When Conor McGregor goes up on the big screen in his changing room, getting ready, the arena shakes. Hairs on arms stand to attention. For all he’s done that I’ve hated, I actually feel nervous for him. Gone is that loud-mouthed facade. Maybe it’s just focus, but there’s no madness. Without it, he looks almost like a child. Turns out the devil is a liar.
To be in his bare feet for just a split second. The rush. The adrenaline. The fear. How many of us will ever feel that? How many of us would ever want to feel that?
It’s hard to know what to make of the undercard. Like Vegas itself, it leaves you with so many emotions but all in very different, confusing, and contrasting ways. The fans get restless when there are tactical bouts, yet they love heavyweight Derrick Lewis and his all-swinging style that means he’ll either flatten a guy or get beaten up. There’s little skill to this. Losing, with eleven seconds left and badly out of breath, he lands a haymaker of a right and soon finishes the dazed and defenceless Alexander Volkov on the canvas.
For some reason, he then leaps to his feet and takes off his trunks. When asked why he did it, he says his ‘balls were hot’.
It would be baffling if you didn’t realise that McGregor has been a crusader and they all want to go low to get noticed, in the hope of getting more attention, bigger fights, and bigger paydays. It’s the new UFC way.
Soon after, Lewis’s words are replaced by the action between Tony Ferguson and Anthony Pettis. By round two, as the latter lies on top, the former’s face is covered in such a sea of blood that there’s confusion as to what happened to him for a moment. Then, as the referee asks for the doctor, it becomes clear that it’s Pettis’s blood that has soaked his opponent’s face.
‘This can’t be that bad that they have to stop this. It’s in the hairline, a giant cut,’ the commentary team beam. Across the ring, Ferguson doesn’t get his face cleaned during the break, and instead smiles like a cross between a serial killer and a lion pulling his red-soaked mane from the carcass of its fallen prey for just a brief moment. His teeth and eyes are all that remain of him. The rest, including any sort of evolution, has long since been submerged.
‘This is amazing,’ add the commentators. It’s a strange choice of word for something so terrifyingly and gloriously primal. The fight is cut short, though, as Pettis can take no more and doesn’t come out for round three. The crowd boo despite having been given what they want. Some people will never be pleased.
There’s little time for contemplation, though. It’s main-event time.
McGregor is out first. As the smoke from the machines clears, the canvas is stained in the claret of what went before: a reminder of what might follow, as if he wasn’t already aware of this maniac profession.
It feels different to his previous bouts. John Kavanagh didn’t make his usual prediction of glory. Maybe he too has been wondering what Conor’s goals are now, when before it was to be a two-weight world champion and make $10m. Of late, his business dreams consume him, but what about the sporting dreams? And what about the body? Some will say he’s not old, but in this arena age isn’t just about a number, rather miles on the clock, via the lifestyle led, and the effects of the moments on the journey to this point.
Khabib is second in. His shoulders, his brow, and his walk suggests the pageantry is an unnecessary and bothersome distraction from what he’s been yearning to do for so long. He’s hunched, like a farmer heading to the fields for a day’s work and with a job to get done. He doesn’t so much as touch gloves, such are the words he has endured. Now he’s ready to do his pent-up talking.
There’s a gladiatorial feel to all of it. The ancient and much maligned blood sports of the Colosseum make sense. The ring is an existential place. You can run, but you can’t hide. You are there, and you are going to get hit. Unlike in boxing, where there’s some odd nobility about one athlete walking to a neutral corner to save the dignity of the other they’ve floored, that safety net is removed here. The UFC doesn’t care for nobility. Go down and it gets worse, quick.
It’s not long before McGregor is down. It takes a mere 25 seconds for Khabib to get his leg; a wrestle ensues and within a minute, the Irishman’s on the ground with his feet tied up. A long four minutes to survive against the best ground-and-pound artist there is.
It’s exhausting. Imagine a boa constrictor that may not have the pounce and venom to kill instantly: there’s the long fight as the prey tires itself out, each little mistake seeing the snake wrap itself that bit tighter to the point of no escape.
