LAS VEGAS – Conor McGregor backed up all the talk, but just barely.
The trash-talking Irishman sent thousands of his countrymen home deliriously happy by scoring an improbable knockout victory over Chad Mendes after enduring a ton of abuse Saturday at the MGM Grand in their bout for the interim featherweight title in the main event of UFC 189.
Mendes was a late replacement for champion Jose Aldo, who pulled out of the bout with a rib injury. Mendes is a wrestler, a totally different style of fighter than Aldo, and gave McGregor fits.
He opened a big cut outside of McGregor’s right eye in the first and spent most of the second round on top of the Irishman firing elbows.
It looked bleak for McGregor, but when Mendes went for a choke, McGregor spun out. With time in the second round running down, McGregor fired a hard right and then followed it with a blistering left that dropped Mendes near the cage.
McGregor followed him to the floor and landed a couple of shots before referee Herb Dean jumped in to stop it at 4:57 of the round.
The place, which was filled with McGregor’s loyal Irish fans, erupted with an ear-splitting roar as Dean waved his hands over his head, officially ending the bout and giving McGregor the belt.
As Mendes was tended to by the officials, McGregor raced to the opposite side of the cage, grabbed the Irish flag and fell to his knees. He kissed the flag and appeared to be in tears. Later, his parents, his girlfriend and other family members entered the cage to embrace him.
“I can’t say the words to express how grateful I am for the support of these fans,” said McGregor, whose trash talk built the show into a mega-event. There were 11,000 people at Friday’s weigh-in and Saturday’s crowd was overflowing.
But it appeared for much of the fight he’d have to eat his words. Mendes won the first round on all three judges’ cards by landing his overhand right and using his wrestling.
His wrestling was even more dominant in the second, as he put McGregor on his back and dropped a series of crunching elbows on him.
But the wily McGregor, who had been criticized by some for being moved up too quickly by the UFC, showed the courage of a champion by not only getting up, but by finishing the fight.
Mendes was angry at the numerous insults McGregor hurled, but they embraced several times after the battle.
“He was training for Aldo and got a completely different match, a guy with a different style, on two weeks notice,” Mendes said. “The guy is tough. He talked, but he backed it up.”
The win sets up a champion-versus-champion fight with Aldo once the Brazilian is healed in what figures to be a massive event.
Until Aldo was injured, interest in the fight was intense and it only figures to build after this night.