The Irish Times
McGregor mania Ken Early in Vegas
After a build-up that lasted almost a year, McGregor and Aldo will finally come to blows in the octagon
The original Phoney War lasted only eight months. The one leading up to José Aldo v Conor McGregor has gone on for 12. It seems like centuries ago that McGregor talked about invading Aldo’s favela on horseback and putting to the sword all those who were not fit to work. Even the legendary Convention Centre press conference feels like a shadow-memory from a past life.
Hype fatigue has set in for even the most devoted fans, which is one reason why so few of them have turned up at the Grand Garden Arena to see Wednesday’s press conference. At his last weigh-in here in July, McGregor was hailed by a crowd of more than 15,000. This time there are only a couple of hundred in the 17,000-capacity stadium.
Everyone expects the usual McGregor performance. We’re expecting him to strut out in shades and a waistcoat, call everyone a bitch and slam his microphone back down on the table. So why is he sitting here in jeans and a polo shirt and talking in a calm reflective tone about how he is in a state of Zen. What happened to the rancour, insults and bombast? Did he just acknowledge Aldo at the end of the face-off with . . . a respectful nod? What’s happening here?
There’s a clue in what McGregor says when a journalist invites him to name Aldo’s greatest weakness.
“I feel José, like many individuals in the game, is stuck in a routine. Stuck in the same pattern. They enter the same, they exit the same, they hit pads the same and they grapple the same. It’s routine, it’s repetition and I truly feel that repetition will close off your mind and lock the frame.
“I just feel like he does the same thing over and over. It’s predictable, so that’s where I feel his weakness is, like where many other individuals in the game weaknesses lie. They are predictable.” Watered-down version Unlike himself, he doesn’t need to add. A week earlier, McGregor had talked about other fighters beginning to copy his style and his attitude: “Everywhere I look I just see a watered-down version of me.”
So the other fighters have turned up wearing suits only to find the man they’re copying is in a polo shirt. Aldo arrived braced for confrontation and instead he met civility. At the face-off, McGregor adopted an orthodox stance when everyone knows he’s a southpaw. Has he deliberately set out to present himself as Mr Unpredictable, subverting expectation at every turn? Not necessarily. McGregor is not a calculated performer like José Mourinho. Calculation really isn’t his style.
Maybe it counts as a calculation that from the outset he’s obviously been following the general principle of fighter showmanship explained by Gorgeous George to Muhammad Ali: “keep on braggin’, keep on sassin’, and always be outrageous.” But every fighter is aware of the principle. Not every fighter can carry it off.
McGregor is not the kind of guy who sits down and prepares his public appearances in detail. He might have a couple of pre-scripted lines to hand, but he’s not a politician who manufactures and manipulates a message. He’s instinctive, not choreographed. His mind is sharp rather than systematic. He simply trusts that when the moment comes he’ll know what to do and say.
Like all natural performers, he responds to the energy of the audience. If the press conference on Wednesday had taken place in front of thousands of boozed-up fans instead of in a cavernously empty arena it would have been a different kind of moment and we might have seen a different kind of McGregor.
The only time you ever hear him hesitate is if he’s confronted with some delicate issue that forces him to engage the thinking part of his brain – if he’s asked a question about Ronda Rousey, say, and knows he has to be careful not to step on anyone’s toes. Mostly the words seem to flow straight out of his subconscious. He reminds you of what Hesh Rabkin says at the funeral of Livia Soprano: “Between brain and mouth there was no interlocutor.”
The great advantage of this approach is that you sound like you mean what you’re saying. As Donald Trump’s polling figures illustrate, that quality alone can make your voice stand out in a world of expedience and insincerity. The disadvantage, as Trump also illustrates, is that you often find yourself blurting out stupid or self-contradictory things. But given the premium McGregor places on unpredictability, maybe he sees that as another advantage.
When McGregor gave that little nod to Aldo at the end, you could see a surprised grin on the face of Dana White. McGregor is White’s golden goose but that doesn’t mean White knows what he’s thinking. White’s problem now is that as McGregor gets more successful, he also gets more demanding.
McGregor’s purse tonight is $300,000 (¤272,000) plus a potential $250,000 (¤227,000) win bonus, but he’s also on a cut of the pay-per-view revenue. The precise terms are undisclosed, but it’s rumoured to be $3-$5 per PPV buy, so he could easily make more than $5 million. That would satisfy a lot of fighters, but not McGregor, who has lately started to talk unsettlingly about his dream of making a $100 million.
