

“I’m pretty sure there is,” he said, “but I haven’t seen that in my friends.”

Dejah Fortune, a dreadlocked 42-year-old, agrees. He said he favors Mayweather, but not because they are both African-American. He said race, though, is helping to market the fight.

“I have to go with Mayweather because of ring experience and defense,” said Fortune. “Of course, as far as selling the fight and getting people to watch it, it’s nothing new. Boxing has deeper African-American roots. MMA is newer.”

Fortune said he planned to pay the $99 fee to see the fight on cable.

“I welcome any match,” he added. “I have no problem if it’s a mismatch. I’ll watch any fight, whether it’s MMA or boxing. A lot of boxing fans are old-school. They may get a few new fans, but not much else.”

Sid Martin, a tattooed female MMA fighter from San Diego, said the bout is more of a spectacle than a true contest.

“It’s a dog and pony show,” Martin said. “They’re getting paid. Dana White is selling this thing. It’s no different than Lucia Rijker going to Japan to fight a man.”

Martin, who has sparred against both boxers and MMA fighters, speculated about the possibility of a controversial ending to the fight.

“Sure, [McGregor] has a chance,’ said Martin. “I see [McGregor] getting pissed off and kicking him. Mayweather’s going to dance around on his bike, coming out fast. Frustration causes a lot of things to happen.”

She said she doesn’t have a rooting favorite and has been turned off by some of the misogynistic comments made by both fighters during the promotional tour.

“I don’t like McGregor, and I don’t like a wife-beater [Mayweather] either,” said Martin. “If the boys are watching the fight I’ll watch it, but I won’t pay for it.”

Dre Sherill, the owner of Tapout, said rooting interest for the bout is irrelevant. He sees the fight as a cynical money grab by promoters interested in exploiting MMA’s growing fan base.

“I think it’s detrimental for the sport of boxing,” Sherill stated. “I think there’s an opportunity where MMA is being taken advantage of, and especially when we’re talking about the people not really appreciating the form of boxing so much and not having really too much of an interest and looking for something different. I think with MMA, they’re recognizing an opportunity there. But as far as a money grab for Mayweather in particular, I really don’t think it’s worth it.”

Regardless, he added, the visibility of an MMA fighter taking on the biggest name in boxing could boost MMA. “I think if McGregor were to win, there would be a lot more people wanting to come in and do MMA.

For the growing number of MMA fans, how McGregor fares against Mayweather means a lot.

“If McGregor wins, the MMA community rejoices, he’s a legend,” said James Lopez, 38, an assistant manager at Tapout and an MMA fighter. “One of his famous tweets is, ‘Get in, get rich, get out.’ I don’t think he cares. It doesn’t matter what happens here, he’s made it. That’s it.”

Sunni Khalid, an award-winning journalist, lives in Oakland, California. The former foreign correspondent and amateur boxer is currently writing a book on Egypt.