Sunday 21 January 2018

UFC banking on Conor McGregor to become the poster boy for a new force in sport

Conor McGregor at a corporate event in Las Vegas this week
Conor McGregor at a corporate event in Las Vegas this week

JOE CALLAGHAN reports from Las Vegas

THEY were aged from eight to 13. Three Mexican-American brothers from San Antonio. Their mother, you sensed not for the first time on a scorching, sapping day under the Mojave sun, was tasked with being the photographer.

The trio switched up their portrait poses from peace signs to clenched fists. This was the picture they wanted most - standing in front of the miniature MMA octagon that has been erected amid the faux-luxury of the front lobby of the MGM Grand. Their final pose - maniacal, open-mouthed snarls - was an ode to their idol whose face, unmissable in this the most sprawling of Las Vegas's cathedrals of excess, adorned the octagon.

Brothers of this age aren't supposed to find common ground when it comes to sporting preferences. There's more ribbing, more sweet satisfaction to be found from being on opposite sides of divides. But these boys were different. In a city where second-guessing yourself comes with the territory every time you step up to a blackjack table or roulette wheel, they were very different. They were dead-eyed decisive.

"Conor McGregor!" they chimed when asked who their favourite sportsperson was. "They like UFC...but they love McGregor," confirmed their weary mother. The brothers won't be around by the time the Dubliner climbs into the real-world, life-sized UFC octagon at the MGM Grand on Saturday night, they'll be back in Texas with their Instagrammed memories. But for yesterday at least they were able to emulate their hero in being perfect poster boys for the fastest growing sport and sporting organisation in the world.

This is the Ultimate Fighting Championship's International Fight Week and a troupe of Tex-Mex brothers professing their adoration for a 27-year-old from Crumlin is just the kind of international image and impact the sport's powers that be are craving a lot more of.

UFC 189 might have lost a significant slice of its international element when Jose Aldo's injured ribs refused to respond to treatment and the Brazilian was forced to withdraw and nix a featherweight title showdown with McGregor that had been on schedule to shatter the sport's pay-per-view records. But Aldo's withdrawal looks to have only slightly diluted the potent mix that combat sport's brash young upstart is serving up to the Las Vegas punters.

Saturday night's gate - rapidly heading past the $7million mark - will be the biggest in the life and times of the UFC. If the range of nationalities swarming around the mini-octagon were anything to go by, then there has been little global fallout from the reshuffle of the fight card with Chad Mendes coming in to fight McGregor for an interim crown on just two weeks' notice. Where the hasty redrawing of the schedule is perhaps more noticeable is in the physical promotion of Saturday night's show.

This reporter was in Sin City for the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao Fight of the Century a couple of months ago, the superbout taking place at the same Grand Garden Arena in that McGregor and Mendes will march into in four days. Back in April it seemed as though every surface of the MGM had been branded with the MayPac stamp. Felt poker table-tops, the sides of any end-of-aisle slot machines, every nook, every cranny.

The UFC's more peaceful takeover of the mega-casino was likely not the original plan. Dana White, the organisation's president and omni-present frontman, looked pained last week when he confirmed on ESPN that Aldo would not be able to make it to the ball after the UFC had laid out millions on a global promotional tour. In Vegas terms, that money now belonged to the house. A lot more of the UFC's hard-earned was also undoubtedly spent on promotional artwork that was useless once Aldo succumbed. Just yesterday evening there was a lone worker atop a cherry-picker, smoothing creases on some freshly applied mammoth McGregor-Mendes artwork near the entry to the fight arena. In another corner Aldo still stared down from another poster.

Yet there is no doubt that the UFC 189, which features a second title fight with welterweight champion Robbie Lawler taking on Canadian Rory MacDonald, will be more than alright on the night. While the Vegas sky was lit up last Saturday for Fourth of July celebrations, the real fireworks of fight week have yet to be ignited. Tomorrow will see public work-outs from all four of the card's headline acts. There will be a final head-to-head press conference on Thursday and Friday's weigh-in is expected to attract a crowd of over 10,000 people.

On all of these occasions, White will be able to play his trump card, the one no dealer can beat - McGregor. Saturday's clash with Mendes, a supreme wrestler and just the kind of opponent many have predicted would stifle the Dubliner, may go a long way to helping the Notorious one confound those who remain critical of his fighting abilities. His talents out of the octagon, however, are beyond doubt. A master marketeer, a supreme salesman, it is McGregor's meteoric rise that has ensured International Fight Week will have an international feel.

By last night, the trickle was already quite noticeable along the Strip but upwards of 2500 Irish fans are expected to flood Las Vegas in the coming days in support of the phenomenon. And every corner wants a slice of the Irish action. Bar staff in Nine Fine Irishmen in New York New York, the closest green-themed drinking den to the fight venue, yesterday admitted they're in for one hell of a hectic week. RíRá, the Mandalay Bay resort's take on the stereotype, has a host of events planned too. With a host of male and female, amateur and professional, Irish mixed martial arts fighters in myriad competitions, there will be no shortage of appetising action for the new arrivals. And before Sinead O'Connor gets her chance to serenade the masses when she leads McGregor into the ring, the Dropkick Murphys will hit town on Friday night for a huge show.

The mercury is expected to tickle 40 degrees celsius before the weekend in Nevada. On so many fronts, Las Vegas, International Fight Week and its perfect poster boy are only hotting up.

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