Preview: UFC 205
Lightweight title bout: Eddie Alvarez v Conor McGregor
TV: BT Sport: 3am (main event 5am)
A decade ago he was an unhappy teenage plumber, working on pipes and dreaming. Quitting the job and getting into a blazing row with his da. Cursing. Living for a sport that was getting no shine in Ireland. But this is a life lived at the edges. Conor McGregor, the biggest draw in UFC history, is now the headline attraction in the most iconic of all fight venues, where Robinson fought Raging Bull, Marciano defeated his hero Louis, and Frank Sinatra, camera in hand, had the best seat in press row as the world stood still and Ali and Frazier collided for the first time.
That was the Fight of the Century. Now, McGregor will seek to stitch his own piece of history to the legend of Madison Square Garden by becoming the first fighter in the UFC to hold two championship belts simultaneously.
In what will be the first champion-versus-champion match-up in the UFC since 2009, McGregor will stand across the octagon from Eddie Alvarez, holder of the lightweight title. It was supposed to be Rafael Dos Anjos in March but a broken foot intervened, and the Dubliner, oblivious to all barriers, dived headlong down the rabbit hole with Nate Diaz.
Next came his Humpty Dumpty moment, and while all the king’s men embraced sports science, McGregor fell out with the UFC, retired and announced his hotly anticipated comeback the next day. There wasn’t a dull moment. Except for UFC 200, that is, which was all tinsel and no gifts without him.
And when he did return to the octagon, he reminded us why all the fuss gets made. Pay-per-view records were broken as he avenged Diaz in a performance that showed the depth of his fight IQ. Sometimes a fighter’s one-punch knockout power can be their penitentiary. But McGregor moderated his volume and brought more variety to his attacks. His intelligence was his escape route and he did what was necessary to win a five-round war. “That second Diaz fight,” he has said, “helped me grow as a man and a fighter.”
Meanwhile, a recuperated Dos Anjos had relinquished his crown to Alvarez in a first-round stoppage that surprised many. Alvarez comes from Philadelphia, the city where Rocky – Balboa not Marciano – improved his reflexes by chasing a chicken in his back yard and ran up the steps of the city’s Museum of Art to inspirational music.
And like our fictional heavyweight boxing champion, Alvarez is known for his durability, his willingness to take a punch to deliver one, and the kind of bottomless courage that has seen him charge back from the brink of defeat on numerous occasions throughout his career.
Tony Ferguson, who has become a bullet train at lightweight with his maniacal brand of combat, would like to see the two men knock each other out at the same time. But surely that's taking the whole Rocky thing too far.
In any McGregor fight, needle is always part of the fabric and Alvarez has done well. The Dubliner’s reputation as a fighter is built on nothing but perception, he says. He’s not a championship fighter. After eight minutes, he gases. “I feel like I’m about to tell the whole world that there’s no Santa Claus,” said Alvarez. “And everybody is gonna be disappointed. It’s a lie and I’m gonna steal the magic from everyone.”
He is a multiple champion across promotions. Wherever he has fought – in Japan, Bellator or UFC – Alvarez has shown he knows how to win. Since joining the UFC in 2014 he has largely abandoned the rock-em-sock-em style of yore in favour of a more hardboiled approach.
His victory over former champion Antony Pettis is an example of the pragmatism he is promising to inflict on McGregor: push him against the cage, smother him in the clinch and work the body. And then he will wrestle him to the ground. It's the kind of grinding, exhausting style you imagine José Mourinho would choose if he were a cage fighter.
But McGregor is box-office, verbally and physically. On the feet, which is where it all begins, he will boast many natural advantages. For starters, McGregor likes the bullet points of this match-up. Southpaws grow up fighting orthodox opponents, and not vice-versa, and he will augment his comfort there with faster hands and a five-inch reach advantage.
He is a master at manipulating distance with his footwork and rangy style and this ability to control the space of the cage while applying constant pressure – through kicks and that pulverising left hand – should have Alvarez fighting backwards.
The vision of the stocky American exploding towards McGregor in search of that ginger beard is easy to conjure. McGregor will relish that. He is the consummate example of an aggressive counter-puncher, whose accuracy and timing is one of his strongest weapons. He will be ready, as Jose Aldo and many more found to their cost.
McGregor is predicting a first-round knockout; John Kavanagh a second. Should it come, victory will move him towards the pantheon of all-time MMA greats. And it would not be a surprise at all.
But it would be supremely foolhardy to count out the crafty defending champion. How many people foresaw Alvarez delivering that vicious right hand to the jaw of Dos Anjos? If Alvarez can withstand the assault on his chin, as the preternaturally tough Diaz did, his gameplan will get the green light. Code grind. It may be enough. It may not be.
The reason we question whether McGregor is vulnerable to this type of game is simple: his devastating stand-up skills rarely allow us the chance to find out. No UFC champion has revealed themselves so openly to the public beyond the octagon, once we strip away the mink coats and egotism; yet none was ever so mysterious inside it. And that’s what lies at the heart of his appeal. Conor McGregor seems to be on the edge, always.