Friday 15 December 2017

Big fight preview: Garden party will be no picnic for McGregor

New York laps up Dubliner's showmanship but Alvarez ground offensive a huge threat

Conor McGregor. Picture: Getty Images
Conor McGregor. Picture: Getty Images

Joe Callaghan in New York

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds .

The inscription that runs almost the entirety of two New York City blocks is carved into the monumental facade of New York's old General Post Office Building on Eighth Avenue.

It faces directly out on to Madison Square Garden across the street.

So if Conor McGregor had taken even a brief minute on any of his daily trips to and from the iconic home of sports in the Big Apple this week to glance up, he might have nodded his approval.

The Notorious's next appointed rounds come here tonight in the headline act of UFC 205 with a bout he has called "the culmination of my life's work" and a shot at "immortality".

He has promised it will be achieved with another swift completion, predicting he will knock Eddie Alvarez out within the first round, claim the UFC lightweight title and in the process achieve the historic feat of being the first fighter to reign over two weight divisions simultaneously.

At many junctures, he has made this first UFC card at Madison Square Garden sound just as monumental as anything across the road.


But if you expected him to take it totally seriously, you've clearly not been watching the Dubliner for very long.

McGregor has ensured that New York's first taste of mixed martial arts - the sport having finally been legalised by Empire State politicians in March of this year after a 20-year fight - is lacking in none of the myriad flavours he has served up throughout his rocketing rise over the past three years.

UFC president Dana White separates Conor McGregor and Eddie Alvarez during the UFC 205 press conference at The Theater at Madison Square Garden
UFC president Dana White separates Conor McGregor and Eddie Alvarez during the UFC 205 press conference at The Theater at Madison Square Garden

Yet for those coming back for another helping, it's hard to escape the feeling that, more and more, he's over-egging the pudding.

McGregor the sportsman is a captivating presence to follow, both inside and outside the octagon. McGregor the showman? Less and less so. Yet the locals lap up all aspects.

Manhattan made for fertile, unconquered terrain for McGregor this week, having repeated his routine four times over in Las Vegas in the past 16 months to the point that it became a little too tired for the authorities, who fined him $150,000 for his press conference fracas with Nate Diaz in August.

Here though, he's been able to unleash the bombast on a new audience - all of it. The poor timekeeping and the press conference fracas - this time involving a steel chair as a prop instead of the aluminium cans and bottles he'd hurled at Diaz in August. The insults and expletives. The flamboyant get-up and the personalised Rolls Royces.

New York has been treated to a rousing rendition of his biggest numbers.

When the noise and farce die down though, ratcheting up real numbers is still what matters most to the 28-year-old - belts and bank balances to be exact.

Tonight's card is on course to break Madison Square Garden's long-standing gate record with tickets fetching five figures in the breathless hours before fight night.

Pay-per-view figures are likely to be threatening all-time marks too given the depth of the UFC 205 card with three title fights in total.

Around midnight tonight local time, McGregor will be presented with the opportunity to complete the other part of his appointed rounds - five of them to be exact.

A year that began with the lightweight title within his reach - he was scheduled to face then champion Rafael Dos Anjos in March before the Brazilian broke his foot and Nate Diaz stepped in as a late replacement who sparked a two-fight diversion to welterweight - ends with the belt in touching distance all over again.

Factors are all too easily overlooked in the Notorious maelstrom, but it's more than noteworthy that tonight is McGregor's UFC debut in the 155lb division.

While most fighters have to work their way up, the UFC's most marketable asset largely seems to dictate his own course.

It's far from unknown territory for the Dubliner however with his exploits in lightweight in his earlier career helping him earn his elevation to the sport's biggest organisation.

What is less well known is the man on the other side of the octagon. Alvarez is a well-travelled veteran but this will be just his fifth fight in the UFC.

His reputation as a resilient rumbler who loves to get back up and take fights deep has been well earned and McGregor's favouritism with the bookies is not wholly shared among the fighting community.

Nobody knows the challenge facing McGregor better than Michael Chandler. The reigning lightweight champion in the UFC's closest rival organisation, Bellator, the Californian has thrown down with Alvarez twice, winning once, losing once and serving up a pair of instant classics in the process.

"He's got to be one of the toughest guys in this sport," Chandler said. "When it comes to straight-up heart and just gall. I think I'm one of the only guys to, I don't want to quite say make him quit. But very rarely to never does that happen with Eddie because the guy has no quit in him.


"The reason Conor lost that fight against Diaz [in March] was he took it to the deep waters and lost it out there. He got gassed and flat-footed.

"Eddie is the kind of guy who can drag a fight into the deep water and keep his foot on the gas at the same pace from the first to the fifth. We've seen Conor have troubles in that environment already."

Alvarez's biggest advantage is likely to come on the ground where there remain questions about his challenger's skills. "This guy is worried about a lot of grappling and wrestling," Alvarez said this week. "When his mind is on that I'm going to hit him with a big shot and submit him."

With the house expected to be largely partisan, McGregor's preference to start fast and with a flash could be his best route to success.

New York has had its pre-fight fill. All that now awaits is that promised swift completion.

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