LAS VEGAS – Conor McGregor is going to fight for the featherweight title on July 11 one way or another.
The UFC announced late Wednesday that champion Jose Aldo has a bruised, not broken, rib, and plans to defend his belt as scheduled in the main event of UFC 189 at the MGM Grand.
Aldo was injured Tuesday in a sparring session in Brazil with Nova Uniao teammate Alcides Nunes. There was concern his rib was broken, but the UFC issued a statement in which it said several doctors concurred that it was only bruised.
As a result, Aldo will resume training and intends to face McGregor next month at the MGM. UFC executives weren’t taking any chances, though, that Aldo would pull out late and McGregor would be forced off the card.
Aldo has already pulled out of UFC 125, UFC 149, UFC 153 and UFC 176 with injuries, so management this time took an extraordinary precautionary step.
In the event that the pain from the bruised rib is too much and Aldo can’t compete, the UFC announced that No. 1 contender Chad Mendes would face McGregor for the interim belt.
All of these machinations were to make sure that the man who only two years or so ago was on public assistance would remain atop the bill of what is one of the most significant events in the company’s history.
The UFC has spent unprecedented amounts of money promoting the bout already. It went on an eight-city, five-country tour to promote the fight, ending with a wild stop in McGregor’s hometown of Dublin, Ireland, in which McGregor snatched Aldo’s belt and held it aloft as he yelled maniacally.
The overflow crowd roared its approval in what was a spine-tingling moment for even the most casual of fans.
The company produced a commercial that was so well done that UFC president Dana White held a brief news conference to discuss it.
It was all because of McGregor’s inexplicable rise to the top. Outside of women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey – and perhaps including Rousey – McGregor is as big as it gets in the UFC.
Pay-per-view presales are higher for UFC 189 than they were for any show in the company’s history, including the historic UFC 100. Media interest is at an all-time high. And though there is a quality co-main event for the welterweight title between champion Robbie Lawler and top contender Rory MacDonald that could easily have served as the main event if Aldo had to pull out, UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta and president Dana White would have none of that.
The cynics will say it’s all about the hype, and to a large degree, it’s true.
But those same cynics forget that mixed martial arts is a business and that by turning himself into one of the sport’s biggest attractions, McGregor is generating huge money and makes the business stronger.
McGregor has been fast-tracked by the UFC, but that ignores what he’s done in the cage. Yes, he’s yet to beat a wrestler. Yes, he’s yet to beat a fighter who was ranked in the top five when he faced them. And, yes, he’s ranked only third at featherweight heading into the bout with Aldo.
Conversely, Aldo has already beaten Mendes, who is the No. 1 contender, twice, including at UFC 179 last year. Aldo also has a win over No. 2 Frankie Edgar, a former lightweight champion.
It wouldn’t have been unfair had the UFC given Edgar the shot against Aldo, considering how close their fight was in 2013 and the impressive wins Edgar has racked up since. Since dropping a disputed decision to Aldo at UFC 156 on Feb. 2, 2013, Edgar has reeled off wins over Charles Oliveira, B.J. Penn, Cub Swanson and Urijah Faber.
But no one, other than perhaps Rousey, has captured the public’s attention as quickly as McGregor.
A cab driver taking this reporter to Manny Pacquiao’s gym in Las Vegas prior to his May 2 bout with Floyd Mayweather Jr. made small talk en route by starting a conversation about “that crazy [expletive] Irish guy.”
McGregor has a penchant for drawing attention. Much like Chael Sonnen did with his pro wrestling shtick, when he went from a virtually unknown mid-card guy to a top-of-bill title challenger in two weight classes, McGregor demands attention with his wit and intelligence.
Fertitta and White know who people search for on their website. They know which stories and videos people click on. They know who the arena managers would like to headline in their buildings.
And so, as they relentlessly push McGregor, they’re simply doing what they know their customers want.
It’s going to be up to McGregor to prove he’s up to the task. He’s 5-0 in the UFC, with victories over Marcus Brimage, Max Holloway, Diego Brandao, Dustin Poirier and Dennis Siver.
Holloway is now No. 5 in the featherweight division. Poirier moved up to lightweight after losing to McGregor and is coming off a victory over Yancey Medeiros in which he looked devastatingly good.
Even though he hasn’t faced a murderer’s row of elite opponents like Aldo and Edgar have, he’s beaten quality opposition and done so in convincing fashion. And he’s the highest-ranked featherweight to have not gotten the title shot.
So he has to prove that he’s worth the time and attention. He knows that. The man behind the bravado is much shrewder than his 26 years would suggest.
He’s going to be paid handsomely for his match with Aldo, but the real money will come if he wins the belt and then puts together a string of defenses.
But you can’t defend the title without winning it, and you can’t win it without a shot.
McGregor forced the UFC to give him his shot, quicker, perhaps, than many critics would have preferred.
But he’s got it, and management’s moves on Wednesday to ensure as best they can that he appears in the main event on July 11 proves who the biggest man in the sport is right now.
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, it’s that crazy Irish guy.