Sweaty and frustrated, McGregor returns to his corner, but the second round is similar. He’s supposed to be the boxer in this match-up, but his swings and efforts are a reminder of the time away and that open workout, where his punches looked slow and out of sync. Instead, it’s the Russian who seems to be the better boxer, especially 22 seconds in, when a massive, wild, and wide right bursts like a firework on McGregor’s cheek. The ferocity is filled with all those words Khabib has heard in the build-up. McGregor falls back.
Soon after, he’s lifted of the ground and slammed back down. On this occasion, there are more than four minutes to endure on the canvas. His bearded face, growing old before us, takes a beating that brings pain rather than the mere exhaustion of before. There is no rope-a-dope here after all the dire Ali comparisons over the years. There is no trick. There is no way out for him. He’s trapped, caught between his stubbornness and his opponent’s brilliance and resulting domination. By the second bell, all that’s left is to compliment him on hanging in there. There are no other positives.
Few sports highlight past and present in this cruel light. A track athlete merely gets slower and a footballer merely loses on the scoreboard, yet they can still cling to when they were kings. Not here. Not during the humiliation of being physically harmed in front of so many who came to see you thrive.
Round three. Tick tock.
McGregor’s hair is now down over his face, nearly reaching his swollen eye sockets. The end is coming. Indeed, the greatest indictment of the gulf in class is that by the end of it, McGregor slumps to his stool, barely able to get back up for round four, while Khabib refuses to sit. Instead, he’s counting down the seconds before he can go back for more. On this occasion, it takes two minutes before Khabib gets onto his back from behind, wrapping a forearm around his neck, and the tap out eventually comes.
Hate manifested in brute strength, but what follows is the greatest form of anger still. Winning this fight was about control. Now, all control ceases.
For a start, only the referee’s presence prevents Khabib from giving his opponent an even greater battering. Wanting that bit extra is understandable. Reading his mind isn’t hard. ‘Where’s your whiskey and Islamophobia now?’ his actions growl.
But while those of us in the press seats are still wondering what to call the act of standing behind a man and squeezing his wind pipe shut with all one’s might, there’s another roar down below. And another. And some screams. It’s kicking off.
If there was an inevitability about McGregor losing, this was a moment I’d planned to watch him closely. Later, there would be more words and excuses as the mask returned, but for a split second, even the most arrogant and egotistical fighter is left naked by being stopped. In that brief instant, there is a frank realisation of what has happened; a confusion over where they are in this life; a desperation over not wanting to accept that perhaps their time at the top is up. Next is the worry about where they go from here. Low and lonely is, sadly, the best measure of a person.
But there’s no chance to observe. Looking for one more shot after the tap out can be explained away. This can’t.
Khabib hurdles the cage and goes after Dillon Danis, a grappling partner of McGregor seated ringside. Meanwhile, as he gets to his feet inside the octagon, pulling his body and soul back together, one of Khabib’s team hurdles his way into the cage and punches McGregor from behind. There are few things more cowardly than coming into a ring to hit a defeated fighter who is not only unsuspecting and defenceless, but mentally and physically spent. There is no excuse, just as there has been no excuse for McGregor on many occasions. It’s confusing. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.
So often a hate figure, no matter what he’s brought upon himself, to see that happen is to feel outraged. Not even he is deserving of this.
During the bout there are at least rules. Now they’ve gone and set the tone for those that follow in their footsteps, throwing a match on the petrol that’s been poured all around here.
In the foyer, an Irish kid spits at a Dagestani and is knocked out cold by the flash of a lethal right. His jaw’s taken on a new shape, and in a place where healthcare isn’t cheap. Meanwhile, none of those watching to get a kick consider the longer-term consequences. Can they not imagine him, having missed his night out while drinking soup in a hospital bed, calling his parents back in Dublin to tell them the bill is at $10,000 and counting?
It’s the beginning, as the fire spreads and burns everything down.
With the governor of Nevada taken away by his security detail, others don’t have that option. More spats break out. There’s one man unconscious on the floor of a smoothie bar and, not learning their lesson, the Irish want to retaliate rather than get away. Outside, a group of Khabib fans in papakhas are surrounded by a large barrier of police, and the McGregor fans taunting them fail to realise that the official presence isn’t to protect those celebrating, but to protect others from those celebrating.
On it goes into the night.
Back in the press area, editors want extra reports, and journalists scramble as the work load goes up and up and up. This will gain attention, therefore this is good. Maybe not in the eyes of the reporter telling the story or their newsroom colleagues, but certainly from an accountants’ perspective. Forget the ugly nature of the content itself. People will want to read more, and, for days, it’ll generate endless stories that will provide endless clicks.
Conor McGregor won’t be speaking, though. Khabib Nurmagomedov barely speaks. Instead, it’s again left to Dana White, the ringmaster of this odiousness. He comes bearing numbers. The attendance was 20,034. The gate was $17,200,000. An average of $859 a person, for that? ‘If you give a shit,’ he says of figures headed for the bank account.
And soon he’s giving his take on what just transpired. ‘So I saw one of Conor’s guys yelling at Khabib, and he went and jumped over the Octagon and went after him. Then two of Khabib’s guys went into the Octagon and hit Conor with some shots from behind. And then, that’s it. The Nevada State Athletic Commission pulled the footage from us, and there’s an investigation. They are withholding Khabib’s purse, they are not withholding Conor McGregor’s. Listen, being in there in the middle of this thing going on, I have to start worrying about the fans and people inside the arena. I felt if we put the belt on him in the middle of the Octagon, it was going to rain. All sorts would be thrown in there from the crowd. We were lucky just getting him out of here, so that’s what we tried to do ...
‘The way that works, Conor was one of the guys who was attacked, he refused to press charges. The guys the police did have, there were three from Khabib’s team, they’ve been released. The guys who jumped in will never fight here. I’ve been working hard for eighteen years to build this sport. Some of you this is your first event. And I can promise you this is not what a mixed martial arts event is normally like. You know, when you have such an amazing event that we’ve worked hard to build over the last several months and it goes perfect, security was unbelievable, we had meetings with both camps, everyone signed of, everyone was cool. Nobody saw Khabib diving over ... This isn’t the last time guys are going to say mean things to each other, it’s the fight business, it’s how it works.’
We’ve been here before, though.
Then it gets to the crux. A rematch?
‘We have to see what happens with [the] Nevada State Athletic Commission,’ White replies. ‘Not just the commission, there’ll be fines. Can these guys get visas and get back in the country? We’ll see how it plays out. I’ve been doing this for eighteen years, and the biggest night ever, and I couldn’t be more disappointed.’
So would he change how he marketed it? ‘No. I’d do the same, it’s part of the story.’
Outside, fans are still beating each other. Inside, White goes off and counts his money.
Media tap away and talk into cameras. So this is what the zenith of sport has become?
Tonight, the two journalists who called in a panic to start this sorry day don’t fancy a beer. It’s not so much tiredness after their previous effort, but this has been enough and the strip genuinely isn’t a safe place yet. Before going, one says, ‘There’ll be another bout. It’s too valuable. They’ll be back.’
Walking home, I wonder if there was a rematch if I’d bother. And then I wonder about McGregor. ‘Combat is my escape,’ he’s said and while that’s a nice soundbite, what if it’s really true?
Of course, publicly, there will now be the usual and predictable washing away of defeat with the pay cheque, and the over-the-top counting of dollars in front of a camera to show he’s the real winner in this. But if that compensation and this sort of night is the getaway he has from his demons, he must reside in a very dark place few can ever envisage.
Getting back to the hotel, I never thought the overriding emotion for him would be pity.
Chaos is a Friend of Mine: The Life and Crimes of Conor McGregor, by Ewan MacKenna, is out now with deCoubertin Books and available via Amazon