LAS VEGAS — There he was, at long last, strutting across the stage with a whiskey bottle raised in one hand and his chest puffed toward the rafters. It was 3:26 p.m., almost a half-hour after his scheduled arrival at this press conference preceding UFC 229, though by now most attendees understood that Conor McGregor operates according to his own do-as-I-damn-well-please time zone. And so the crowd roared. And so the cameras flashed. And so he grinned, flexed, handed the whiskey to UFC president Dana White, and grabbed a microphone before even sitting down.
“WHAT’S UP IRELAND? THE IRISH ARE BACK IN TOWN, I F—— LOVE IT.”
No arguments there. Those same compatriots had swarmed Sin City when McGregor boxed Floyd Mayweather last August and now they were back again, flapping tricolour flags and sporting shamrock green rugby jerseys, balling their fists and leading chants of olé! olé! olé! each time their beloved fighter so much as drew breath. It was an overwhelming spectacle for any uninitiated observer on Thursday afternoon inside the 5,200-seat Park Theater, yet entirely routine for devotees of combat sports. After all, no one puts on a show—not even here in Las Vegas—like the man nicknamed Notorious. “The traffic is a little heavy,” he declared upon entrance. “There must be a McGregor fight going on.”
Oh, is there ever. Technically the sportsbooks are listing McGregor, 30, as the underdog for Saturday night’s main event against lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, 30, the Daghestani grappling expert unbeaten through 26 career UFC matches and 53 rounds. Then again he should possess a sizable home-octagon advantage at nearby T-Mobile Arena, judging by the boos—and middle fingers, and other obscene gestures—that showered Nurmagomedov’s portion of the press conference while McGregor was still in transit. Annoyed by his opponent’s lack of punctuality, Nurmagomedov took questions for 12 minutes and then exited to focus on Friday morning’s weigh-in, a shimmering title belt slung over his shoulder.
“Well,” said White, suddenly flanked by two empty tables and one pregnant silence. “This is awkward.”
Not for long. As his entourage took their seats behind a velvet rope in the front row, McGregor proceeded to smash through various topics. He plugged his new booze label, Proper Twelve, which recently became an official sponsor of UFC 229. (“Who’s on the whiskey? Only a couple hours and I’ll be there with you!”) He crusaded for expanded weight classes, hoping that one day he could fight at 165 pounds and capture that championship too. (“It would make more juicy pay per views. I feel we could sit down and figure it out and we could get to a solution.”)
He estimated that he would reach billionaire status by age 35 and projected that he might earn $50 million from fighting Nurmagomedov alone. (“A nice yield. It’s breathtaking.”) He deflected the comparison that White had made between his “mental warfare” tactics and those of Muhammad Ali. (“I am not even close to that man’s greatness. He is a special individual.”) He plugged some more whiskey, counting to three and directing his faithful in a unified chant of, “F— THE JAMESON BROTHERS!” He waved his arms, coaxing another round of olé! olé! Olé!
Mostly, though, McGregor doused more marinade onto his ongoing beef with Nurmagomedov. Some background: Earlier this year, Nurmagomedov confronted one of McGregor’s closest UFC mates, Artem Lobov, over some pointed comments about Nurmagomedov’s injury history. This led to McGregor—still on MMA sabbatical from the Mayweather bonanza—crashing the UFC 223 press conference at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center and emerging with a felony criminal mischief charge after he chucked a metal dolly through a bus window. At the time, White told reporters that McGregor’s actions were “the most disgusting thing that’s happened in the history of the company.” Four months later, McGregor vs. Nurmagomedov was officially announced.
The bad blood has only thickened since then. Another interview session at Radio City Music Hall on Sept. 20 was closed to the public for security purposes, though that hardly stopped McGregor from taunting Nurmagomedov’s strict Muslim faith, ripping his Russian political ties and describing him as “a mad, backwards c—.” That same insult was repeated several times Thursday—mercifully after Nurmagomedov had left—along with a battery of other barbs. To wit:
•“I plan on knocking that man’s nose straight into the nosebleeds.”
•“I am coming to put a hole in this man’s skull, dent my knuckle into his orbital bone.”
•“You just cook yourself in that sauna, you smelly Dagestani rat.”
•“I am starving for this man’s head. I am going to eat him alive in here and I don’t give a bollocks.”
•“F— peace. There will never be peace here. I always say you should aim for peace, but if you can’t aim for peace, aim between the eyes.”
It all makes for a stark contrast between competitors. The methodical, stoic wrestler against the punch-drunk, verbose brawler. The undefeated champion against the crowd-favorite comeback story. The pious product of the North Caucasus region against the Dublin-bred whiskey producer. Nurmagomedov wore jeans and a long-sleeve polo to his media session. McGregor rocked a tweed flat cap, a tank top tucked into sweatpants, flip-flop sandals and a golden tiger pendant dangling from his neck. “You will never beat the fookin’ Irish,” McGregor screamed, basked in the din before leaning back and clasping his hands. “It’s good to be back.”
Of course, it is reasonable to wonder how McGregor will fare in his return to the cage. Surely sparring 10 rounds with Mayweather marked an impressive feat of endurance—the $100 million payday wasn’t too shabby either—but now McGregor must worry about wearing down on the ground in his first MMA fight since TKO’ing Eddie Alvarez in Nov. 2016.
“This is what makes fighting so incredible,” White told SI.com in a phone interview this week. “If Khabib beats Conor, he’ll be looked at as one of the pound-for-pound best in the world. It’s a weird thing with Conor. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves. This guy keeps knocking out people everyone thinks he won’t. And if he does it again to Khabib, even the biggest McGregor haters have to concede that this guy is one of the greatest of all-time.”
Guess where McGregor falls on the predictive spectrum? When the final question was finished, he grabbed the lightweight and featherweight title belts that he previously held—before both were stripped due to inactivity—and held them aloft. More phones flashed. More cameras clicked. Strutting away stage right, he waved, flexed, shadow-boxed and waved again. Then he hopped in a blue Rolls Royce, swung the rear window curtain shut and rode into the Las Vegas sunshine, not giving one damn bollocks about what he left behind.