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Ken Early: Despite defeat in the ring McGregor has still won

Dubliner never stood a chance against the master but comes away with $100m in the bank

Conor McGregor takes a punch to the face from Floyd Mayweather during their bout in Las Vegas. Photo: John Gurzinski/Getty Images

Conor McGregor had promised that the fight against Floyd Mayweather would be over inside four rounds, and in the end he was half-right. It went all the way to the 10th, but by the end of the fourth it was plain what the outcome was going to be.

The first round had offered the surreal prospect that McGregor might actually be about to pull off one of the most stunning upsets in the history of boxing. He dominated a curiously subdued Mayweather, at one point catching him with a left uppercut that brought roars from the largely pro-McGregor crowd.

All the judges gave that first round to McGregor, and he stayed strong through the second and third, with Mayweather looking timid and his fans beginning to wonder if their man was ever going to show up.

But then in the fourth, two things changed. Through the opening rounds McGregor had been pawing at Mayweather with his right hand, measuring the distance, but that glove dropping lower was the first sign that he was starting to lose energy. This was Mayweather’s cue to increase the tempo. Once the American had taken control, McGregor would never look capable of seizing it back.

Mayweather and McGregor pose together at the post-fight press conference. Photo: Steve Marcus/Reuters

Later, Mayweather would explain the gameplan he had devised with his father, Floyd Sr. “We said, let him hit heavy shots in the beginning, take him down the stretch, and do what we do best. Let him shoot his load, keep switching, shoot hard shots to the body, break him down. Get him to the sixth, the seventh. He lasted a little longer than I expected.”

The statistics backed up the impression that McGregor’s initial dominance had been an illusion: Mayweather had been toying with him. In the first round he’d thrown just six punches – compared to a career average of 39 – and over the first three rounds he threw just 28. He shifted from the sizing-up phase into the attack phase in the fourth round, with 31 attempted punches. From then on it was simply a question of how long McGregor could last.

The ringside crowd were on their feet in the sixth expecting a knockout, but McGregor clung on through seven and eight, before beginning the ninth round with an intense flurry of punches that left him utterly exhausted. Mayweather could not find the finish in nine, but early in the 10th he rocked McGregor with a sweat-sprayer of a right hand, and followed up with a series of remorseless precision shots, until referee Robert Byrd decided he had seen enough.

Interviewed in the ring immediately after the fight, McGregor complained that Byrd had stopped it too early. “It was just fatigue. Let me wobble back to my corner. Let me try to compose myself. You’ve got to put me out.”

As Mayweather would point out: “No. The referee is thinking about your future. The referee was saving you. He’s not saving me.” The truth was that Byrd only stepped in after watching McGregor absorb a barrage of unanswered punches that left him jelly-legged and listing like a sinking ship. The fans standing up at ringside with their phones raised to film the endgame might have liked to see Mayweather knock him unconscious, but they’re not the ones who have to use McGregor’s brain for the rest of their lives.

Showered and suited an hour after the fight, McGregor conceded that the referee had done a good job. He was still insisting that his wobbly legs had owed more to fatigue than the beginnings of a concussive stupor – “I was just bolloxed, as we say in Ireland” – but he took the defeat graciously. “It was an honour to share the ring with Floyd. He’s not 50 and 0 for no reason. I’ve got to give him respect. Fair play to him.”

In fact, McGregor was more than gracious. He was almost ebullient, waving a glass of his soon-to-be-launched whiskey brand and talking about his imminent trip to Ibiza for a friend’s wedding.

McGregor leaves the press conference with a glass of his own brand whiskey. Photo: Steve Marcus/Reuters

And if he seemed a touch more euphoric than beaten boxers generally are, you could understand why. He had faced one of the greats and avoided total humiliation, he had escaped without serious injury, and his earnings, once his cut of the pay-per-view, gate receipts, and merchandise sales is added to the guaranteed $30 million purse, could total around $100 million, making this by far the most lucrative debut in professional boxing history.

He didn’t quite get to the top of the world, but from where he’s standing the view doesn’t look too bad.