Photo Credit: Chris Unger
40 seconds was all it took for Conor McGregor to announce his ‘true’ comeback dispatching Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone with a head kick and follow up punches. With the emphatic win, Conor made history again as the first man to ever hold title belts in two different weight classes also became the first UFC fighter to score knockout wins in Featherweight, Lightweight and now Welterweight.
In the build-up to the fight with the ESPN media machine hyping the fight we were all led to believe that Conor McGregor was back! The old Conor, the best Conor the true Conor.
The full-court press started last Monday in earnest on veteran MMA beat reporter Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show, a long format podcast/new media show that airs every Monday live on YouTube & Twitter at 1 p.m. EST.
Ariel presented a pre-taped interview with Conor, around 45 carefully curated and manicured minutes, seated in his new Reebok McGregor Trackie lit to perfection with multiple camera angles, Ariel lobbed one softball question after another to Conor.
One can be forgiven for being cynical, believing that none of the questions were asked if they were not personally vetted by Conor & his team prior to the sitdown. While you were treated to some of the normal Conor self-aggrandizement (claiming, for instance, he made $50 million dollars for his last fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov & would make around $80 Million for fighting Cowboy Cerrone) overall the presentation was of a seemingly more mature, calm and ‘positive’ - in fact Conor said the word positive or in some way made reference to remaining in a ‘positive’ state of mind over and over again - he recited it like a Buddhist mantra.
So Ariel danced around the blood-curdling accusations of sexual assault levied against Conor which came to light in the New York Times article last October 2019. Only referring to the charges in very broad, general language, never once using the terms ‘rape’ and/or ‘sexual assault.’ Ariel simply referred to ‘allegations,’ which Conor quickly bypassed and circled back to his mantra of ‘paw-sah-tiv tawts Air-ee-al, paw-sah-tiv tawts.”
The American fanbase is used to suspension of disbelief for the bad behaviour of its sports stars and media personalities - it’s why Michael Jackson despite numerous credible allegations of child sex abuse for years does not see a dent in record sales, why a ‘D level’ reality TV star can become president and why an ex-football star running back who very likely got away with murder has more than 920,000 followers on Twitter.
Coupled with the UFC’s propaganda machine and it’s broadcast partner ESPN throwing their combined might behind the biggest [read: most bankable] star in the history of Mixed Martial Arts ever it’s easy to see why short shrift is paid to the ugly behaviour of the sports biggest crossover athlete. Luke Thomas, a respected pundit within the combat sports world spoke late last week on his Live Chat podcast that he’s done a dozen or more interviews with various sports outlets all over the country - from coast to coast - not one time have the allegations against McGregor come up.
If this was an equivalent situation in basketball, or American Football - say Tom Brady was accused of sexual assault this story would die-hard - such is the relatively insulated world of MMA a sport populated by the most ‘casual’ of casual sports fan and dominated by the one and only true worldwide ‘brand’ the UFC that the story does not have legs, nor does there seem to be much appetite for it.
The auto-fellation hit a crescendo during the final press conference this week when Morgan Campbell a respected Canadian MMA journalist asked Conor about the allegations and was booed out of the building by a very pro-Conor audience, the president of the company Dana White came quickly to Conor’s defence; “He answered these questions yesterday on ESPN,” as I argued above Conor ‘answered’ those questions in an extremely sterile controlled environment. Even Cowboy Cerrone joined the pig pile stating “We’re here to talk about a fight, nothing he does outside of fighting. Why does everybody keep going there?” Cowboy if anyone can be forgiven to a degree after toiling for years in and around the mid-card of the WEC & UFC for his entire career, the fight with McGregor represents a life-changing windfall.
So, in terms of the checks and balances on Conor McGregor’s behaviour and how the allegations against him will eventually shake out the endgame is obviously yet to play out.
From a tactical perspective, I have to admit I got this fight all wrong with one exception… I believed that Conor was half washed honestly, that he’d squandered his true best years living fast partying hard, extremely hard and taking some real asswhippings from Floyd Mayweather and Khabib Nurmagomedov. His long absence from MMA would also do him no favours, after all Conor is just 1-1 going all the way back to November 2016 coming into the fight with Cowboy and in MMA you don’t get better at the thing by not doing the thing! Lastly, I thought Conor was being overrated in equal measure to the way Cowboy was being underrated, technically Cowboy is a much better kickboxer with underrated grappling offence and defence, I didn’t believe that Conor would be able to pressure Cowboy, keeping the fight within boxing range where Conor is obviously most effective.
Well obviously it only took 40 seconds to prove me wrong as Conor threw a wild punch right as the two men met at the centre of the Octagon, Conor’s rear foot came off the canvas - poor technique from a boxing perspective but it resulted in a clinch, Cowboy ducked down instinctively but ate a knee strike from Conor, the two men remained clinched for a moment and Conor delivered a series of shoulder strikes - a technique made famous by another UFC bad boy - Jon Jones. Either the second or third shoulder strike seemed to break Cowboy’s nose and the blood flowed almost immediately.
A stunned and badly hurt Cowboy fell back toward the cage then received the left high kick that sealed his fate.
In my predictions across social media I picked Cowboy by TKO in the third round but with the caveat that Cowboy has shit the bed in all of his step-up fights, every time he’s attempted to cross that threshold into elite status he’s fallen short, for Cowboy the fight is won or lost in his head and as soon as he’s hurt or the fight goes off script he capitulates and that’s what we saw as much as a potential return to form for the UFC’s cash cow.
Present cage side was Jorge Masvidal my pick for 2019 fighter of the year and Kamaru Usman coming off a gutsy defence of his welterweight title against Colby Covington. Prior to his fight with Cowboy, Conor stated last night was the beginning of ‘his season’ he stated with a victory he expected to fight between three and four times in 2020, he named Jorge Masvidal and a rematch with Khabib as his top picks and while Masvidal represents just as bad a style matchup for Conor as Khabib does if for different reasons those are great fights! I didn’t think Conor would get past Cowboy but a Conor win did represent what was best for the sport and the fans - that’s the uncomfortable reality - right now Masvidal vs. McGregor for the Bad Motherf**** Title (a made-up title with no weight class) is the biggest fight in MMA. Period. That’s the world we live in.
Dana White has stated Masvidal will get a shot at welterweight champ Usman next and that makes sense for Dana, keeping Masvidal away from Conor for the time being while giving Masvidal a shot at a title - something he’s never had - while preserving his megastar for a title match with Jorge should he win - which would make the fight even more marketable (BMF & Welterweight title on the line, eat your heart out Vincent McMahon) or a rematch with Khabib which would also push revenue to the moon for Dana and company it appears the one thing that Conor has done more than anything with his win last night was guarantee/protect his earning potential.
Fair questions remain; does it only take 40 seconds to forgive and forget what Conor McGregor has allegedly done? What happens to his drawing power should the allegations prove true?
At least, for now, it appears that the UFC, ESPN and MMA media writ large have adopted the policy of don’t ask, don’t tell.