On May 26th, 1987, shareholders gathered at K-Mart's headquarters in Troy, Michigan for the company's annual meeting spotted a fleet of white limousines, replete with a police escort, suddenly rolling up in front of the building. Their eyes widened when Muhammad Ali stepped from one of the limos, followed closely behind by the motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel. Behind the celebrity duo, exiting from the other vehicles in the convoy, came a gaggle of 25 bemused African-American boys and girls, not quite sure where they were or to what greater purpose.
Ali had come to gatecrash the meeting, to create headlines and to embarrass executives. Unhappy with their lukewarm interest in his recently-launched Champion shoe polish, he wanted the corporation to up their initial order from $500,000 to $30m. An outlandish demand made by a man six years into retirement, a decade removed from his athletic pomp. Here was somebody struggling to replicate his previous earning power, reduced to pulling a stunt alongside a washed-up Knievel and a bunch of bemused kids brought along as props in a misguided attempt to prove K-Mart was somehow racist in its purchasing policies.
A few weeks later, people turning up to the Fontainebleau Hilton’s annual Chocolate Fair on Miami Beach came across Ali manning a stall where he was autographing bags of Champ Gourmet Chocolate Chip cookies, his effervescent smile on every pack, posing for photographs and kissing babies. There were other bizarre ventures at that time in his life that also summed up his financial situation. One minute he was flogging PRIMO powdered milk (his face on each yellow tin) in the Middle East for an unlikely consortium that included the Guccione family, publishers of Penthouse porn magazine. The next, he was down in Brazil attempting to build a new type of sports car in collaboration with a fake Sheikh.
Ali became such a marketing juggernaut and uber-brand in his senescence that it's often forgotten he spent a long time in the commercial wilderness, reduced to throwing his lot in with various charlatans (don't mention the Virginia Beach hotel development that stank of mob money or the attempt to recruit Robert Mugabe into the shoe polish business). Throughout the 80s and most of the 90s, mainstream corporate America mostly didn't want to touch him, either allergic to his outspoken political stances or reluctant to associate with somebody who had said some disgraceful stuff about opponents during the build-up to big fights.
In Las Vegas last week, one more misguided reporter asked Conor McGregor a question about his similarities to Ali, and even the Dubliner, for once, had the good grace and wit to acknowledge how ridiculous that was. In, oh, so many ways. Ali’s big mouth cost him a lot of money and opportunities over a lot of years. In very stark contrast, McGregor’s every offensive utterance seems to turn quickly into cash in hand. If the three-time heavyweight champion suffered for occasionally playing the heel to sell tickets to bouts, the Dubliner profits massively from it.
In the days before he was utterly humbled by Khabib Nurmagomedov in the octagon, Reebok and Monster Energy both re-upped their endorsement deals with McGregor for sums estimated to be north of $5 million. Just like Burger King, who have also rewarded his various vulgar excesses with a large cheque, these are serious brands that just don’t care that he’s been accused of racism, homophobia, Islamophobia and misogyny, that he attacked a bus full of his fellow fighters, and that he trashes hotel rooms with his pals.
None of that matters. They want him for his perceived edginess, his willingness to always go low and his relentless guttersniping. Monitoring the numbers ticking over at the box office, this is what the marketeers believe appeals to the younger demographic. The crasser the better. No insult is too egregious because despicable sells, decency doesn’t.
Consider the case of Chris Weidman. Most casual sports fans have never heard of the guy who, after just nine professional fights, defeated Anderson Silva to become UFC middleweight champion in 2013. It was one of the biggest shocks in the sport's admittedly short history, an icon who'd been undefeated for seven years taken down by a former college wrestler from Long Island where MMA was not even legal at the time. Weidman held on to his title for two and a half years, longer than McGregor kept hold of his featherweight or lightweight crowns. Handsome, articulate and educated, he appeared to be the all-American poster boy the sport needed.
Yet, the night McGregor fought Eddie Alvarez at Madison Square Garden for an initial purse of $3 million, Weidman was fighting Yoel Romero on the undercard for $275,000, with an additional $10,000 thrown in from Reebok. Granted, the Long Islander was coming off losing his title to Luke Rockhold, and UFC fans will argue he has less talent than McGregor anyway, but the enormous difference in money also demonstrates that being contemptible is far more lucrative than being classy. Weidman's career earnings to date are what Proper 12's head of sales took home for one night's work in New York.
No wonder McGregor is cackling all the way to the bank. He should (a big should given his hedonistic tastes) never be reduced to hawking cookies for dough like Ali because this is an era, or at least a sport, when verbal crime pays. Big.