BOSTON -- The accents were unmistakable. The drive into the city was a festival of broad “a” and missing “r,” the car radio -- caaah radio? -- blustering sports talk that on this chilly Friday morning really was just sport talk, singular and single-minded. Caller after caller went on about the Patriots, the inevitable Super Bowl to come, and the mere formality of that Sunday night’s AFC Championship game against the Colts. Forget this very night’s Celtics game at TD Garden or the next evening’s Bruins home contest. What everyone wanted to talk about was the only game in town.
Well, that went for everyone except those folks inside one of the bars just down a cobblestone concourse from historic Faneuil Hall. The accents there were unmistakable as well. This place felt like a whole different noontime world, a world with kicks, yes, but no punts or passes or even deflated pigskins. Though the televisions in each wood-paneled corner were showing NFL highlights, no one in the room seemed even remotely interested in Tom Brady or Bill Belichick. “Don’t care much for American football,” said one young man who, like several others, had traveled in from Dublin. “I’m here for McGregor.”
Conor McGregor was moments from arriving for one of his last public appearances in a week filled with them, all pointed toward his UFC main event two nights later at the Garden. Yes, Sunday night. His opponent was going to be a formidable one -- the big game 30 miles to the south in Foxboro.
Now, the 26-year-old Irishman might have been operating under the radar in comparison to the pro football playoffs, but he’d made a splash wherever he’d gone in town. A day earlier, he had transformed a public workout into performance art, his sparring and shadowboxing showing off his crisp, elegant movement for a workday crowd that surrounded the octagon four-deep at a downtown gym. He’d also gone to Southie, ground zero for Irish-Americans, for an engaging visit with kids from a local youth boxing program. He’d patiently sat in TV and radio studios being happy-talked by morning hosts who didn’t know a wheel kick from a pogo stick. Before the weekend was out, his promos would inundate the NFC title game telecast on Fox, whose sister outlet Fox Sports 1 later in the day would be carrying his fight. On still another Fox outlet, FX, McGregor would host an afternoon movie marathon. (What next, a cameo on The Simpsons?)
On this day, he was scheduled for a session that was ostensibly for the media, although with the UFC allowing fans in the door, it was for show as well. When “The Notorious” finally slipped into the room, the place erupted as he settled onto a stool in front of a large white placard bearing his name. Spread around the room were similar set-ups for several other fighters on Sunday’s card, and while there had been warm greetings for a few of them -- the two other Dubliners, a Boston guy, and a certain fan-favorite Cowboy -- the response to McGregor’s presence produced decibels to die for. The media horde that crowded around him had put their microphones and recorders close to his face, in order to capture his golden soundbites amid the fans’ singing and chanting, all in his name.
One of the first things McGregor acknowledged, not surprisingly, was his own presence. “All you gotta do is walk around the city for two minutes,” he said, pausing ever so slightly between sentences, his cadence at once fistic and poetic. “All you gotta do is catch a bus, and see my face on the side of it. All you gotta do is hail a taxi; you see my face on top of it. All you gotta do is walk past a trash bin; there I am again. I’m everywhere.”
McGregor’s calling in life is as a master of melodious hyperbole, but in this instance he was speaking unvarnished truth. The UFC, perhaps in collaboration with Fox, had bought advertising all over downtown Boston, splashing the name and face of its loquacious featherweight phenom on public transportation signage and in ads in both daily newspapers as well as on sports radio -- even though those media outlets were giving scant coverage to the mixed martial arts event. The global leader in fight promotion clearly is all-in on McGregor, and while some of its enthusiasm has been over the top -- “the Irish Muhammad Ali”? Really, Lorenzo Fertitta? -- the buildup to the weekend had seemed mostly organic, a natural progression for an athlete who’d been talking since the moment he was within earshot of the UFC but had backed every word. The whole scene had the feel of a coronation, a beeline to the throne occupied by José Aldo.
Of course, the Brazilian dynamo was not the one slated to be in the cage with McGregor this past weekend; the UFC had brought in Dennis Siver from Germany to play punching bag. Promotion president Dana White had given lip service to building up Siver, describing him over and over as “the No. 10 featherweight in the world” (that’s in the UFC rankings; he’s unranked in the SI.com tally). But while it’s true that he’s far from a tomato can, Siver is a short-armed, slow-ish striker, just the man to fill the Red Klotz role while McGregor looks good landing straight left hands and whistling “Sweet Georgia Brown.” This was going to be a one-man show, just as advertised in all of the UFC and Fox promotions, which squeezed barely a mention of Siver into the “Notorious” narrative.
