NEW YORK – Of course there were antics and theatrics. Of course some of his finer tried-and-true lines were trotted out. This was still Conor McGregor after all, who made himself a global star and very wealthy man because of his ability to both sell and finish fights.
Conor is going to be Conor, so it was little surprise that here on the stage at Radio City Music Hall he spent almost as much time pitching his whiskey line as his return to the UFC on Oct. 6 against Khabib Nurmagomedov.
There was something else going on, though, as McGregor unleashed a torrent of insults and animosity in the direction of Nurmagomedov, the 26-0 lightweight champion.
The hate might actually, for once, be real.
McGregor is always wild and this was no different. Yet in the past, while he’s been entertaining and inflammatory you could practically see him trying to find a way to truly dislike a Jose Aldo or Nate Diaz or Eddie Alvarez.
His run-up to the 2017 boxing match with Floyd Mayweather was really just performance art, the two were partners in printing money and little more. Everyone was in on the gag — a profane, politically incorrect gag, but still. McGregor would incite the masses and Mayweather would carry him for enough rounds that no one felt ripped off.
Thursday was different. This has always been different, really. The most obvious proof came on April 5 when McGregor stormed a bus carrying Nurmagomedov, and other UFC fighters, after a news conference at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Irate that Nurmagomedov had apparently cornered one of his friends, Artem Lobov, a couple days prior, McGregor showed up and went nuts, punching the bus, daring Nurmagomedov to get out and eventually throwing a loading dolly and smashing a window.
For that he wound up in custody in Brooklyn. While conspiracy theorists saw that as some kind of set-up, it wasn’t. McGregor risked significant punishment (he got off with no jail time).
The UFC was also unpleased. Not so unpleased that they aren’t now more than willing to use footage of the bus attack to sell this fight, of course, but unpleased still.
“It’s part of the storyline,” UFC president Dana White noted.
Indeed, it is. White was concerned enough about McGregor losing his mind in the presence of Khabib that he staged this news conference sans fans, who might further enflame the Irishman. McGregor complained but to no avail.
“We had trouble in New York,” White explained. “We don’t want trouble in New York today.”
Then when the fighters finally squared off, the stage was filled with at least four uniformed NYPD officers, plus another half-dozen security guards or plain-clothed police. No one really knew what McGregor was going to do.
“If you had gotten off that bus you’d be dead and I’d be in a cell,” McGregor told Nurmagomedov, while repeatedly calling him a coward for not coming out to settle things on that loading dock.
Who would be dead and who would in prison is a matter of dispute, and one that Nurmagomedov keeps saying will be settled at the proper, and lucrative, time.
“Six October,” Nurmagomedov kept saying in the face of whatever insults McGregor was piling on. “Six October.”
McGregor’s anger over the Nurmagomedov-Lobov confrontation has not subsided. Why? Who knows. The intensity was real though. He’s not a good enough actor to fake it. The tension was obvious. The nervousness of not just White, but UFC staffers and security, was genuine.
McGregor and Nurmagomedov descended into shouting matches about a wide variety of topics, mostly how the other was weak and scared but also about Chechen politics, the Irish Revolution, Vladamir Putin, terrorism, money laundering, the morals of alcohol consumption and just about everything else. McGregor did most of the talking and Nurmagomedov tried to do most of the stoic beard stroking, like he didn’t hear a thing, but eventually he was drawn in.
Nurmagomedov is a violent man. He doesn’t just win fights, he pummels people with suffocating wrestling skills that allow him to dole out physical beatings. He is confident this fight will go to the ground and that will be that.
McGregor though claims he sees a glass jaw on Nurmagomedov and he will rock him the way he rocked the others. He believes he is a better boxer now after all the training for the Mayweather fight.
“Let’s wrestle,” Nurmagomedov kept shouting at one point.
“You’re going to be wrestling with my knuckle on your orbital bone,” McGregor said.
That was the tame stuff. The pre-news conference look that they shared when they first saw each other was the real deal, cold and chilling. The disdain that McGregor carried in his verbal attacks, the desire to get around Dana White at times, the pure venom that swept across his face was different.
He’s a salesman, Conor McGregor. Always a salesman. And he’s sold fight after fight after fight. Much of that was a comedy routine, looking for low-hanging punchlines and schoolyard taunts.
For whatever it’s worth, this was something unique. This wasn’t Aldo or Diaz or Mayweather, all of whom he secretly respected, if not liked.
Here in the 25th anniversary of the UFC, one of its early days slogans, designed to convince fans that this wasn’t scripted pro wrestling, was bearing out with each moment of tension.
“As real as it gets,” the UFC used to say. No one doubts that anymore and it’s fairly clear that the hostility powering what might be its richest fight ever is just that.
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