Holly Holm and Conor McGregor had ended 2015 on top of their respective worlds. In the space of three hectic UFC weeks last November and December, they both claimed maiden world titles. On Saturday night they were paired up as the co-headliners of UFC 196 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. The Preacher’s Daughter and The Notorious, they made for one of the more unlikely couplings in the sport of combat.
Pushed together by their employers, in the end they were only finally brought together by mutual trauma.
When McGregor, late as usual but more forgivably so this time, joined the post-fight press conference of UFC 196, things were already under way.
He went to take his seat next to the lectern but first laid a lingering, commiserative hand on Holm’s back. She responded in kind.
The MGM Grand is supposed to be the home of the champions. But this corner of the desert had never proven so inhospitable. Both had been choked — literally and metaphorically — by significantly less favoured opponents.
Both were now left to face hard questions and, when the dust eventually settled, make harder decisions.
At least Holm had the small consolation of not tapping out, challenger Miesha Tate having to choke her unconscious to strip her bantamweight title away in her first defence of it. McGregor, by contrast, hadn’t been able to fight the urge, signalling surrender to referee Herb Dean within two seconds of Nate Diaz locking in a rear naked choke hold towards the end of the second round of their welterweight showdown. Both defeated fighters had got their breath back but neither had yet got their head around it.
“It’s a bitter pill to swallow,” said McGregor of the first defeat of his UFC career, one that brought the juggernaut to the most screeching halt. “I took a shot and went at it. I was simply inefficient with my energy. Nat took [my shots] very well. The weight helped him take those shots. I made errors.
“His range was a factor, my left hand was falling short. My wheel kicks missed and that did more to my energy than his. It was a battle of energy in there and he won. This is the game. I am happy to have come out and continue and stay in this fight. It didn’t pay off. This is the fight business. It’s another day. I will come back.”
He will indeed come back. Much as some naysayers may hope as much, this was not suddenly the end of an era for McGregor. It was, however, the end of an aura. Next time he marches into the ring he will likely still be wrapped in a Tricolour. But the cloak of invincibility that came with it is now gone forever. Will his pre-fight predictions ever sound convincing again? Unlikely.
Because even though he helped choose the opponent and personally chose the weight class, Mystic Mac still somehow never saw this coming.
“He kept his composure,” McGregor said of the victor who survived a volley of vaunted left-hand shots that had reddened his right eye and then cut it open. “He went into almost autopilot mode with the shots, his face was bust up, and I went into panic mode. There was a shift of energy and he capitalised on it.
“I think with a bit of an adjustment and recognition that it must take more than one shot, more than two shots, more than three shots to put the heavier man away.
“If I go in with that mindset at a heavier weight I will do fine again.”
What had brought him here in the first place though? Ambition and ego, the lines between the two increasingly blurred. Those wheel kicks that he’d promised would wow the masses a case in point. McGregor had terrified Conan O’Brien with some on the late night talk show midweek but each one aimed at Diaz came nowhere as close to the mark when it actually mattered. Now his own world is spinning. He has to slow things down significantly to make sure his next move doesn’t end in similar disaster.
While Holm can rest easier knowing that she’ll be staying at bantamweight and facing into a rematch with Tate or Ronda Rousey, McGregor has myriad machinations to consider.
“I haven’t stopped in a lot of years. I’m still really enjoying it. I’m not tired of it,” he insisted when asked if he needed a break.
“What is next, I don’t know. I still feel UFC 200 is there for me but I’ll sit and see. I’m not cut, I’m simply heartbroken. But we’ll take a look at it and decide in the morning. We can either run from adversity or we can face adversity head on and that’s what I plan to do.”
For adversity read Aldo, Jose Jr. The Brazilian, vanquished last time out by a stunning 13-second KO that saw McGregor claim his featherweight title, revelled in the Dubliner coming unceremoniously unstuck early Sunday morning.
“See you at #UFC200,” Aldo tweeted in the seconds after Diaz had sent an already stunned arena into frenzy. “Your fairy tale is over. You got nowhere to run now. Time to [sic] a rematch, pussy.”
That rematch, which would again leave the pressing Frankie Edgar hard done by, does look most likely. After another massive gate and pay-per-view records threatened even in defeat, McGregor for now remains headline material so it will likely find its way atop the UFC 200 megashow in July. It makes for a somewhat humbling comedown for the 27-year-old who’d hinted he’d left the 145lb division behind for good.
“I know there’s a lot of people celebrating this in the featherweight division,” said McGregor, magnanimous throughout. “There are many people celebrating another man’s victory. It’s something that I cannot understand, how somebody not involved can celebrate another man’s victory. At the end of the day, I am the featherweight world champion. I feel it is right to go back down and remind them.”
More importantly, he might remind himself too.