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Did Conor McGregor slap Jose Aldo prior to a recent television appearance, or didn’t he?
It’s one of the few mysteries coming out of an in-your-face, two-week press junket dubbed the “UFC 189 World Championship Tour,” which promotes the featherweight title fight between longtime champion Aldo and bombastic challenger McGregor on July 11 in Las Vegas.
According to UFC president Dana White, McGregor delivered a slap to the back of the champion Friday morning as they prepared to make a Toronto television appearance, a full week into the tour.
“Jose Aldo does not like Conor McGregor, and Conor McGregor is good at pushing his buttons,” White said.
Aldo, meanwhile, disputed his boss’ version of the events. “There was no slap,” Aldo told MMAFighting.com on Sunday. “He pulled my jacket. That’s what happened.”
Regardless of who you believe, there’s little dispute after last week that by the time they make their Octagon walkouts, McGregor vs. Aldo will be one of the biggest events in the UFC’s 21-year history.
The press tour, which visits five countries on three continents in a 12-day span, started in Brazil, wound its way to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Boston, New York and Toronto, then wraps up with a Monday news conference in London and Tuesday fan event in Dublin.
The international scope makes it clear why this is going to be a massive fight. The first event of the tour, in Rio de Janeiro, was a wild spectacle. Fans turned out in droves to support their countryman, Aldo. They shouted down McGregor’s answers with a chant which, translated from Portuguese, meant: “You’re going to die.”
By the time the caravan hit the east coast, at stops in New York and Boston, the crowds swung in the favor of McGregor, a pattern likely to only intensify in Dublin. McGregor responded by upping the ante on his rhetoric.
“What I really want to do is turn his favela into a Reebok sweatshop,” McGregor said, a reference the UFC’s official apparel provider likely did not pre-approve. “They work well over there.”
For Aldo, the McGregor fight will mean both the recognition and the payday that has long eluded him, despite his status as one of MMA’s all-time great champions.
Aldo has held the world featherweight title since defeating Mike Brown for what was then called the WEC championship in November 2009. He’s the third-longest-reigning champion in Zuffa history, behind former UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva and former UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre.
And yet, the Manaus, Brazil, native has never broken through to the masses as his peers did. Partially, this is because Aldo has always seemed content to stay a star at home and not worry about the rest. Unlike Silva, Aldo hasn’t learned English and doesn’t spend much time in North America when he’s not fighting. As often as not, Aldo’s UFC title defenses were half of two-title-fight double bills, rather than headlining on his own.
McGregor used this knowledge to tweak Aldo, claiming the champion is riding his challenger’s considerable coattails.
“Before I came along, [Aldo], was co-main event to the bantamweights,” McGregor said at the Boston tour stop. “Now, we’re on private jets going all over North America, all over the world. Even top-15 featherweights are headlining cards now. It’s the McGregor division, make no mistake about it. If I leave, and go to the lightweight division, the featherweights go back to the prelims, it’s that simple.”
And while there’s little doubt the charismatic McGregor has become one of the UFC’s biggest stars – through both the sheer force of his personality and his ability to back up his talk in the cage – Aldo is inclined to dismiss his opponent as a matter of hype and favorable matchmaking.
“He has never faced a top fighter before,” Aldo said. "I see the fear in his eyes. He will suffer when he gets into the Octagon with me. I’m not like the retired fighters and [up-and-comers] he is used to.
“After this fight, I’m going to win, I’m going to go home,” Aldo continued, before engaging in a rare bit of trash talk. “He’s going to go home crying and my pockets are going to be full of money.”
Predictably, as the tour neared its end, a segment of the fan base – the ones usually complaining the UFC doesn’t do enough to promote their fights – began grousing that the UFC was overdoing it with the Aldo-McGregor hype. But it appears the full-court press, which has kept the UFC in the headlines during a time when Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao would otherwise devour the combat sports world’s attention, has paid off in a big way.
With the pricing at the MGM Grand Garden Arena scaled for what would be a Las Vegas MMA record $7 million gate, tickets for the event nearly sold out Friday -- the first day they were available. As of Sunday, all that remained via Ticketmaster were a few rows of far-corner seating on the lower lever. By contrast, UFC 187, in the same building, with a double bill of Jon Jones vs. Anthony Johnson and Chris Weidman vs. Vitor Belfort, is only about half-sold.
“I think this is the biggest fight of the year,” White said. “When you have a fight where countries care about the fight, it’s a big deal. It’s a big enough deal that we’re doing this world tour. We’ve probably spent more money promoting it than any other fight ever.”
The UFC’s carnival barker-in-chief may be prone to hyperbole, but this time around, he’s on the mark, whether McGregor slapped Aldo or not.
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter: @DaveDoyleMMA