These unprecedented demands make you wonder whether the relationship between McGregor and the UFC ownership is about to enter a less cordial phase.
There are hints that this is already happening. McGregor has always wanted to fight in Croke Park but lately he’s stopped promising that, saying instead that he suspects the UFC will only allow him to fight in Las Vegas.
He now makes little effort to hide his irritation at the incessant media obligations that come with his role as the golden goose. He recently told BT Sport that he sometimes feels like “a monkey in the zoo, locked in a cage, and they feed me a banana and tell me to dance”.
But if his patience might be close to exhaustion, his ambition appears limitless. On Wednesday he wasn’t just talking about winning the belt. He was talking about changing the sport. “This one will be a spectacle. A masterclass. This one will be the changing of the guard. Me bringing in a new era in fighting, in approach, in everything. I’m looking to show the world the new age.”
On Thursday, we got to see the old and the new worlds in action at the open workouts. José Aldo was first out, emerging to boos from the thousand or so Irish fans who had collected in the Arena. At least they were noticing him this time. The day before, I’d seen Aldo walk completely unacknowledged past a crowd of fans on his way into the press conference. Undefeated in 10 years, and still the invisible champion.
The feeling is mutual
The UFC organisation doesn’t like Aldo, and the feeling is mutual. They don’t like how Aldo speaks out about the bad pay and exploitative terms they offer their fighters. But the thing they really don’t like about him is that he doesn’t make them enough money.
It’s not just that he’s pulled out of five scheduled title defences. The bigger problem is when he turns up. He has headlined five UFC pay-per-view events, which have generated 213,000 buys on average. That’s barely half the five-year average of 422,000. José Aldo’s record says he’s a great champion, but America isn’t interested. To borrow a phrase from UFC co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta, Aldo does “move the needle on pay-per-view” – he just moves it the wrong way. McGregor moves the needle the other way. His fight against Mendes generated 825,000 buys. That translates to almost 40 million extra dollars of revenue compared to the average take when Aldo tops the bill.
A McGregor impersonator in the crowd rose to his feet, stretched out his arms, shouted “EIRE!” and stuck out his tongue. Aldo glanced mildly in his direction before settling down to stretch. Would he look as stiff and set in his ways as McGregor had suggested? His workout was certainly rather basic. No kicks, no grappling, nothing fancy. José Aldo remains resolutely uninterested in putting on a show.
Only at the very end of the workout was there any hint of a display. He fired off 10 or 12 four-punch combinations, hitting the pads as fast and hard as he could. In that moment Aldo looked mean, and he knew it. But when he stopped you couldn’t help noticing how heavily he was breathing.
Ninety minutes later, McGregor arrived on stage accompanied by a bearded man with a black topknot and an impressive physique.
This was his “movement coach”, Ido Portal. McGregor has spent the last few months talking constantly about movement, and Portal, a 36-year old fitness guru from Israel who has built a lucrative business out of advising rich people how to get ripped, is the reason why.
McGregor did hit and kick the pads for a while, but for the most part he was prancing about the stage with Portal. Several routines appeared to involve imitating the movement of various animals – stalking along the ground like a leopard preparing to pounce, walking on all fours like a monkey. Portal took a stick and waved it through the air as though practicing slow-motion swordsmanship while McGregor weaved and insinuated his way around it.
The whole show looked more akin to dancing than combat and it was fascinating to watch. What use it’s going to be against José Aldo is something maybe only true initiates of human movement can grasp.
As so often with McGregor, it was hard to know whether he was being smart or dumb. Does his association with Portal demonstrate his intelligence, his cross-disciplinary open-mindedness, his willingness to experiment, learn, adapt, and evolve? Or is he just easy meat for a predatory guru? True evolution Portal has shown himself capable of uttering sentences like: “True evolution is led from the top and is driven by outside inspiration – looking at other peaks, not on those climbing up the mountain you stand upon.” A single sentence like that gives off an insidious whiff of bullshit that a dozen videos of him balancing his whole weight beautifully on one hand can’t completely dispel.
The truth will be in the octagon. Old school against new age, invisible champion against golden goose. Has Conor McGregor really got inside José Aldo’s head, or has he just been poking the bear? Will Aldo ruin Christmas for White and the Fertittas, or will McGregor claim a victory that could set him on the way to becoming bigger than the UFC? After a long year of questions, it’s finally time for answers.