Remember that mind-blowing moment during Conor McGregor's last fight in the Octagon? It happened early in the second round of the then-featherweight champion's challenge of Eddie Alvarez for the lightweight belt in 2016. McGregor had already scored three crisp knockdowns and was in such ruthless command that he stepped to the center of the cage, stood daringly in front of his opponent and held both of his hands behind his back. Alvarez, frozen by this show of carefree bravado, didn't even throw a punch.
We saw a reprise of this, in a sense, at Thursday's UFC 229 news conference in New York.
McGregor was all revved up to hype his Oct. 6 comeback fight for the 155-pound belt, now owned by Khabib Nurmagomedov, but there was no audience at Radio City Music Hall for the greatest motivational speaker in MMA to whip into a frenzy. It was an odd scene, deafening in its quiet. Staging a promotional appearance by the silver-tongued Irishman in a theater empty of devotees was kind of like tying one of his hands behind his back. This time, though, it was not of his own doing.
"Where's the f---ing fans at?" were McGregor's very first words after arriving 40 minutes late in a purple suit, a bottle of his new brand of whiskey in hand. "That's who we fight for. That's who pays the bills. That's who deserves this show."
McGregor's showmanship is always dual-purpose, though, aimed not just at his adoring public but also squarely at the heart of his opponent. So you just knew, audience or no audience, "The Notorious" was going to go after Nurmagomedov with a purpose. And McGregor did manage to land a few verbal jabs in Round 1 of their supercharged grudge match. While the Dagestani seemed unmoved at the start, by the latter part of the question-and-shouting-over-answer session he was yelling back at McGregor, explaining himself, trying to talk sense and getting drowned out while swimming upstream.
In other words, he was playing right into McGregor's one free hand.
McGregor's work in the Octagon has been masterful, time after time, but that has always come second to the beating he has already dealt his opponent in the buildup to a fight. No one does it better. His all-out aggression outside the cage is no less effective and way more ferocious than his potent-yet-patient approach inside. In both locales, his timing and marksmanship are impeccable. By the time a fighter has weathered the prefight bluster and made it to the cage with McGregor, he is ostensibly dealing with two opponents: There's Conor, who's a handful, and then there's that fighter's own worst impulses.
Just ask Jose Aldo, who went unbeaten for a decade on the strength of a relentlessly poised fighting style, then stepped inside the cage with McGregor and immediately lunged for the Irishman like a madman. All of those weeks of persistent scorn in the lead-up had got to the Brazilian and put him off his game. The 13-second KO that followed was a stunner not simply because of McGregor's precision in finding Aldo's chin, but also because Jose's chin was there for the taking in the first place.
On Thursday, McGregor launched into his first offensive before he'd even said a word. He walked onstage with two championship belts, which made for an impressive visual once Nurmagomedov came out with his strap. In reality, only one of those three belts was legit, since McGregor long ago was stripped at both featherweight and lightweight because of inactivity. But you didn't expect UFC president Dana White to set the record straight on who his real champ is, did you? There's a fight that needs to be sold.
White says McGregor-Khabib bad blood is real
Dana White reflects on the "darkest press conference" he's taken part in, featuring genuine dislike between the two fighters.
McGregor, naturally, was hard-selling a narrative of his own design, claiming Nurmagomedov was the fake champion. "He's fought absolutely nobody," he said of the 26-0 belt holder. "He's in over his head." This is all part of Conor's self-actualization, which always sounds more like self-aggrandizement until it turns out to be truth.
Before the news conference was over, McGregor had invoked everyone from Nurmagomedov's father to Khabib's brother, from controversial Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov to Russian president Vladimir Putin. He'd referred to his opponent as "a glass-jawed bum." All the while, McGregor had in his hand a glass of whiskey. Both he and the spirits were flowing. McGregor's feisty monologues did begin to take on an uncharacteristic sloppiness the more he sipped, but this louder, looser Conor was the one who finally broke through Khabib's stone face, if only just a little.
"There's never been anybody better at mental warfare," White told reporters after the news conference. "He's the absolute best of all time."
Had the old theater been open to the public, Radio City would have been high-kicking like a Rockettes holiday show. Instead, the fighters' words echoed off the lonely walls as if the place were the soundstage for a sitcom without a laugh track.
But who can blame the UFC for closing the doors? The last time McGregor and Nurmagomedov had been in close proximity, a bus had its window smashed, people got hurt, fights were canceled and a jailhouse and a courtroom became part of their promotional storyline. Imagine the chaos if Round 2 went down in a theater packed with Conor fans and Khabib fans. Dana & Co. weren't taking any chances.
"We had problems in New York," the UFC president said. "I don't want any problems in New York today."
So, instead, fans were directed to a viewing party a few blocks away in Times Square, where a 330-foot screen would show the news conference. This was a coup for the UFC, having its event screened in the world's most famous urban acreage -- with the event date and pay-per-view order info plastered on what was essentially a block-long billboard. There were complaints that fans couldn't hear what the fighters were saying. But that and the lack of closed captioning might actually have been a blessing, as McGregor's every other utterance was a swear word. That has no place in today's Times Square, a gathering place for the general public, including families with kids.
- UFC (@ufc) September 20, 2018
In the end, both happenings/non-happenings in midtown Manhattan will be remembered as inventive but imperfect fuel-up stops along the road to fight week. In the final days before Nurmagomedov and McGregor step into the cage in Las Vegas, there will be a few last promotional events with fans in attendance. Conor will dig and dig in his effort to get under still another opponent's skin. Khabib will put on the stoic face he always wears and rely on his deep inner well of composure.
Neither of these guys has ever been confronted by a foe quite as empowered as the other. It's the master of breaking a man's psyche versus a man too rock-solid to be broken. That's the fight now underway, playing out prior to the first punch being thrown or takedown attempted.