'You can run, but you can't hide...McGregor's hair is now down over his face. The end is coming'
In extracts from his new book on Conor McGregor, Ewan MacKenna charts the early determination of the fighter to succeed, and his later fall from grace in the octagon.
It's main-event time. McGregor is out first. As the smoke from the machines clears, the canvas is stained in the claret of what went before: a reminder of what might follow, as if he wasn't already aware of this maniac profession.
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It feels different to his previous bouts. John Kavanagh didn't make his usual prediction of glory. Maybe he too has been wondering what Conor's goals are now, when before it was to be a two-weight world champion and make $10m. Of late, his business dreams consume him, but what about the sporting dreams? And what about the body? Some will say he's not old, but in this arena age isn't just about a number, rather miles on the clock, via the lifestyle led, and the effects of the moments on the journey to this point.
Khabib is second in. His shoulders, his brow, and his walk suggest the pageantry is an unnecessary and bothersome distraction from what he's been yearning to do for so long. He's hunched, like a farmer heading to the fields for a day's work. He doesn't so much as touch gloves, such are the words he has endured. Now he's ready to do his pent-up talking.
There's a gladiatorial feel to all of it.
The ancient and much-maligned blood sports of the Colosseum make sense.
The ring is an existential place. You can run, but you can't hide. You are there, and you are going to get hit. Unlike in boxing, where there's some odd nobility about one athlete walking to a neutral corner to save the dignity of the other they've floored, that safety net is removed here. The UFC doesn't care for nobility.
It's not long before McGregor is down. It takes a mere 25 seconds for Khabib to get his leg; a wrestle ensues and within a minute, the Irishman's on the ground with his feet tied up. A long four minutes to survive against the best ground-and-pound artist there is.
It's exhausting. Imagine a boa constrictor that may not have the pounce and venom to kill instantly: there's the long fight as the prey tires itself out, each little mistake seeing the snake wrap itself that bit tighter to the point of no escape.
Sweaty and flustered, McGregor returns to his corner, but the second round is similar. He's supposed to be the boxer in this match-up, but his swings and efforts are a reminder of the time away and that open workout, where his punches looked slow and out of sync. Instead, it's the Russian who seems to be the better boxer, especially 22 seconds in, when a massive, wild, and wide right bursts like a firework on McGregor's cheek. The ferocity is filled with all those words Khabib has heard in the build-up. McGregor falls back.
Soon after, he's lifted off the ground and slammed back down.
On this occasion, there are more than four minutes to endure on the canvas. His bearded face, growing old before us, takes a beating that brings pain rather than the mere exhaustion of before. There is no rope-a-dope here after all the dire Ali comparisons over the years. There is no trick. There is no way out for him.
He's trapped, caught between his stubbornness and his opponent's brilliance and resulting domination. By the second bell, all that's left is to compliment him on hanging in there. There are no other positives. Few sports highlight past and present in this cruel light. A track athlete merely gets slower and a footballer merely loses on the scoreboard, yet they can still cling to when they were kings. Not here. Not during the humiliation of being physically harmed in front of so many who came to see you thrive.
McGregor's hair is now down over his face, nearly reaching his swollen eye sockets. The end is coming. Indeed, the greatest indictment of the gulf in class is that by the end of it, McGregor slumps to his stool, barely able to get back up for round four, while Khabib refuses to sit. Instead, he's counting down the seconds before he can go back for more. On this occasion, it takes two minutes before Khabib gets onto his back from behind, wrapping a forearm around his neck, and the tap out eventually comes.
Hate manifested in brute strength, but what follows is the greatest form of anger still. Winning this fight was about control. Now, all control ceases.
For a start, only the referee's presence prevents Khabib from giving his opponent an even greater battering. Wanting that bit extra is understandable. Reading his mind isn't hard.
But while those of us in the press seats are still wondering what to call the act of standing behind a man and squeezing his wind pipe shut with all one's might, there's another roar down below. And another.
And some screams. It's kicking off.
Khabib hurdles the cage and goes after Dillon Danis, a grappling partner of McGregor seated ringside. Meanwhile, as he gets to his feet inside the octagon, pulling his body and soul back together, one of Khabib's team hurdles his way into the cage and punches McGregor from behind. There are few things more cowardly than coming into a ring to hit a defeated fighter who is not only unsuspecting and defenceless, but mentally and physically spent. There is no excuse, just as there has been no excuse for McGregor on many occasions. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.
So often a hate figure, no matter what he's brought upon himself, to see that happen is to feel outraged. Not even he is deserving of this. During the bout there are at least rules.
Now they've gone and set the tone for those that follow in their footsteps, throwing a match on the petrol that's been poured all around here. In the foyer, an Irish kid spits at a Dagestani and is knocked out cold by the flash of a lethal right. His jaw's taken on a new shape, in a place where healthcare isn't cheap.
Meanwhile, none of those watching to get a kick consider the longer-term consequences. Can they not imagine him, having missed his flight out drinking soup in a hospital bed, calling his parents back in Dublin to tell them the bill is at $10,000 and counting? It's the beginning, as the fire spreads and burns everything down.
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