Usain Bolt has won eight gold medals. He’s the reigning world and Olympic champion in the 100, 200 and 4×100 relay. He’s also set world records in all three events.
Michael Phelps has won 23 Olympic golds, the most all time. He’s set world records in five different events.
It’s time to settle this once and for all.
Phelps vs. Bolt in a race to find out who’s the world’s fastest man.
Admit it, the idea got you excited, just for a second, before all the details started popping up.
How are they going to race each other? Regardless of how that question is answered, the result is going to be a mismatch. In the pool, Phelps will be out front. On a track, Bolt will be. In both cases, the other man won’t even be in the camera shot at the finish line.
Perhaps they could come up with some Battle of the Network Stars obstacle course that combines water and track challenges. And maybe a wall climb. And swinging on a rope. Hopefully, both athletes would give that idea all the respect it deserves, as they laugh it out of the room.
No, unfortunately, there is no way to have Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps go head to head. They’ll have to settle with being the undisputed best in their own particular discipline. The fastest man on land. The fastest man in the water.
And yet, the news that Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather Jr. have agreed to a fight was huge mainstream news on Wednesday.
The idea is as exciting as a Bolt-Phelps race. McGregor is the pound-for-pound best fighter in MMA. He was the first fighter to hold the UFC Featherweight and Lightweight titles at the same time. His 13-second knockout of Jose Aldo set a record for fastest title defense in history, and he has more knockout wins than any featherweight in UFC history.
Mayweather is the pound-for-pound best boxer in the world. Undefeated in 49 fights, he’s held world titles at four different weights.
Both fighters are also huge box-office and pay-per-view draws, giving the idea of a showdown between the two a bit more traction than a mythical swimmer vs sprinter race. They also are both vicious trash talkers who have taken aim at one another during the long negotiations to set up this bout.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to construct a legitimate fight to see which champion is the best fighter in the world.
An MMA fight, in a UFC Octagon would result in a quick and ugly win by McGregor. His grappling and kickboxing skills present a challenge that Mayweather has never had to even consider when planning for a fight.
Unconvinced? In 2010, former middleweight and cruiserweight boxing champion James Toney agreed to step into the cage to face former UFC champ Randy Couture in a straight MMA fight. Toney’s punching power, made even more of a threat with the much smaller and less padded MMA gloves, was supposed to even the scales against Couture’s edge in grappling and kicking.
Instead, Toney never even managed to land a punch. Early in the fight, Couture dropped to the mat and snatched Toney’s foot, dropping the boxer to the mat. He never got up, as Couture smothered him and choked him out within minutes.
This time, we’ll see the opposite result. McGregor has agreed to face Mayweather in a straight boxing match.
Floyd Mayweather, the best defensive fighter in boxing history, has dominated the best fighters in the world for the better part of two decades. McGregor, an elite athlete and top MMA fighter, has no classic boxing experience at the pro or amateur levels. He can and will train exhaustively and pick up skills quickly—just as James Toney did. But a few months of extensive work doesn’t make up for a lifetime spent honing the craft at the top level.
McGregor will be hard pressed to land a punch. Mayweather will overwhelm him. The result isn’t in doubt. It doesn’t mean Mayweather is a better fighter, just that he’s in a different world as a boxer.
But McGregor can punch: This is the counterargument most often raised when trying to compare the apples of boxing to the oranges of MMA. McGregor is one of his sport’s best strikers, and his punching power has ended several fights.
It’s not the same. First of all, punching is just one of a dozen skills that an MMA champion must master. It’s one tool on his belt. And McGregor is one of the UFC’s best practitioners of that tool.
Ashton Eaton has won the last two Olympic golds in decathlon. The 100-meter dash is one of the decathlon events. It doesn’t make him a candidate to beat Bolt to the tape.
Furthermore, the other disciplines of MMA make punching in the cage very different than a boxer’s punch. MMA fighters need to simultaneously defend against an opponent shooting for a takedown (like Couture did against Toney), kicking them low, kicking them high and punching them. It’s easy to set up a fight-ending flurry of punches by getting a foe to worry about your kicks.
That’s the strategy McGregor used in his knockout of Chad Mendes, which earned him Performance of the Night honors. He landed a pair of body kicks, which caused Mendes to drop his hands, in order to protect against another one. That left his head open for McGregor’s punching power.
Counter punching: McGregor’s own defense leads to a very different fighting style than a boxer would use. Looking at his knockouts, it’s clear that McGregor tends to keep his hands low, both while looking for an angle to attack—a flaw that can be corrected as he trains for boxing—and more troubling, while actually throwing punches.
Compare how long McGregor’s hands are several feet away from his face, the classic defensive posture in boxing, to the windows that Mayweather—one of boxing’s best counter punchers in a generation—fires punches through.
Punch volume: Mayweather throws fewer punches than most of his contemporaries. That’s because he lands with a much higher accuracy than they do. He prefers to hold back and let his opponents make mistakes, then take advantage with precision counter punching.
Even as a relatively inactive boxer, Mayweather throws—and lands—more punches than McGregor does. According to Compu-Box, the sport’s punch-counting statistical service, Mayweather lands 5.8 punches per minute. According to the UFC’s statistical service, McGregor also lands 5.8 strikes per minute, although that includes kicks (24 percent of his strikes landed against Nate Diaz were leg kicks), punches thrown while in the clinch with an opponent—an illegal punch in boxing (between 9 and 15 percent of his strikes landed are thrown in the clinch) and punches thrown while on the ground, grappling with an opponent—something that also wouldn’t happen in a boxing match (15 percent of his strikes landed against Eddie Alvarez were while on the ground).
Backing out all the strikes that would be illegal against Mayweather, McGregor lands a little over three punches a minute.
Remarkably, McGregor and Mayweather have about the same punch accuracy—47 percent for McGregor and 46 percent for Mayweather. Of course, as we saw while looking at the size of the relative defense windows they’re throwing through, an MMA accuracy rate isn’t quite the same as one in boxing.
It’s avoiding the strikes that shows the real area that Mayweather has the edge. McGregor’s opponents land strikes at a 43 percent accuracy. Mayweather’s foes? 16 percent.
Some of boxing’s best punches, including Ricky Hatton, Juan Manuel Marquez, Diego Corrales, Manny Pacquiao and Arturo Gatti, have had trouble landing punches against Mayweather. It’s tough to imagine a newcomer to the sport having greater success
So why all the fuss? Mayweather and McGregor are big names. The fight has appeal to the public in general. It has to, because, it seems the more someone knows about either sport, the less excited they are about the matchup.
Boxer Chris van Heerden sparred with McGregor and was impressed with his skills. Still, he told the Wall Street Journal, “Brother, I don’t give him any chance.”
People telling me Mayweather will have his hands full trying to land on McGregor -STOP IT! I respect McGregor BUT i ain't Floyd and i landed pic.twitter.com/gd4dFi3XUU
— Chris van Heerden (@TheHeat001) June 14, 2017
Even fellow UFC fighters don’t have McGregor’s back in the boxer vs. MMA debate.
Pro tip: don't get caught up in the debates about how competitive #MayweatherVsMcGregor will be and whatnot. Just enjoy the show.
— Sean O'Connell (@realOCsports) June 14, 2017
If Conor Mcgregor defeats Floyd Mayweather, will it be the greatest upset in Sports History?
49-0 vs 0-0
— Chase Sherman (@ChaseShermanUFC) June 14, 2017
The fight will be quick and ugly and everyone involved will get paid handsomely. It’s click-bait in the ring.
That doesn’t mean that Mayweather is better or badder … just that it’s impossible to compare.