Whatever the sales projections for UFC 229 were prior to Wednesday’s news conference at Radio City Music Hall in New York, they went up by a lot when Dana White gave Conor McGregor a microphone.
The former featherweight and lightweight champion is in Muhammad Ali’s league as a promoter, selling his Oct. 6 bout with Khabib Nurmagomedov for the lightweight title at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas hard from beginning to end.
It was McGregor’s first official appearance at a UFC event since the UFC 205 post-fight news conference at Madison Square Garden after he knocked out Eddie Alvarez on Nov. 12, 2016, to win the lightweight title. It was as if he had never left, as he was in rare form, invoking the names of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov and relentlessly plugging Proper Twelve, his new line of Irish whiskey.
As the news conference began, McGregor was asked about his post-fight comments in 2016, when he said he wanted an ownership stake in the UFC.
“If I was an owner and I was part of the promotion, I would have [expletive] fans in this arena,” McGregor said. “Where are the [expletive] fans at? That’s who we fight for. That’s who pays the bills. That’s who deserves this show. Bring me all over the world instead of sitting here in this [expletive] thing. I’m on probation up to my eyeballs and ongoing and incoming civil cases and I’m coming here to do this bull-[expletive]. Bring the fans here.
“Here we are. Youse wanted a war. Here we [expletive] are. Let’s get a war going. [Expletive] all this other stupid [expletive]. But hey, I didn’t get what I asked, so here we are.”
And with that 30 seconds of commentary at the beginning of the news conference, McGregor hit exactly on the problem confronting UFC president Dana White.
When fans show up, as they will in Las Vegas, and the fighters’ teams are there, it won’t be so easy to control. Emotions will get high. Words will be exchanged. That could lead to disaster.
Securing the event and making certain the fighters make it to fight night without an incident is the most difficult job White has faced in his tenure as UFC president, and the man has had to deal with many difficult situations.
None are as potentially combustible as this situation has the potential to be.
White showed the strain throughout the often-hilarious news conference on Thursday. And when he brought Nurmagomedov and McGregor face-to-face, the strain on White’s face was obvious.
“Don’t touch each other, please,” White said to the fighters through gritted teeth.
The bout seems a lock for two million pay-per-view sales, which would smash the UFC record of 1.65 million set by the rematch between McGregor and Nate Diaz in 2016. Thursday’s event probably helped push the potential sales number closer to 2.5 million.
And it’s not out of the question that it will sell 3 million. Only two fights in history, boxing matches between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao in 2015 (4.6 million) and Mayweather and McGregor in 2017 (4.4 million), exceeded 2.5 million pay-per-view sales.
This event is going to be huge. T-Mobile Arena is already sold out. The gate will be the second largest in UFC history. Sponsorship dollars are on a record pace.
It’s shaping up to be a monumental windfall for the UFC, so long as there is no pre-fight incident.
Nurmagomedov kept his cool in spite of an endless stream of insults from McGregor, including a particularly cutting one about his father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov.
“The Chechen people know what I mean when I call this man a coward; when I call his father a quivering coward [in a post on Instagram],” McGregor said. “[Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov] and Kadyrov were at a mosque together and he posted a picture of Kadyrov on his Instagram. Kadyrov is the Chechen dictator, a crazy man, don’t get me wrong. Khabib’s father licked [expletive]. He posted the picture on Instagram and the caption was, ‘Together, we are stronger.’ It’s such fake respect out of fear.
“The Chechens know. The Chechen people know that if the tables were turned and there was an opportunity for his father to stab that man in the back, he would do it in a heartbeat to take over. And he did not do nothing. That is why he is a quivering coward. He showed fake respect out of fear. That’s where that came from.”
Nurmagomedov took the insult well and didn’t get excited. But at the end of the news conference as the fighters were posing for photos, Nurmagomedov manager Ali Abdelaziz shouted something at McGregor. White shouted back at Abdelaziz to shut up, as McGregor shouted at Abdelaziz.
Emotions are going to be far higher on fight week, particularly when more words are exchanged and more people are around instigating.
In April, McGregor put his career in jeopardy when he flew to Brooklyn from Ireland to confront Nurmagomedov for insulting his teammate, Artem Lobov. McGregor threw a dolly at the bus on which Nurmagomedov was seated and wound up being charged. He is being sued civilly by UFC fighter Michael Chiesa.
McGregor taunted Nurmagomedov about that incident repeatedly on Thursday, insinuating Nurmagomedov was not courageous enough to step off to challenge him. Several times, McGregor said he showed Nurmagomedov his hands to prove he was unarmed.
“I just thank the Lord Jesus Christ that that man did not have the balls to step foot off that bus, or that the bus door did not open,” McGregor said. “Because trust me, if that bus door had opened, this man would be dead right now. He would be in a box and I would be in a cell and we would not have this great fight ahead of us.
“There are many things I can speak on about that incident and about the lead-up and about my emotions. But there are many ongoing situations and I’m just here to compete.”
He’ll make tens of millions of dollars, though he said, “I do not fight for the prize. I did not begin fighting for the prize. I began to fight because I loved it, and that’s why I’m here now, because I love this game. I don’t have to be here. I’m set for life. Even without this, I’m set for life. From the last match, I’m set for life. I’m here because I love what I do.”
He made what was shaping up to be the most lucrative fight in UFC history with his performance Thursday at the news conference.
It’s now on White’s shoulders to find a way to control the chaos.
If he secures it, it will be without doubt the biggest night in the brief history of mixed martial arts. One small mistake, though, could end it all.
The most important aspect of this event isn’t Nurmagomedov’s grappling against McGregor’s striking.
It’s plainly and simply maintaining the security and getting the fighters to the first bell without incident.
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