Thursday 19 April 2018

Conor McGregor fans will need to lasso some cowboys to take over Las Vegas this time

Conor McGregor's fight clashes with the rodeo calendar in Las Vegas
Conor McGregor's fight clashes with the rodeo calendar in Las Vegas
Conor McGregor's fight clashes with the rodeo calendar in Las Vegas

JOE CALLAGHAN reports from Las Vegas

How does Vegas do Christmas? In a Stetson and spurs, apparently.

The latest Irish invasion of the Strip looked to be only barely above the trickle stage on Tuesday afternoon at McCarran Airport and later on in the evening as the casinos got down to the business of taking money.

But it would have taken the Irish arrivals a brief moment to take in their surroundings to realise they're not likely to have the run of the place this week. It certainly won't be as free a reign as back in July, when last they made the pilgrimage to the desert in the name of Conor McGregor.

UFC 194 and the oh so long awaited meeting of McGregor and Jose Aldo Junior will bring 14 months of relentless build-up to an end. Their featherweight unification clash shapes to be the crescendo in what the Ultimate Fighting Championship's powers that be hope will be a deafening week for the sport with major live shows on three successive nights here.

But for now at least, Las Vegas is cowboy country. Everywhere you looked Tuesday a real-life stereotype was walking towards you. The UFC's huge week happens to coincide with the grandest time in the rodeo calendar. (If you didn't realise there was such a thing as a rodeo calendar, we'll forgive you this once. Two hours of Dixie Chicks on repeat should be sufficient penance.)

The 2015 National Finals Rodeo, sponsored inevitably by Wrangler, is a 10-day extravaganza, a wild west fest like none of the rest. Steers, beers and tears, is how the plaid-shirt patrons described to us the appeal of the get-together. The Thomas & Mack Centre, all 18,000 seats of it, has long since sold out for all 10 nights.

Meanwhile at the Las Vegas Convention Centre, 400,000 well-heeled boots will walk on through the Cowboy Christmas exposition, where every conceivable accessory (and a whole lot of inconceivable ones) that the modern-day cowboy and cowgal could require is up for grabs.

Like the McGregor-Aldo rivalry, things will come to a head on Saturday night and like the McGregor-Aldo rivalry, only one will walk away with hardware around their waste. But rather than a belt, the 2015 rodeo king will walk instead away with just a buckle. To be fair, it is a 24-carat gold, $17,000 buckle.

So the cowboys and the mixed martial arts crew will have to co-exist on the Strip. So far, it seems to be going swimmingly. The trademark giant golden lion who sits proudly in the lobby of the MGM Grand is again caged in a UFC octagon for the week. But he's also sporting a jet-black Stetson.

At the queue for check-in across the road at The Excalibur, a young couple and their parents who'd flown in from Orange, a town that sits right on the Texas-Louisiana border, were doing the whole wide-eyed, fresh off the plane and into the neon mayhem routine.

Perhaps intrigued as to why our eyes, sadly a little desensitised to the place now, weren't bursting from the sockets, they enquired where we were from and why we were here? The explanation led the son to the following offering: 'Man, Conor McGregor is just...just, one real badass.' That final word, meant very much as a compliment, was drawled out long and hard for added effect.

The Notorious one really has infiltrated all walks of life. Getting back here to the world capital of combat sport always brings that point home all over again.

The Dubliner will stride down from his new and improved Mac Mansion in the Las Vegas hills on Wednesday afternoon local time for what the UFC have promised us all will be the final press conference ahead of this meeting, one that has been 14 months and what seems like 14 million media gatherings in the making.

The setting of the final forum for fight talk will bring back nothing but good memories for McGregor. The UFC have changed with tradition and moved the press conference, where he will be joined by Aldo and co-headliners Chris Weidman and Luke Rockhold, to the Grand Garden Arena. It was there where, in Aldo's injury-enforced absence, the 27-year-old downed Chad Mendes in July on the most electrifying night of his journey to date.

And when the talking is finally, mercifully over the countdown will truly be on. The clock will rapidly tick toward a showdown against the man recognised as the UFC's pound-for-pound phenomenon, undoubtedly the most daunting prospect in the Notorious's professional life.

For all of his incredible fighting skills and his physical prowess, you get the sense that much like that night back in July, McGregor will need to have one thing in more abundance than any other - true grit. The would-be rodeo kings of Vegas would likely concur. 

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