Rolling up for the McGregor show

For many observers it’s simply not a sport and will never be considered one, no matter how much more popular it gets with each passing year. 

Rolling up for the McGregor show

Yet it still found its way on to the front pages of the sport sections in Las Vegas all week.

This is not the Ultimate Fight Championships...but poker. The World Series of Poker kicked off here earlier this week with a prize fund that topped $60million. The series is a process of whittling down almost 6,500 competitors to just nine, a process that won’t be completed until November.

It’s a ‘sport’ that Conor McGregor’s critics and sceptics probably think he would excel in — at least at first. To them, the Dubliner is little more than a glorified bluffer, albeit a very glorified one at that.

For about the same length of time as it will take to find 2015’s poker kingpin — almost five months — McGregor has been putting on the hard sell, promoting UFC 189 in trademark fashion.

Tonight at the MGM Grand, the time for selling will mercifully come to an end. Brilliant and all a salesman as he is, you can sense McGregor’s relief at that.

In the headline bout of the most lucrative show in UFC history and with an interim featherweight title on the line against the American Chad Mendes, it will be time for the Dublin native to deliver the goods.

“This game is a crazy game. A lot of ups and down, ins and outs. Anything can happen at any given time. I just ride the wave,” said the 26-year-old this week when asked if the marathon global promotional tour — most of it alongside original opponent Jose Aldo — had taken it out of him.

“Like I said, I’ve done it. I’m the one making the money here. I’m happy with that. This is what it takes at the top of the game. You have to. It’s a lot of work but the best ones do that extra bit. I accept it.”

The brilliantly-produced Notorious documentary series brought McGregor and mixed martial arts into Irish sitting rooms and televisions that would never have otherwise hummed to the sounds of cage fighting.

A year and a half after his explosive UFC debut, it brought him into the Irish mainstream.

Stateside, where the sport was already much further down that stream, he has truly ridden those waves of which he spoke.

There cannot be too many current or former Irish sportspeople who would have been deemed worthy guests on the late night television circuit here but McGregor is well on the way to being their darling here.

“I built this event,” said the undefeated flyweight at Thursday’s final press conference as hordes of Irish fans flooded the MGM Grand.

“This is the McGregor show, make no mistakes about that. I am happy to be giving the UFC this $7.1million gate because it is me who has brought all of that. Breaking records every time.”

Last night’s weigh-in brought McGregor and Mendes in for their first staredown on the eve of battle. That prospect was enough to draw a crowd of over 10,000 along to the Grand Garden Arena another record set. But away from his bank balance, McGregor doesn’t yet have anything tangible to show for his stratospheric two-year rise.

He constantly says that he is the one running this game but it rings hollow when he’s doing so without a belt around his waist. For the fighter and the world’s fastest growing sporting organisation, who have undoubtedly settled on McGregor as their golden child, it has reached a stage where any belt will do.

When history repeated itself and Brazilian champion Aldo, who has reigned supreme in the division for four years, succumbed to injury, the UFC had to act. They decided that tonight’s bout would be for an interim title with the winner headed straight on a collision course to face Aldo in a unification championship fight.

But in selecting Mendes, the No.1 ranked fighter in the division, as the replacement on the other side of the octagon, the informed wisdom is that they have also handed McGregor a chance to answer the major question marks that hang over him as a fighter — namely that he can’t get down and do the dirty stuff as well as others can.

“I don’t think he’s the superior wrestler,” insisted McGregor, who has significant height and reach advantages over Mendes, a gifted fighter who has only lost twice in his UFC career, both against Aldo.

“I’ve been trained by my Moldovan coaches for a long, long time and my coach John [Kavanagh] is a phenomenal grappler. We will go out and shut him down.

I have so many shots that can mess this guy up. He’s coming in here that height. When you’re releasing the trigger fully and the target is lower, it takes half a milisecond to get from the ground to the head.

“He is in a lot of trouble and he will know that from the off.” Before the off there will be time for a final few spectacles. Sinead O’Connor will lead McGregor into the ring with a live rendition of The Foggy Dew.

“This is why I do this,” he said. “To go in and blow the roof off the place.” McGregor is not a poker player, he’s a mixed martial artist. Tonight in Las Vegas it is time for him to show his hand.

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up