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The UFC didn’t need New York … it has Conor McGregor

The UFC didn’t need New York … it has Conor McGregor

Paparazzi and oversized entourage in tow, Conor McGregor hit up the Cartier store on Fifth Avenue on Monday. With near-equal fervor, the man loves publicity and ostentatious displays of wealth, Rolex being a particular favorite.

So soon enough he was flashing a fresh timepiece, mugging for the cameras and the onlookers in front of a custom Rolls-Royce Ghost – “Notorious” painted on the side. From the upper deck of a sightseeing bus, tourists snapped photos of the scene.

The UFC always wanted to do New York big, always wanted to make a splash in the city. It took a decade-plus of blood, sweat and lobbyists to finally make it happen. Now that UFC 205 is set for Madison Square Garden on Saturday, they were more than happy to unleash their Irishman with a Gotham-sized personality.

“I run this whole [expletive],” he declared at a news conference. “I run New York.”

McGregor takes Manhattan, if you will.

“I’m the reason we’re even here in the first place,” McGregor continued. “I’m the reason this whole thing is happening. If I wasn’t here, this whole ship goes down. And that’s the truth. That’s facts. There’s no one else out there. There’s no one but me.”

Those are not actually the facts. McGregor is not the reason the UFC is finally staging a show in Madison Square Garden on Saturday. Years and years of promotion and political arm-twisting finally got the sport legalized here.

He isn’t entirely wrong though. He is one of the big reasons that while Saturday will be a night of personal satisfaction for UFC president Dana White and other long-time employees, it isn’t nearly as significant as it would’ve been five or 10 years ago.

McGregor helped make the UFC larger than New York; the state finally coming around and regulating the sport long after it had grown into such a global behemoth. At one point the UFC needed a badge of legitimacy – if it wasn’t in New York, was it really big time? That was long ago though, before the parade of seven-figure pay-per-views, before sold-out stadium shows from Toronto to Melbourne, before a sensation such as McGregor could command a crowd in midtown.

The three of them – company, fighter and city – form a most perfect cocktail, so perfect it would have been a challenge to imagine anyone else headlining this card. Ronda Rousey, perhaps, but she currently may lack the confidence to bask in the pre-fight publicity. Anyone other than that and this is just an MMA event – a strong one, sure, but not the grand spectacle White, et al. covet.

McGregor casts it into something else, or at least gives the UFC a chance later in the week to capture the city’s attention just days after two of its famous residents battled to become President of the United States.

“Here we are close to the New York debut at Madison Square Garden,” McGregor said. “We broke the Ali vs. Frazier attendance of 21,000, I believe. I’m hearing that. And we broke the gate record of $14 million set by Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield. So they’re two amazing contests, two historical fights, and I broke them both … the city is buzzing.”

As recently as 2012, McGregor was on the Irish dole, a guy trying to build a career in a budding sport but needing welfare to make ends meet. He says he’s never forgot the hunger and shame from those days and it helped drive him into superstardom as not just a champion fighter, but a global personality.

If he was going to do this, he was going to do it big. If that meant ruffling feathers with a company that was built by owners that ruffled feathers, then so be it.

McGregor is fighting Eddie Alvarez for the UFC lightweight title (155 pounds). He already owns the UFC featherweight title (145 pounds). He spent much of this year putting together two mega-fights with Nate Diaz in the UFC’s welterweight (170 pounds) division.

The company doesn’t normally like all the jumping around weight classes, or the prospect of dual-championship ownership because it limits the number of title fights that can happen and can stagnate a division. McGregor hasn’t fought at 155 in nearly a year, yet he is determined to hold two belts and defend them both going forward. Or so he says.

McGregor is well aware, perhaps this week more than ever, that there isn’t much the UFC can do about it. He isn’t just the star it needed for New York, he’s a star that delivers excitement when he wins (eight times) and when he loses (once).

“I continue to put on these amazing events for the amazing fans of this sport,” McGregor said.

UFC 200 was supposed to be a banner night and celebration of how far the promotion has come – and in some ways it was. It also suffered from Jon Jones failing a drug test prior to the card and Brock Lesnar getting popped afterward. McGregor wasn’t there because he refused to do some pre-fight publicity. If anything, it made him only bigger. He’s the one it can rely on.

“Listen, everyone in this game does what the [expletive] they’re told,” McGregor said. “Everyone but me, because I run this game. So I don’t give a [expletive] about all of that. They told you you’re on the prelims, you’re on the [expletive] prelims. They told you to fight, now you’re on the [expletive] Fight Night. Nobody has no say in this but me. I’m the only one who can say anything about anything. Everyone else does what they’re told, and rightfully [expletive] so.”

Again, that’s not quite accurate. Rousey and Diaz, for example, have exerted far more control over their careers of late. McGregor is a trailblazer, though, and behind him it’s possible a lot of fighters, and even a fighters union, follow, especially as the company moves to the new ownership of WME-IMG.

In the old days, the UFC looked longingly toward New York, talked incessantly about New York, obsessed over New York. It believed it needed to get there. It needed Madison Square Garden. It coveted the star-making power of the city.

All these years later, Conor McGregor stands on a Fifth Avenue sidewalk, flashing jewelry as cameras popped all around him – a UFC champion no longer needing this stage, just exploiting it like he does everything else in the game.

Check out the highlights from the UFC 205 on sale press conference featuring the stars of the card.


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