Perhaps the single strangest moment of Thursday’s initial UFC 229 press conference occurred when Dana White was asked if Jon Jones would be on the upcoming New York card, and Conor McGregor — staring at Khabib Nurmagomedov from across the dais — began laughing. Only it wasn’t a laugh, exactly, but more like a lunatic’s giggling — like Curly from The Three Stooges, if Curly were a jackal. That cartoonish moment was made all the more obnoxious by a flare up of flatulent noises, so much so that Dana White had to make a quick check over his shoulder to see what in the hell was going on.
So, exactly what the hell was going on?
That’s a damn good question. Round one of the Nurmagomedov-McGregor saga took place at a vacuous Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan, and it was straight fight game arcana. A resplendent but empty room as a backdrop, and McGregor hurling every kind of insult — personal and otherwise — at the mostly bemused Dagestani fighter, who had to make himself heavy in his chair to maintain his stoicism. Was it a spectacle? Yes it was. It was like Part V of the Floyd Mayweather-McGregor world tour, only this time with whiskey involved. And a conspicuous absence of fans.
This last part was the sticking point early.
McGregor bemoaned the fact that the venue was devoid of Irish faithful off the very first question, and things slipped in and out of consciousness from there. McGregor had a warm bellyful of his new Proper Twelve Irish whiskey — which he assured the media and Kristaps Porzingis was ten inches taller than Jameson — and he laid into Nurmagomedov for the better part of 30 minutes. Every now and then Nurmagomedov would say something, and McGregor would drown him out with reminders that he is a bum, a rat, a weasel, a backwards c*nt, and a “hard man in groups.”
The latter was a reference to the incident that occurred between Nurmagomedov and McGregor’s protégé Artem Lobov, the same incident that prompted McGregor to throw a dolly through a bus window at UFC 223 in April. According to McGregor, Nurmagomedov was lucky that he didn’t come off that bus — or that the bus door wasn’t open — because if any of that were the case, Nurmagomedov would be in a “box” and he would be in a “cell.” There is so much back-story to Nurmagomedov and McGregor’s fight, you need a machete to get through it.
But know this, first and foremost: They don’t like each other. That was made pretty clear. And an epic overflow of bad blood is exactly what the doctor ordered for McGregor’s first fight back in the Octagon after two years away. By the time these two come out in Las Vegas, the tensions will have coalesced into a refined hatred. That’s the hope anyway. That’s the subtext to a projected number of 2.5 million pay-per-view buys.
By the end, Dana was calling McGregor’s brand of psychological warfare superior to that of the great Muhammad Ali, and for once it didn’t feel like complete hyperbole; McGregor really is on another level when it comes to smack talk. Yet, just like with Ali in his day, there’s a fine line between effectively selling a fight and excessive buffoonery. On Thursday McGregor walked that line like a man well into his cups. But he wasn’t drunk. Not by a long shot. When Nurmagomedov goaded McGregor for speaking English and not speaking Irish, McGregor wasted no time.
“An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas ar an mbus?” he said, which means, “Can I go to the bathroom?” in Gaeilge. The phrase is taught and commonly used in primary schools in Ireland, when a student needs to relieve himself.
As Nurmagomedov coolly took his licks from McGregor, he would occasionally ground the idea of Thursday’s presser to a simple fact: That on Oct. 6, they will actually fight. Moored to the idea that he gets to do bodily harm to McGregor in the near future was enough to sustain Nurmagomedov, and give him a peaceful demeanor. Towards the end of the conference he appeared ever so slightly rattled, and actually raised his voice. That came when McGregor was mocking his Russian accent and giving him hell for his dealings with Chechen president Akhmad Kadyrov and others.
Was any of that below the belt? Nothing’s off limits to McGregor in the lead-up to a fight. McGregor said he was in a “war state of mind,” and there is no mercy in war. He even asked where Noah was when Nurmagomedov’s manager Ali Abdel-Aziz wondered aloud why McGregor had his belts with him during face-offs.
Who is Noah? Abdel-Aziz’s son from a previous marriage.
As always, McGregor did his homework. Not just on Nurmagomedov, but of his faction. He was ready to come out swinging. Verbally at first. Later on, with his hands. And he held those beauties up at one point, explaining how Nurmagomedov didn’t want anything to do with them when it comes right down to it. When Khabib said he would wrestle, McGregor repeated the words.
“Wrestle, wrestle…let’s wrestle. You’re going to be wrestling my knuckle out of your orbital bone.”
And so it went. Never mind that Nurmagomedov has never lost so much as a round in a fight, McGregor pointed out his glass jaw, saying he had in on good authority that his mandible was a fragile thing that wouldn’t stand his power. “I know he’s afraid of a smack,” McGregor said. “And if you’re afraid of a smack off me, a smack will feel like a double-barrel shotgun.”
Later Nurmagomedov summed up his mindset in one sentence: “I come here for smash this guy.” Those seven words, simple and to the point, played ominous over the entire proceedings. Through the whiskey, the profanity and the cartoonish giggles, there lay the promise of a fight, and that was enough to fill an otherwise empty room.