The last thing the UFC ever wanted to do was stage a card in front of exactly zero fans. Part of the sport’s greatness is the wild and electric atmosphere that a packed arena surrounding a caged Octagon provides.
Yet a funny thing happened in the UFC’s return this week. The coronavirus-created silence of an empty VyStar Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jacksonville offered an enlightening, if unlikely, experience.
With no noise to drown anything out, you could hear the fighters talk to each other, you could hear their corners shout instructions and the combatants could even hear the announcers offer instructional commentary and adjust accordingly (and in at least one case, successfully).
“Thank God for not having a crowd,” Greg Hardy said after he began checking kicks, as the broadcast team suggested, en route to victory on Saturday.
Hardy has a point.
It’ll be a glorious day when things get rocking again, but in the meantime the UFC should seize on this bizarre moment by getting the sport’s loudest and most incessant trash-talker a fight.
Conor McGregor, step up and speak out.
The Irishman rose to superstardom due to his dual propensity to deliver waves of insults and right hands on the heads of opponents. One begat the other. And vice versa.
So imagine the chance to both see it and hear it. McGregor barking and badgering while standing directly in front of an opponent capable of shutting him up. From past fights we can see he never stops jabbering. Now we could listen in, a missing piece finally found.
Win or lose, McGregor fights are entertaining. This would be a new wrinkle.
And if this is going to happen, then there may be no better opponent than rival Nate Diaz. They split their first two fights, but the trilogy bout has been on hold for nearly four years (McGregor-Diaz 2 was in August 2016).
The animosity is real. So too is some measure of underlying respect. Diaz finished McGregor the first time, only to return to lose a razor-thin decision. All along, and in the years since, McGregor has spent plenty of time trying to find a way to get under Diaz’s skin.
Diaz tends to be stoic until the fight begins. Then he is famous for smack talk and Stockton slaps. It’s phenomenal.
Ideally, this fight would deliver a massive gate (around $17 million) and a wild crowd. It’s possible the UFC would like to table it until it can cash that check.
But can it afford to shelve these two stars for who knows how many months until full-houses are possible again?
McGregor would, no doubt, like a rematch for the lightweight title with Khabib Nurmagomedov, and that fight would certainly provide plenty of vocal entertainment as well.
It appears Justin Gaethje, who shares representation with Nurmagomedov, jumped to the head of the line with a big performance Saturday at UFC 249. Plus, with an ailing father, who knows when Nurmagomedov returns.
That leaves McGregor, who has been popping up on social media of late, even promising a July return against an unspecified opponent. He’s separately daring Diaz to “sign the contract.” There are no official plans for a fight though. At least not now.
Diaz, meanwhile, has had plenty of time to heal after a brutal cut ended his November fight against Jorge Masvidal.
Make the money right, and the elusive Diaz can be pulled into action. The tie-breaker against McGregor could certainly offer that — estimated pay-per-view buy would be 2 million or more.
Getting the numbers to work is White’s problem though. For everyone else, the concept of making the most of a terrible situation is tantalizing. This would be as raw and as real as possible, the trash-talk and taunts for all to hear.
It would be like a street fight, in Crumlin or Stockton. No crowd noise to drown it out. No cheers and jeers to distract. No showmanship to get in the way.
Just two all-time UFC stars, lined up across one another, settling a bitter and long standing conflict.
That has always promised to be something spectacular to see. Do it now, and we could hear it, too — Conor vs. Nate, full volume.
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