There were quite a lot of divided opinions after Conor McGregor’s appearance at the UFC 229 press conference, with some suggesting that he seemed to be agitated, emotionally-involved, and even intoxicated.
And to be honest, watching the presser live, I too got the sense that we were seeing a more desperate version of the man who turned the sport on its head during his original rise to dual-weight world champion status.
Watching it unfold as it happened, my excitement for seeing the electric, unpredictable Irishman return was quickly dampened as he brandished a bottle of Proper No. 12 Irish Whiskey and attacked the man who sat across from him – snarling at his stoic adversary with real venom.
I saw shades of the Brooklyn leg of the Mayweather/McGregor world tour in the opening exchanges. And that in my view isn’t a desirable look.
Conor came out swinging and within two or three minutes – I could see his legions of detractors, both at home and abroad, gleefully typing that the money had finally gotten to him and that his ego was now far beyond his own control.
Cutting across the first man to question him with a heated attack on the decision to close the media event off to the fans – the scene was set for what Dana White later described as the ‘darkest press conference’ he has ever seen.
And based on my original viewing, sure, there were a few good soundbites and the whole thing became a lot more bearable as it went on but overall, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that Conor was off-form, overly erratic, and resorting to a seemingly futile assault on a man who was slowly becoming the more relatable figure in their dynamic.
I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t a bit concerned in the presser’s immediate aftermath. Khabib Nurmagomedov has made a habit of annihilating everyone who has stepped in front of him over the years and everything from his elite-level skillset to McGregor’s time spent outside of the octagon added up enough for me to call the event a comfortable 10-9 in favour of the Russian.
Jump forward twelve hours and it began to dawn on me exactly how wrong I was.
What exactly do you expect from a Conor McGregor press conference?
Well firstly, you’re looking for something new – an escalation of his previous efforts.
From Poirier to Mendes to Aldo to Diaz to Alvarez to Floyd. Each and every time Conor’s starpower had grown and through the countless hours of video footage of him in constant rotation on the internet, it’s easy to assume that you have him figured out.
From verbal assaults, personal attacks, bottles thrown, teammates routinely antagonized and, of course, the dolly incident – it’s clear that Conor has no desire to rest on his laurels, coming out harder every single time, living up his billing as the ‘Notorious’.
And every time, we keep falling for it.
When he flung bottles at Team Diaz during UFC 202 fight-week he was too emotionally invested.
When he hopped onto the stage ahead of UFC 205 wearing a fur coat and giggling like a madman he had finally lost his grounded nature.
John Kavanagh spoke of the aforementioned incident with the brothers Diaz and how Conor left the stage in the skirmish’s immediate aftermath, turned to him and said the following:
“The illusion of insanity is over, now it’s time for the gameplan.”
McGregor has been described in many different ways over the years but one of the most interesting ways to look at him is as someone who is very aware of how he is viewed by the sea of ears and eyeballs that are constantly fixated on him.
Calling himself not only a master of physical combat, but of the mental game too, it has gotten to the stage where it truly is necessary to question absolutely everything he shows us and wonder at exactly how much thought he has put into how we will perceive it.
As the undisputed king of the ulterior motive, his aims would have no doubt been crystal clear coming into his first meeting with Nurmagomedov.
Test the waters with his latest dance-partner and figure out exactly what will provoke a reaction.
Create enough controversy, one-liners and tension to fuel headlines for a week – selling the fight.
Stab at the Russian’s mental resilience and work the magic that saw the likes of José Aldo and Dustin Poirier crumble.
Re-assert his status as a dual-weight world-champion and more importantly, make a public display of his power within the sport with Dana White standing to his right.
And of course.
Plug his new line of Irish whiskey
(Do not underestimate the importance of that last one.)
On first viewing, it did seem as though we were seeing a new Conor McGregor, one that had allowed the money to get to finally get to him. But upon rewatching the show, it became clear that everything was intentional.
