There’s no better place to spend a total solar eclipse in the year 2017 than deep inside the bowels of a casino, where sunlight of any kind is strictly forbidden. In here, you can escape the gawkers and the grazers, the Instagrammers and the sunglass-clad looky-loos. Here, 600 miles due south from the path of totality, they know how to turn a wondrous natural spectacle into the worst of man-made cultural depravity.
You see, these days, there is a brand-new, once-in-a-lifetime, hashtagged experience around every corner—a pay-for-sunglasses eclipse, a pay-per-view fight, a riot. The trick now, in America’s summer of “both sides” and no holds barred, when there’s a carnival barker in your pocket at all times beeping and vibrating and shouting at you, is to stand out from the crowd. Which is why I’m here in Las Vegas in the first place. The planet has shifted focus yet again, you see, from Charlottesville and Donald Trump, to the moon and the sun, to Money and the Notorious One: Mayweather/McGregor—two men, one black and one white, with advanced degrees in Saying Something Viral, fighting.
“This fight really is a creation of social media,” boxing broadcaster Al Bernstein tells me over lunch. “The fight was almost organically created by the fans who wanted it to happen, then it was up to the fighters to say, ‘OK, good idea.’”
Get beyond the animus-inducing confines of an Instagram feed, though—get in close proximity to either Floyd Mayweather Jr. or Conor McGregor—and you will smell the real menace in the air. Not because one of these professional ass-kickers will turn his athleticism in your direction, because even they can blend in with the scenery. No, it’s literally all the rest of the assembled fans and bookies and hangers-on, craven and race-baiting from The Money Team to Camp Conor and the great beyond, who have turned dangerous.
It’s fight week in Vegas, all right: The Irishman is throwing the word “boy” around the champ’s town and there’s no place to hide anymore—just plenty of time to waste, with nothing but money and what’s left of human decency to burn.
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Not long after getting to town, I find myself a taxicab with a driver sporting connections to the sweet science. Ebony, daughter of John “Yahya” McClain—a former cruiserweight and former husband/manager to Laila Ali—stayed in Vegas to drive for Lyft, even after her father gave up the fight game and moved away. Like a lot of people in the sharing economy that’s sprouted up inside Sin City, Ebony is chatty and eager to tell you the story of her small life in a big town. She is very eager indeed to regale me with a name-check of Muhammad Ali, who was larger than life, eyes wide open: “First time I met him, I was about eight,” Ebony says. “He picked me up and said, ‘You sure is a pretty chocolate girl.’” As the 100-degree traffic snarls away on the Strip, she waves a photo of The Greatest in my face—the knowing smile of a defiant legend, a man of principles who would take the head clean off a money-grubber like Mayweather, then make him say his name.
When I ask Ebony what there is to do during the interminable lead-up to Saturday night, she suggests I visit a place called Girl Collection, which sounds like a clothing line for toddlers or a ’90s R&B group or both, but which is actually a new “gentlemen’s club” owned by Mayweather, the winningest boxer of the modern era.
“It’s like a hundred bucks just to get in,” Ebony says, exasperated. So, to pass the time before the opening bell, I decide to order lunch at Mayweather’s strip club instead. Perusing the food menu, I suggest to Ebony that the items on offer might as well be code-names for less savory activities. “Yes, I’ll have the ‘shrimp cocktail,’” I say, jokingly. “Oh, you don’t want that,” Ebony says.
(Dave Schilling for B/R Mag)
This is Mayweather’s lascivious playground, a place his employees tell me the champ’s been frequenting the last two weeks straight. How, you might wonder, can a 40-year-old boxer hang out at a strip club for 14 nights in a row…then plan to win the biggest sporting event of the year? Perhaps that’s how unafraid he is of McGregor’s racist taunts and boxing inexperience. In any case, famous friends and followers will show up here Wednesday to be in the orbit of Money, three nights before the so-called fight of the century, and suddenly staring directly into the sun won’t seem so bad at all.
The bouncer at Girl Collection, however, informs me that Floyd most certainly does not come in here for lunch. Mayweather himself will inform B/R to return to his strip club the next night. “Come by,” he says. “I get to work at nine. I’ll be eating cheeseburgers.”
And so will I. But, right now it’s only Monday, and I’ve gotta wear this damn blood-red wristband of a press credential everywhere I go for the rest of the week, like I’m at Coachella or something, and so everyone—the men sucking on vapes at the arena, Nicole at the front desk of the Signature at MGM Grand—is asking me about this damned fight.
Nicole and I briefly talk about the festivities, still five long days and nights away, but I demur when asked to pick a winner, even though I gambled on McGregor two months ago. Nicole’s nametag tells me her passion is ANIMALS. Does everyone at the hotel have to publicize their passion in this way, I ask? Yes, of course. “If you don’t have anything, they just put your family,” Nicole says. I wonder what happens if a person who doesn’t have a passion is an orphan or hates her family, but I keep this one to me and my wristband. Long sleeves for the rest of the trip, I decide; weather be damned, you don’t bring a suit to a circus for nothing.
A mandate of every new American stadium these days is a staging area for live events. The Staples Center has one—LA Live!—and outside the spaceship that is T-Mobile Arena here, just adjacent to the MGM Grand, splays Toshiba Plaza. Mayweather and McGregor are to be unveiled at Tuesday’s “Grand Arrival” with a brief statement, with five minutes of questions and answers, with photographs. Two guys walking onto a concrete slab, basically, then abruptly walking off it.
Above the stage, held up by a rickety construction of metal, is a banner: Floyd’s head in a black box, Conor’s in a white one, divided by a line.
When Money Mayweather arrives, the faux skyscrapers loom in the background from the New York, New York casino, and a previously tepid crowd bursts into applause, only to be curdled by disgust. The media throng, thirsty for a glimpse, swarm the legendary fighter, who is smaller than on TV at 5 feet and 8 inches tall, which means that no eager people in the audience can see anything grand arriving at all. Mayweather is only larger than life if your eyes linger on his massive diamond rings and the entourage of bulging Hercules figures surrounding him.
“Where is this midget? I don’t even see this midget,” screams a fan behind me in the distressed khakis and splattered shirt of a working painter. He has converted his paint bucket into a stepstool so he can see the strip-club owner who is also the greatest fighter of our time. His slur about the man’s height aside, the painter’s frustration is understandable: Make the people wait through interviews with the largely unknown fighters on the seven-fight undercard, offer little to no entertainment between the brief statements save for some very loud music, then obscure the guest of honor completely. Seems like a raw deal. “Get out of the way,” people shout. “We can’t see! We paid for this.” The event is totally free, but in a way we are paying for this, with our spare time.
To kill the hour before the next Grand Arrival, the predominantly white pro-McGregor contingent takes to chanting: “We want Con-or! We want CON-or!” Irish flags flap in the stiff desert breeze. Dewey, a middle-aged man from Dublin, has made the trip to Vegas to witness the two biggest stars in all of combat sports collide, and to support his hometown boy.
What is it, I ask, that the people like so much about this race-baiting 29-year-old who has never boxed professionally in his life?
“He’s a man of the people,” says the Irishman in Las Vegas.
Conor McGregor earned an estimated $27 million for two fights last year. He is said to be making $100 million for, presumably, getting his ass kicked here at the depths of our culture’s race to the bottom, as Saturday turns into Sunday and this hashtag turns over to the next. Around 20 members of Team Conor follow him around the circular looky-loo encampment, and Dewey swears, in his thick Irish brogue, that followers of the Notorious One are not in here for blood. “We wanted to see Floyd, too, but we didn’t get to see him. We’ve been standing here for two hours.”
Then, out strides McGregor, in a three-piece suit and aviators, to the strains of Notorious B.I.G’s “Hypnotize.” The crowd, regardless of their affiliation, lets loose with a thunderous roar. Unlike Mayweather, who was submerged into the abyss, not to be seen or heard from until the next press conference, McGregor takes a hard left turn on his way to the stage, shaking hands and making a point to single out the guy with an Irish flag. “See?!” Dewey yells from across the barricade, in his thick Irish brogue. “A man of the people!”
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On the ride back to the casino from the Grand Arrival, which I will now refer to as the Not-So-Grand Departure, my cab driver is a 50-year-old black man named Michael. “Using that ‘boy’ thing, man, that’s a no-go,” says Michael. “Then the ‘dance for me’ and all this other crap, I don’t know.”
I ask Michael if he thinks McGregor is actually racist or if he’s been race-baiting Mayweather all summer for the attention of his predominantly white pro-McGregor contingent. “That’s the thing,” Michael says. “I don’t know. It’s kinda hard to say, man.”
Dave Schilling @dave_schilling
“This is Bruce Lee shit.” https://t.co/hRWlRyfWTE
McGregor is noxious, all right—at that next press conference, which is of course The Final Press Conference, he will pose for a photo and call it “Bruce Lee shit”—but he is, in a sense, a more authentic Trump: wealthy, cocky, abrasive and prone to spew offensive bile about “history and heritage” without self-evident consequence. Except, well, McGregor was actually poor before finding his calling. So, he’s a semi-legitimate hero to the marginalized, the blue collars among us, the perfect symbol for white, angry fans of combat. It doesn’t matter if it’s fully genuine. You see, these days our celebrities need only know the right buttons to push, to fan the flames of our feeds and up the stakes at the sportsbook. That’s why boxing and “ultimate” fighting have settled here inside Las Vegas, as pillars of the city right next to gambling, alcohol and sex.
On social media, the Final Press Conference, which is actually the second-to-last press conference since the weigh-in is a press conference, too, gets overshadowed by a simultaneous rally for Colin Kaepernick, at NFL headquarters in New York. But here inside a theater at the MGM Grand meant to house Cirque du Soleil, there is a peculiar, contrived vibe to the theatrics. It’s probably the elaborate hanging metal sculptures, or maybe the general scent of antiseptic meant to hose the sweaty tourist odor out of the building.
An hour past our regularly scheduled start time of 1 p.m., World Boxing Council president Mauricio Sulaiman, who resembles a happier New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, takes the stage. He unveils the “Money Belt” which apparently includes 3,360 diamonds, 600 sapphires, 300 emeralds, 1.5 kilograms of 24-karat solid gold “and alligator leather that comes from Italy.” This is not a title bout; there is no championship to be won, and an astute colleague of mine wonders about the alligator population in Italy, considering the creatures are normally found in America and China. Perhaps the gators had dual citizenship.
Having apparently been ditched by Justin Bieber, Mayweather comes out accompanied by, among others, Nate Jones, his trainer and a former Olympic boxer. Jones begins jawing at McGregor from his seat in the auditorium, which does not go over well with Jones’ boss, who motions for the antagonizing comments to stop. “He told you to shut up, ” McGregor says to no person in particular. “Little bitch.”
After this off-the-cuff, not-quite-good-enough-to-go-viral moment, the man of the people settles back into his prepared statement: “I’m gonna fuck this boy up,” McGregor says. “Make no mistake.”
Boy. For black men in America, like me or my cab driver Michael, that word stings. Not like the dull toothache of racism that the rest of this country tries to ignore until, at a white supremacist march-turned-terrorist attack, we are sent into a kind of collective national spasm. No, it’s the people and their man who don’t feel that pain every day who are so dangerous.
Maybe McGregor, not being American, doesn’t know that. Maybe he doesn’t care. But he is doubling, even tripling down, just as fans are gambling on this underdog—with a boxing record of zero wins and zero losses—with some 95% of the tickets to just 5% betting on Mayweather, being African-American—with a record of 49 and 0.
