Friday 19 January 2018

McGregor on top of the world

Joe Callaghan

Maybe Sinéad O'Connor should have sung one of her more famous numbers.

It might not have proved to be as spine-tinglingly stirring as her delivery of 'The Foggy Dew' at the MGM Grand. But it would have been more fitting ... because nothing compares to Conor McGregor.

That may sound cheesy as hell. But Las Vegas loves cheesy. It also loves McGregor, universally so, even if significant sections of his own country cannot decide whether they love him or not.

Forget the love for a minute though. Instead concentrate on respect. How anyone could witness this, one of the most heroic performances in the history of Irish combat sports, and not respect McGregor for it is beyond comprehension.

Saturday night at the Grand Garden Arena was the most remarkable yet in McGregor's wild, intoxicating rise to the top of the mixed martial arts world. It was a night for which there is simply no known comparison. From entrance to exit it was steal-your-breath stuff.

At the end of it all McGregor had what he had wanted most - hardware. His heroic fightback off the bloodied canvas and crushing knockout of Chad Mendes earned him the reward of an interim featherweight title and sent his star to even more soaring heights.

How noteworthy it was that in his first words after the fight, being interviewed in the ring as unrelenting, breakneck bedlam reigned all around him, McGregor's first words were those of relief.

Not relief in victory but relief that when his wrecking ball of a left fist landed plumb on Mendes' chin with seconds remaining in the second, it brought UFC 189 to an end and it brought the marathon promotional campaign to an end. Later, he reiterated the point.


"It has been a hell of a ride," he said. "Just over two years I've been here. I've just about broken every record in the game.

"Trust me when I tell you there is a lot of work involved. I have been home for 19 days this year. I have constantly been working, constantly promoting this fight as well as keeping on top of my weight and skill level.

"I love you all in the media. I am grateful for every one of you but I am absolutely sick to death of you. I have had so, so much of it. I'm overwhelmed by what's happened. My mind is in a million different places."

The UFC's marketing men undoubtedly encourage their golden child in his salesman act. McGregor takes that encouragement and runs with it, runs his mouth like his life depends on it, because in so many ways it does.

Clearly, though, the man himself finds it tiresome. But he has never not delivered and Saturday was his most devastating delivery yet.

Once O'Connor had serenaded him into an arena that was one part Italia '90, two parts Copper Face Jacks, McGregor raced into battle from the bell and swung a kick at Mendes' body.

From there on the fight largely swung the Californian's way. Mendes was billed as the wrestler who was going to test McGregor's alleged weaknesses in that department.

So it proved as Mendes knocked the upstart down to the canvas. A swinging elbow smashed into McGregor's right eyelid and split it wide open.

It was the first time in his UFC career that McGregor was turning the canvas crimson.

By the bell he was clearly behind on the scorecards, even if he had landed a couple of stirring body shots, particularly a strong left.

McGregor again raced into his rival as the second round began, goading and chirping every step of the way.

It was looking like he was racing into the propellers, though. He was back on the floor soon after and stayed grounded for what seemed like the whole five minutes of the round.

Some stoic defensive work got him back to his feet. He just needed to see out the last 20-odd seconds, get to the break and regroup.

He had no such thoughts. Instead he went on the attack in devastating, decisive fashion.

"I didn't feel threatened," said McGregor after his fifth KO in six UFC fights. "They try and find holes, they try and find questions that I have yet to answer, they try and find something that is going to break me. There is always something. But I always prevail. I am confident that I can walk through everything.

"It's a crazy game and I absolutely love it. I love this job, I love this game, I love this ride that I'm on. I am happy to have taken the gold. This was my belt. This was my night."

As Saturday night turned to Sunday morning in Sin City, the roulette wheels and blackjack tables of the MGM Grand were draped in Tricolours. The hordes were high on Vegas and victory, a most intoxicating cocktail.


Amidst the crowds and the chaos was Garry Cook, the former Manchester City chairman who is now one of the UFC's key powerbrokers.

He had never seen a night quite like it. But this, he predicted, was not the high point but instead a new starting point.

A title unification mega-fight with Jose Aldo was being mooted for January and it will undoubtedly be huge, beyond even this night. But Cook sounded like a man dreaming even bigger.

"You know what the scary thing is, the really scary thing?" he said. "The world doesn't truly know about Conor McGregor ... yet."

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