Those watching this man have been guilty of looking into things too much and not enough at the same time.
I know that might not make sense, but Conor’s ability to misdirect has been clear for years and yet, each and every time we keep falling for it.
He’ll happily play the role of the madman or the drunken fool in order to allow Khabib to embrace his position as the good-guy because he knows how the world will perceive it. He happily supplies his haters with fuel because like Floyd Mayweather before him, he knows that they too will tune in to watch him fight.
So much was made of the under-promotion of UFC 229 in the days leading up to the first meeting between Khabib and McGregor. If you took one look at your Facebook and Twitter feed the morning after the press conference, though, it was like that whole narrative never existed in the first place.
Twenty-five short minutes of content was all it took to instil the MMA world with that pre-fight buzz and now, it really does look as though they will break every record in the book.
Chael Sonnen took to the mic – as he so often does – via his official YouTube account and broke down the two options that faced Conor as he prepared to step out on Thursday, September 20 – given the fact that the presser was, of course, closed off to the public.
“Conor only had two options. It’s just the media so the energy in the room is very light. There’s no crowds waving his flag who have shown up drunk and are partying for their countrymen.
“It’s a different environment – one that he has not been in before. He could come out and be his boistrous, flamboyant self that everyone is hoping for or he could come out and just call this one in.
“[He could say] ‘the energy is not here, I have no idea why we’re doing it. I live in Ireland and he lives in Russia. You flew us both to New York to promote a fight that’s in Vegas in a room that nobody is at. Ask me your questions and then let me go about my day.'”
“That was a very reasonable assumption, particularly because that’s what he did in his final [pre-fight] presser with Floyd. The room was different and the energy was different.
“You want to talk about firing on all cylinders? Conor came out with a machine gun in each hand, a machete tied to his back and he had clips in his sock. It was fire!
“There is nobody that can match him. He beat Khabib at every turn.”
When Chael is on, he is most certainly on and as one of the game’s finest trash-talkers, he can offer valuable insights into how someone of Conor McGregor’s persuasion would go about his business.
Everything is intentional. When you realise that you can post to your Instagram and 25 million people will see it and judge you on it, nothing is left to chance – especially when it comes to the mental warfare that precedes an occasion of this magnitude.
All those shots taken at the likes of Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov and Ali Abdelaziz were both guaranteed publicity for the fight as well as subtle probes searching for exactly what would finally rattle the only man who truly mattered.
Why else would he do it? Does he care about Chechen/Dagestani relations? No.
Is he so deeply bothered by the fact that Abdulmanap took a picture alongside Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov? Hardly!
I doubt he’s overly concerned about the back-story of Khabib’s manager Ali Abdelaziz either but all of those mini-narratives draw eye-balls and at the end of the day, that’s how you hype a fight.
A lot was made of the picture taken of Conor with Vladimir Putin but his questioning of Khabib’s loyalty to the Russian president confirmed that this too was an attempt to get under his opponent’s skin.
April: The melee involving Team McGregor and the bus takes place.
July: Conor poses for a picture with the president of Khabib’s home-country (who he clearly seems to have mixed feelings about).
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Today I was invited to the World Cup final as a guest of Russian President Vladimir Putin. This man is one of the greatest leaders of our time and I was honored to attend such a landmark event alongside him. Today was an honor for me Mr. Putin. Thank you and congratulations on an amazing World Cup. Россия вперёд!
I really have no problem admitting that I did a dramatic u-turn as far as my feelings about McGregor’s antics at the official UFC 229 press conference were concerned.
He got me, again.
It really did appear as though we were seeing his very worst side come out in one huge disaster but when I actually think about it, he managed to come through with several incredibly interesting talking-points, a handful of new catchphrases, a heavy dose of verbal assaults and one helluva plug-piece for his venture into the whiskey business.
Conor McGregor is a master of marketing, misdirection, and mind-f**king his opponents and all things considered, he completely and utterly lived up to his billing.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena