Kids have run of the place again

Stepping out of the sliding doors of McCarran International Airport into a July mid-afternoon on the fringe of the desert is not the most settling of experiences.

Kids have run of the place again

Whatever about leaving the place, arriving in Las Vegas can feel more than a little jarring to the senses.

On Monday lunchtime, as the temperatures rapidly raced towards 38 degrees, the first bus that trundled past our taxi on Tropicana Ave only added to the onslaught.

Its entire side was still plastered with the giant faces of Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, promoting a Fight of the Century that now belonged to the past.

In the world capital of the quick buck, change can sometimes be slow.

Back then it was the two most dominant prizefighters of their generation who held the Strip in their hands and on these same pages we chronicled how it was hard to escape the feeling that boxing had put the UFC, its brash young rival in the world of combat sports, in its place.

As Mayweather and Pacquiao dominated everything from billboards, front pages, TV screens, beer cups even, boxing had a chance to puff out its chest and remind the Ultimate Fighting Championship who was the daddy.

That was then. Nine weeks on though, the kids have the run of the place again. Things may not be nearly as fevered but the UFC’s International Fight Week is front and centre on the Las Vegas Strip, with Conor McGregor most central of all.

For a moment on Monday, it struck that boxing was acknowledging as much.

In an almost ceremonial handing over of free reign to the UFC and their poster boy, the WBO stripped Mayweather of the title he had claimed when he outclassed Pacquiao back on May 2.

All week Las Vegas will march to the beat of the fastest growing sport in the world. McGregor’s showdown at the MGM Grand with late replacement Chad Mendes, the American who has filled the gap created by Jose Aldo’s wonky rib, undoubtedly takes top billing.

Even with the Brazilian’s withdrawal and the scuppering of a clash that shaped to be the most mouth-watering in the recent history of the sport, gate and TV records look likely to fall on Saturday night.

But the UFC hordes pouring through the international arrivals hall of McCarran — at least 2500 McGregor devotees are due from Ireland — are coming for more than that, they’re coming because Sin City has been transformed into a temporary mecca for mixed martial arts.

A huge fan expo will take over the Sands resort for the weekend and the MGM will also be filled on Sunday night when thousands gather around the octagon for the finale of the organisation’s potently popular Ultimate Fighter reality TV show.

The UFC’s own list of daily events looked both exhaustive and exhausting, this before we’d even stepped into the searing sun to get along to them.

In Vegas everything is for show. And this is a week that is all about the UFC showing just how rapidly it has expanded, just how international its appeal now is.

Their fighting year may have began with UFC 182 at the MGM on January 4 but the all-singing, all-swinging show has hit the road and already taken in huge promotions in Sweden, Brazil, Poland, Canada, Australia, the Philippines, Mexico and Germany and we’re only at the half-way point of the year.

The schedule for the rest of 2015 includes an overdue return to Dublin in late October but also major fight nights in Scotland, South Korea and Japan with more to be confirmed.

Of course, problems persist. Such fevered, relentless expansion is bound to breed problems. Sceptics and critics remain entrenched. With certain justification.

Dana White and other UFC powerbrokers will have been enraged that International Week kicked off with news of another failed drugs test, Gilbert Melendez hit with a one-year ban after results from a post-fight test in Mexico City last month came back positive.

But the organisation’s efforts to tackle drug and wider image issues have been proving fruitful. Each show brings more and more mainstream infiltration and with it, greater acceptance.

In that respect the UFC is blessed with not one but two promotional phenomena — McGregor and the indomitable women’s champion Ronda Rousey. Just last week, on back-to-back nights, the UFC dominated the late-night talk show circuit Stateside, Rousey regaling Jimmy Kimmel and Conan O’Brien lapping up McGregor’s fight talk.

The Mayweather-Pacquiao bus may as well pull into the garage for the rest of the week — the kids are taking over.

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