Phelps vs. Shark, Mayweather vs. McGregor and the downward spiral of athletic competition

Dan Wetzel
Columnist
Michael Phelps and the crew watch a shark approach the cage, which Phelps is about to enter. (Photo: Discovery)

Discovery Channel’s annual “Shark Week” begins Sunday with a foray into serious athletic competition. Michael Phelps (a human) and a Great White Shark (a fish) are going to engage in a swim race.

The 100-meter, open water duel – dubbed “The Battle for Ocean Supremacy” – has plenty of us longtime “Shark Week” fans excited for a few hours of made-for-the-masses/take-that-you-slow-elasmobranch family entertainment (check your local listings!).

Sure Phelps has won a record 28 Olympic medals, but slip him into a monofin and drop him in the water off South Africa and now you’ve got some real sporting action.

Except … this summer has seen the rise of a rather vocal segment of sports fans who describe themselves as “purists” but are really just mispronouncing the word “boring.” These are people who find it pulse-racing to watch a batter run out a grounder to the mound. They hate the Home Run Derby, the NBA summer league, “American Ninja Warrior” and everything else that didn’t exist in 1955. Where’s the grit, man?

Their disgust is set to peak with next month’s boxing match between Floyd Mayweather Jr. (a boxer) and Conor McGregor (a mixed martial artist) that they’ve dubbed a “farce” and a “circus” while noting that this is “all about money” and just mindless “entertainment.”

None of this is necessarily untrue, but a record five million people are expected to pay $99.99 to watch it anyway because it’s their $99.99 and they think it might be (gasp) fun to watch.

Mayweather-McGregor Truthers however have opened my eyes to be on the look out for “fake sports,” which means I am now beginning to have some questions about this entire man vs. fish tale. Maybe, just maybe, it’s not quite as pure as a 30,000-meter individual medley, or whatever it is swimmers do at the Olympics. It is clearly time to stand up and defend the corrosion of American culture by the Discovery Network.

First off, the title of the event is completely disrespectful.

“Phelps vs. Shark?” What, the shark doesn’t have a name? Yes, Phelps is the greatest human swimmer of all-time, just as Mayweather is the best boxer of this generation. At least Mayweather, who thinks more highly of himself than any other human alive, allows McGregor to have his name in the title. It’s a small gesture.

Not Michael Phelps. Talk about ego. Why does Phelps get all the hype? Phelps sees swimming as recreation and vocation. Shark sees it as transportation. You could at least say his name. The Shark has like 73 kids, all of whom live near him off the coast of Cape Town. You don’t think the old man might want to spin this into some underwater endorsement deals?

This is actually risky for Phelps. Shark’s coaches are probably using this as a classic motivational tool. They are whispering into the small slits that pass for Shark’s ears about how Phelps thinks he’s all superior while reminding Shark that the water in Phelps’ pool is two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen and that, “I think you’ll find that’s the exact same measurements as our gym back in Hickory.”

And what’s the payout here? There’s plenty of complaining about Mayweather getting the far bigger portion of the fight purse (McGregor will still make tens of millions) but what’s Shark bringing home … an extra seal carcass or two? We know Phelps isn’t doing this for free. Even the NCAA would be sheepish about this arrangement.

If you really love traditional values, then root for the amateur. Shark is clearly doing it for the love of the game.

Then again, does Shark even know it’s a race?

Phelps does, of course, because he no doubt watches the many fine programs on Discovery (mainly “Deadliest Catch”). This summer the network has run a commercial hyping the event every three minutes (I think they even renamed Captain Sig’s boat, “Phelps vs. Shark”).


What about Shark, though? I doubt he’s seen one commercial because he doesn’t watch cable TV – Great White Sharks are notorious cord cutters, after all. They are killing Disney stock.

It’s not fair to stage a race when only one of the participants knows it’s a race. This is a trick older siblings have been pulling on younger siblings for generations, breaking into a sprint before shouting over their shoulder that “the last one in is a rotten egg.”

How did Shark even qualify for the race? This is one of the big complaints about McGregor getting a shot at Mayweather despite never having a professional boxing match. It’s literally a 49-0 fighter against a 0-0 fighter – sure McGregor is a mixed martial arts champion, but that’s a different sport.

It is all hype and marketing and sales potential – unfair, critics say, to deserving boxers.

Is this the same with Shark? Phelps has proven to be the best human swimmer, so his spot is deserved. When were the shark qualification rounds? Who’d Shark beat? In college football parlance – Shark ain’t played nobody. Did Discovery just take a South African shark because that’s where they film so much of “Shark Week” and it was convenient for their film crews?

If so, that’s discriminatory against Great White Sharks that live off Japan, Oceania, Chile, Mexico and even occasionally the United States – not to mention Bruce from “Finding Nemo.” It’s even worse than how the Little League World Series just gives one spot in the final to the United States and makes the rest of the world fight for the other.

Why a Great White, anyway? As “Shark Week” has taught us many times through the years, the Shortfin Mako Shark is the world’s fastest shark – its 60 m.p.h. top speed is four times faster than a Great White. So this selection process is ridiculous, like if cheetahs challenged humans to a 100-meter dash only to select Rob Kardashian as an opponent rather than Usain Bolt.

Discovery is clearly prejudiced against Shortfin Makos. This is the basic cable version of 1940s Major League Baseball. Or maybe they are trying to fool us viewers by giving Phelps an easier race, essentially fixing the event by hyping up the Great White’s potential to eat Phelps.

I’m beginning to think this isn’t on the up and up but is, instead, just a ratings grab to entertain people and make some money on a slow summer Sunday night.

So thank you purist sports fans and Mayweather-McGregor skeptics for opening my eyes to potential assaults on honest athletic competition. Fight the power. An injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere, even the South Atlantic.

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