Conor McGregor remains most valuable asset in UFC’s short history
The Dubliner’s New York history-making was more of a coronation than a real contest
An hour or so after a stricken Eddie Alvarez had been helped back to his feet and Conor McGregor started his customary victory swear, a phalanx of maybe 200 of his fans gathered outside the concourse in front of Madison Square Garden. They belted out a lusty rendition of “Stand up for the boys in green”, beginning from a crouching position then jumping in the air. Every now and again, they switched things up with a chorus of “Who the f**k is Alvarez? La La La.”
They were necklaced by NYPD officers who look bemused at them desperately filming their own choreographed antics. Any nuns passing down Seventh Avenue were definitely in danger of having their tyres changed.
A New York Saturday night had long since bled into Sunday morning and there isn’t much these cops or this storied venue hasn’t witnessed before. But, this was all new. The supporters could be forgiven their exuberance and their calisthenics because UFC’s belated debut at the self-styled most famous arena in sports had lasted for more than six sapping hours, shattered the box office record and gone almost exactly according to script.
From the off, McGregor had deployed his concussive left hand to chilling effect, battering the overmatched Alvarez around the octagon. He put him down three times in the first round, finally delivering the sixth defeat of his career in the second, and wresting away his lightweight belt.
“I’ve ridiculed everybody on the roster and I’d like to take this chance to apologise to absolutely nobody,” said McGregor evincing his usual magnanimity in victory. Moments later he was sitting astride the cage, a belt on each shoulder to match his chips, gurning for the cameras.
His hubris was inevitable. Even if the UFC’s price gouging ensured the New York crowd was a little more Wall Street than O’Connell Street, he was unquestionably the fan favourite, his t-shirts outnumbering all others in evidence perhaps by as much as 20 to one. His exaggerated swagger (somewhere between a pimp roll and a perp walk) to the octagon, sound-tracked by Sinead O’Connor’s soulful version of “The Foggy Dew”, nearly took the roof off the building. In contrast, Alvarez’ entrance, despite growing up just down the road in Philadelphia, yielded sustained boos.
A cynic might venture that was the point in the night we realised the 32-year-old American champion had not been brought here to put manners on the cheeky Irishman. No, Alvarez was merely a plot device in a much larger narrative. Indeed, McGregor was so superior to his opponent that this reeked of a coronation rather than a genuine contest. It may not be his fault that Alvarez, like others, had no answer to the quality of his striking, but for some of us the suspicion abides that the Dubliner’s career is being carefully steered and managed so the UFC can maximise his star quality inside but most especially outside the cage.
In this respect, what happened afterwards might have been the most interesting development of the whole weekend.
“If you want me to stick around and continue to push the company higher, bring me on board for real,” said McGregor at his press conference. “Not just as this. I need to be set for life with this. If you want me to be truly in on this, then I need to be all in this, proper, as owner, have an equity stake in the company.”
As post-fight gambits go, demanding a share of an outfit that has made him a wealthy man (if, unlike so many of his predecessors, he ends up with the money he’s supposed to) was a brazen move. Yet, it’s difficult to see what he can ultimately do without the UFC. Aside from the fact their slick marketing and persuasive line in exaggeration has contributed dramatically to his rise, they also remain the only show in town unless he wants to get into cartoonish hybrid match-ups against Floyd Mayweather Jnr.
Short of starting his own rival organisation, there really is no credible alternative in MMA and while it’s his name that was top of the bill, the undercard for Madison Square Garden was so stacked it was always going to be a sell-out regardless of his presence. That he boosts the numbers willing to buy the television show will, undoubtedly, be his argument.
To spend an evening immersed in this strange demi-monde where a convicted steroid-user named Yoel Romero kneeing Chris Weidman to the head is somehow regarded as a wondrous athletic feat is to realise McGregor has something most of the others don’t. This particular talent – the ability to speak English into a microphone – is something that the UFC desperately needs. Like the constant wish that referees would end contests as soon as it was blatantly obvious one fighter was badly hurt, this was a recurring theme of the night’s entertainment.
Perhaps the most gripping contest was an evenly matched strawweight clash between Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Karolina Kowalkiewicz. A pair of Polish women, they put on such a compelling show that halfway through it even elicited a laudatory “Fields of Athenry”, a curious kind of homage to the calibre of the bout. Afterwards, both combatants were cheered to the rafters and carried themselves with dignity and class as they spoke pidgin English from the centre of the octagon.
There is the sport’s problem and McGregor’s strongest negotiating point. Neither of these women, or Romero or Khabib Nurmagomedov (another impressive performer on the night, the second-ranked lightweight and the ground and pound merchant most neutrals now want to see fight the Dubliner) are capable of hitting the chat show circuit and yukking it up for the cameras. Like it or not, that’s what you need when trying to grow a still-young sport.
In this regard, McGregor, for all his coarseness, vulgarity and increasingly tiresome sub-WWE shtick, is the greatest promotional tool UFC has ever had. Even if his “Suck my Irish balls” earlier in the week demonstrated he’s not quite the wit some would have us believe and might benefit from hiring a scriptwriter to augment his insult repertoire, he will do or say anything to create headlines. The more offensive he is the more that the curious and the intrigued are tempted into splurging on tickets and ordering pay-per-views.
“They have got to come talk to me now,” said McGregor. “No one has talked to me since the sale happened. As a businessman, no one has approached (me yet), but I’ve earned something.”
There has been a sporting venue named Madison Square Garden in one form or another since as far back as 1879. Throughout the elongated build-up and especially this past week around New York, UFC hype-merchants and McGregor himself were constantly tapping into this illustrious tradition, invoking the names of fistic icons who defined eras in American history. According to the hard sell, the 28-year-old was on a quest to make history of his own and now, we will be repeatedly told, he is the first man ever to hold two titles simultaneously.
Of course, some perspective is needed. UFC’s lightweight division only started in 2001 and the featherweight belt he owns was awarded for the first time six years ago. This is history alright, of the just-add-water variety.