One of the hottest sellers was a squared-off Ireland flag emblazoned with one of Conor McGregor’s most repeated offerings. “We’re not here to take part,” it says. “We’re here to take over.”
On Saturday night at the Grand Garden Arena that most hostile of takeovers was completed. McGregor collected what he came for — a featherweight championship belt, albeit one of the interim variety — after knocking out Chad Mendes with a left hand punch that connected as the clock rapidly ticked towards the end of the second round.
Had the fight actually reached the end of the round (and it got within three seconds of that) McGregor would almost certainly have been trailing on all scorecards.
Instead he again delivered when it mattered most, producing the kind of off-the-canvass-and-into-your-livingroom comeback that should silence only the most blindly stubborn of detractors.
“I’m overwhelmed by what’s happened. My mind is in a million different places,” said McGregor after a triumph that ranks as the greatest of his career, one that sends him on a direct route back to Jose Aldo, the Brazilian champion of the division.
“Just over two years I’ve been here. I’ve just about broken every record in the game. It’s a crazy game and I absolutely love it. I love this job, I love this game, I love this ride that I’m on. I am happy to have taken the gold. This was my belt. This was my night.”
It was his night. It was a night of utterly bewitching brutality, but the most vicious assault of all was on the senses, most notably sound.
The noise inside this vaunted house of combat sports ebbed and flowed with the headline fight of the night but even at its lower lulls, it still made it almost impossible to think.
In the 15 to 20 seconds after McGregor knocked out Mendes, however, it reached such an eardrum-crushing crescendo, that you imagined the ENT units of Las Vegas hospitals were about to be inundated. They were already in for a busy night given the number of noses that had been crushed at UFC 189.
In the bout that preceded McGregor-Mendes, welterweight champion Robbie Lawler and his Canadian challenger Rory MacDonald had engaged in such a steel-willed war of attrition that a new canvas cover - a slightly less crimson one - was needed for the final fight of the night. It was the kind of battle that, to use the native sporting lexicon, falls into the category of barn-burner.
Lawler came out on top and the barn did indeed burn but it was still left to McGregor to really bring the house down. He had a little help from a friend when Sinead O’Connor sang him into the ring with a haunting rendition of The Foggy Dew. An atmosphere that had been crackling was now fully aflame.
This writer was in the same venue two months before for the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao Fight of the Century but the sounds and sights then didn’t come close to this. The near 10,000 Irish fans in attendance helped to break all known gate records for the sport. “That was some moment. I look up and Sinead is surrounded by lights and smoke and she just points at me,” purred McGregor afterwards. “Sinead is an absolute legend, an Irish hero, a passionate, powerful, strong woman and her voice just sends chills through my spine.
“I’m extremely grateful for every person who made a lot of sacrifices, saved up to make this trip. This is a big expense to come out here to Las Vegas. I showed up to fight, I respected the people that have sacrificed a lot of their money, their time to make this trip. It hit me at the end, the support and the passion from the fans. I will be forever grateful.”
O’Connor’s performance and both ringwalks were indeed quite something. But once the songs had been sung and the cage door had been closed, we remembered that after the insufferably lengthy build-up, there was, after all going to be a fight.
McGregor, who has spent six months stocking up frustrations on the promotional campaign trail, spun a kick towards Mendes’ mid-section and we were off and swinging. Or, to be more accurate, Mendes was off and swinging.
The Californian enjoyed much the better of the opening round crashing McGregor to the floor and splitting him open with a punishing elbow to the eye. The ‘wrestling question’ that had dominated much of the build-up was being asked. But McGregor answered with superb defensive work and some solid body shots of his own. He also answered vocally, goading Mendes each time he would take a shot.
The second round was going much the same way as the first with McGregor on his back, playing the defensive dervish and still chirping away. Once he got to his feet and regrouped, however, the fight was over in a flash.
“I felt like I had complete control on top,” said Mendes, for whom the two-week truncated build-up to the fight when he replaced Aldo in the main event was certainly a huge factor. “There wasn’t a whole lot he could do when I was on top of him. I think he was weakening but you have to give it to him, the guy didn’t stop talking shit the whole time. I would land a giant elbow on his face and he would say ‘is that all you got’.
“I remembered getting back to my feet and my feet were tired. Conor was able to stand there in front of me and tee off. That was the mistake I made.”
It was a mistake he could only make once. His opponent’s concrete left fist ensured that. The takeover is indeed complete.