Conor McGregor: Toughest test yet for the would be king

With his win against Chad Mendes, McGregor can no longer be dismissed as just a ‘rabbit-killer’

“It’s just another day for me. I’ve been the star since day one. It’s just another day in the life of a king, and it feels normal. People think there’s pressure, I don’t feel pressure. I never did.”

So Conor McGregor announced in the fight programme for UFC 189. Familiarity with his style can numb you to the sense of quite how unhinged this talk actually sounds. “It’s just another day in the life of a king” is one of the most casually crazy things a sportsman can say with a straight face. One difference between McGregor and an actual king is that kings break character once in a while.

For as long as McGregor can keep his winning streak going, every opponent is going to have to deal with the unnerving sense that they’re up against something out of the ordinary.

Rationality should provide an impervious armour against the fear that McGregor somehow has Fate on his side. Clearly Conor McGregor cannot really bend destiny to his will with the power of New Age positive thinking. The Law of Attraction, with its advocacy of the magical potential of visualisation and gratitude, remains unproven by science.


But fighters are only human and therefore vulnerable to suggestion. And suggestibility must peak when you are alone in a cage with McGregor, staring into his bulging black eyes, trying to ignore the crowd that is screaming for your blood.

Everyone is afraid in some part of their being, and McGregor’s approach is all about trying to discover and control that fear in his opponent. Whether he gets there by provocation or intimidation, the goal is to make the other man flinch. At the weigh-in he’d pretended to throw a couple of punches in an effort to provoke a reflex defensive response. As the fight began, he looked into Chad Mendes’ eyes and snarled, “Now we’ll see who takes the first step back.”

Hollow eyes

Mendes had his own line of psychological attack. All week he had claimed that McGregor was cutting too much weight, that he looked weak and scrawny. And at the weigh-in at least, with his hollow eyes, sunken cheeks and unkempt beard, McGregor had looked like the sort of lunatic that might have crawled out of the dungeons when they stormed the Bastille. Mendes’s team-mate

Urijah Faber

wrote on Instagram that “I’ve seen crackheads roaming the streets that look healthier than McGregor right now”.

Before the fight McGregor pranced about the ring, showcasing his speed and agility, while Mendes paced back and forth like a small bear, as though to create an impression of barrel-chested strength. In the middle of the first round, when Mendes picked McGregor up and hurled him to the ground before cutting open his right eyebrow with a forearm smash, it looked like matter was winning out over mind.

But even as he lay on his back, with blood pouring from his face, McGregor was still hissing at Mendes between every exchange of blows. Mendes: “I’d hit him with a giant elbow and he’d be like, that all you got?” McGregor: “Each time he hit me I just went: uh-uh. No. It’s nothing. You’re up against a different animal now.”

These were anxious moments for the Irish supporters, but at least Mendes’s determined performance had ensured the main event had lived up to its billing. UFC 189 had got off to a slow start, as a series of inconclusive scuffles were decided by the judges’ scorecards, but the four fights immediately preceding McGregor-Mendes had been spectacular.

Blood-spattered knockout

Except for Gunnar Nelson’s impressive submission victory over

Brandon Thatch

, each of those fights swung back and forth dramatically and culminated in a blood-spattered knockout or TKO.

Thomas Almeida

had his nose broken in the first round but recovered to knock

Brad Pickett

out cold with an astonishing flying knee to the face.

Jeremy Stephens

likewise absorbed appalling punishment before knocking out

Dennis Bermudez

with another flying knee and flurry of punches. Between rounds the cleaners were hard at work scrubbing the floor of the Octagon.

The last fight before McGregor-Mendes was the welterweight title fight. Robbie Lawler versus Rory MacDonald sounds like the sort of match-up you might stumble across outside Supermac's in Mullingar, but on Saturday night the two produced a spectacle that was like some gladiatorial horror transported from ancient Rome or some barbaric future dystopia.

The winner, Lawler, had his upper lip ripped in half. The loser, MacDonald, had been leading on all three scorecards before he was knocked out in the fifth. MacDonald limped away on his broken right foot to be taken to hospital, struggling to see through eyes swollen shut by bruises and struggling to breathe as the blood clotted in his shattered nose. His reward for suffering this appalling beating was $59,000 – though he would later pick up a $50,000 bonus for being part of the “Fight of the Night”.

MacDonald’s path back towards the locker room took him within a couple of metres of Neymar, the Barcelona forward who was presumably there because he expected to be supporting José Aldo.

In a way, the diamante fedora Neymar wore at ringside helps to explain the appeal of MacDonald’s ruined face. Neymar is a brilliant footballer who earns more than $59,000 in a single day and goes to ground at the first hint of physical contact. Aggression used to be a part of football but it has largely been refined out of the game. If you want to see suffering of the old-fashioned kind, you have to go elsewhere.

Exultant roars

There are plenty of people who express vocal disgust at the exultant roars of an arena crowd as blood runs from Jeremy Stephens’s head like a tap, or as Brad Pickett’s unconscious head bounces on the canvas, or as a rope of bright-red phlegm dangles tenaciously from the battered mouth of Rory MacDonald.

There are people who dislike every sport, and MMA is no different. The interesting question here is: why does the negative response towards MMA often take the form of angry revulsion rather than sarcasm, boredom or contempt? Why the emotional charge? Is there also a part of you that is ashamed to admit it gets excited at the sight of blood?

It may not be the sort of sport you would want your kids to watch, but The Sopranos might not be the sort of TV show you would want your kids to watch either, and that doesn't make it a bad show.

All Saturday’s fighters displayed physical prowess, skill and courage – which is to say, most of the best things about sport. They also displayed sportsmanship. Watching the fighters fall into each others’ arms after each bout, an alien observer might conclude that spending several minutes beating each other to a pulp was some kind of male courtship ritual.

But back to McGregor, pinned to the canvas by the weight of Chad Mendes, and looking as though it was over for him.

Mendes later explained that he miscalculated. “I probably should have just kept throwing elbows,” he reflected. Instead he tried to finish the fight by going for a submission, and in so doing he allowed McGregor to wriggle free and regain his feet.

What followed showed why people want to watch Conor McGregor fight. Rather than give thanks for his escape and mentally prepare himself for a third round, he drove straight at Mendes and finished him off.

Scrupulously respectful

The courage to attack, to take risks even when it looks more logical to play safe, is a quality that is admired wherever it appears in sport. On Saturday night, fortune favoured the brave.

Afterwards, McGregor was scrupulously respectful towards Mendes. That was appropriate, because Mendes had given him a lot. Before Saturday night, McGregor had only beaten inferior opponents. He needed somebody to make him suffer. After Mendes, the days of being dismissed as a rabbit-killer are over.

McGregor admitted that the intensive promotional commitments for this fight, the effort involved in maintaining his athletic condition while at the same time playing the role of King, had at times been a strain. His daily routine is getting complicated and demanding.

“I thought, fuck this,” he said. “Next time I’m not doing all of this.”

He paused to reflect.

“And then I get handed the cheque. And I’m like . . . well, alright then.”

Ken Early

Ken Early

Ken Early is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in soccer