Mayweather, with perhaps $250 million on the line Saturday, can’t seem to muster the energy to fight back against McGregor’s coded language, against the taunts that he will make Mayweather “unconscious inside of one round.” Money almost shrugs through it—McGregor, nose-to-nose with his opponent, whispering not-so-sweet nothings in his ear while Mayweather grits his teeth. Mayweather is comfortable, instead, in gettin’ that money.
“This is great for the city of Las Vegas,” Mayweather says toward the end of his prepared remarks, staying on script. “It’s all about giving back, and I’m giving back to my home of Las Vegas. This city has welcomed me with open arms from day one. We’re doing great numbers. It’s the biggest fight in history. It’s not just a fight; it’s an event.”
Girl Collection is a vaguely Romanesque establishment on an adult entertainment-heavy stretch of South Highland Drive, which is not too far from Cheetah’s, the strip club owned by former WWE Superstar The Godfather. Mayweather’s joint has only been open for about two-and-a-half months, so it’s not yet the local destination it should be, considering its pedigree as the personal hotspot of the King of Vegas.
The bouncer, the thick but agreeable guy who had excused my strip club-related fumbling the other day and informed me of his boss’ eating habits, greets me at the door. It’s 9:20 p.m. Is Floyd here yet, I ask? “He’s never here this early. Come on.”
I walk inside and the strip club—all dark leather, harsh red light and furious-looking security guards in the background—is practically empty. The private rooms surrounding the main stage and dining area are barren of paying customers. Dancers go through the motions as best they can.
I order the cheeseburger, obviously, and am quickly joined at the table by Sky. She’s from Vegas and has been working at the club since it soft-launched in May. After a few perfunctory questions about me (“Where are you from?” “What are you in town for?” “What do you do for a living,” etc.), I start interviewing her.
Sky says Floyd is here pretty much every night, usually upstairs, where Sky says she’s seen Drake, Kevin Hart and members of the Golden State Warriors. I stay long enough to hear another dancer, named Star, mention that the rapper Future was in recently and took some videos of various performers’ twerking skills—a massive no-no in the world of gentleman’s clubs. Floyd’s people, apparently, turned a blind eye for their famous guest.
In between conversations, I bite into my cheeseburger, which comes topped with “secret girl sauce.” No one in the club seems to know why they call it that, but it’s far tastier than the name would lead you to believe. Slowly, the room fills up with groups of men far smaller than the Mayweather or McGregor entourages. A phalanx of polo shirts makes its way to one of the private rooms, which is just another stage, but smaller. The door to the room remains open, making it not so private, but no one complains.
After picking at my side of fries, Star takes the stage. She asks if I’m sticking around for a while. “Gotta go write,” I say.
Mayweather shows up at his strip club a little before 3 a.m.—upstairs to his bird’s nest, a place reserved for the people with thick billfolds and unchecked hubris. By then, I’m already on my way back inside the casino, having made my Grand Departure to catch a flight home to my pregnant wife by sunrise. Seventy hours in hell has been enough festivity for me, thank you very much; I’ve got to get on to the next thing, which is my fantasy football draft in Palm Springs, California.
Right now it’s only Friday, but Mayweather and McGregor have already perfected the art of the deal, the sell and the payoff, all at once, and well before the weigh-in. They have given the people what they want, not what they need, which is why Las Vegas is here in the first place. The people want the edgy racial overtones splaying all over their social feed. The people want the outward displays of financial success and the braggadocio, even if here on the inside it’s a little cheaper, and lot more contrived. Increasingly, that’s all we want: If we can’t get up the stairs to VIP, at least we can watch someone else do it for us. “It’s all about levels—you go from one level to the next level to the next level,” says the man of the people. “Let’s see where it goes, but the sky is most certainly the limit.”