McGregor was all that was needed to sell the show, it turns out, and sell it big. On Wednesday, Fox sent out a press release lauding last Sunday evening as a “historic night,” with the UFC Fight Night having peaked at 3.162 million viewers and averaged 2.751 million. Those were the biggest UFC numbers in Fox Sports 1’s 17-month history, representing the most viewers to watch an MMA telecast on cable since 2009. Only the NFL games did better on Sunday in key male demographics. That fans stuck around, after a long day of football, to watch a fight that started at around midnight -- and that they even remembered to heed the promos from the afternoon’s Fox telecast -- was a testament to McGregor’s strong appeal.
No less stunning was the live attendance of 13,828 at the Garden. Much of the prelim card went head to head with the Patriots game, and it wasn’t as though the building was empty until the football game ended. It was a flag-waving for-he’s-a-jolly-old-fellow party all evening long. Dana White made a point of noting that 12 percent of ticket sales had come from Ireland. Well, what about the other 88 percent? That McGregor could draw those many people into the building in Boston while the beloved local team was playing in the AFC Championship game was as impressive as anything he did inside the octagon.
The hijinks inside the eight-sided cage played out the way they were expected to play out, pretty much. McGregor had predicted that he’d finish Siver within two minutes, and it actually took him until just under the two-minute mark of Round 2. But it was clear within seconds that the Irishman was fully in control and a different level of fighter. This wasn’t quite the revelation it had been in his last fight when McGregor handled Dustin Poirier, who at the time was ranked No. 6 among 145-pounders. But still, seeing McGregor outclass Top 10 competition was eye-opening.
So was what McGregor did after he was vanquished Siver. He ran to the cage, leaped over, and went right for Aldo, who was seated placidly in the second row. The Brazilian didn’t flinch. As McGregor lunged at him with taunting wildness in his eyes, the champ just laughed.
The laughter was directed at his next challenger, yes, but maybe Aldo also was feeling a bit giddy at his good fortune. McGregor brings just what the champ needs to elevate his game -- not necessarily his fight game, though time will tell on that front, but definitely his marketing game. Aldo has not lost a fight since 2006 and has reigned at featherweight ever since the weight class has been part of the UFC. He’s No. 2 in the SI.com pound-for-pound fighter rankings, having mowed down nine challengers (including his WEC reign), all of them top-level fighters. Yet his star has not shone so brightly in terms of career commerce. He has headlined four UFC pay-per-views plus one for the WEC, and three of them did not even reach 200,000 homes, according to estimates in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, with another barely surpassing that modest number. Only Aldo’s 2013 showdown with former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar generated more than 300,000 buys.
The UFC is still drunk on the success it experienced with the first PPV of the year, featuring the one fighter ranked above Aldo. It seems unlikely that José will capture the kind of audience -- an estimated 800,000 PPV buys -- that light heavyweight champ Jon Jones did for his grudge-match defense against Daniel Cormier, but with McGregor in the picture, who knows?
And who even knows what’ll happen in the fight itself, which Dana White has hinted will likely take place at UFC 187 on May 23 in Las Vegas? (There had been talk of taking the bout to Dublin, where White was convinced he could sell out 82,000-seat Croke Park. But concerns over PPV logistics, a local curfew, and weather uncertainty made Vegas a safer bet.) We know what we’ll get from McGregor the talker. But the thinking on McGregor the fighter is evolving. Yes, he jumped the line of 145-pound contenders without having to prove himself against a wrestler who might take him out of his flashy striking game by putting him on his back. But he’s fought those fighters whom the UFC has put in front of him -- including two from the promotion’s Top 10 in his weight class -- and made every one of them look pedestrian.
Would McGregor (17-2) be where he is if he had had to fight his way through a murderers’ row of contenders -- perhaps two or three from among Edgar, Chad Mendes, Ricardo Lamas and Cub Swanson? Maybe not. But maybe so. The guy’s swashbuckling performances don’t erase doubts as much as twist them into mysterious wonder.
Sure, Aldo (25-1) might blow the guy’s doors off. The champ has faced all of the top-level fighters on that list just above -- Mendes twice, in fact, and you can add names such as Urijah Faber and Kenny Florian. Not one of them has given the 28-year-old Brazilian much trouble. And all were more battle-tested than McGregor is. But this Irishman has an “it” factor going for him, and it’s not just about bluster. He’s masterful at managing distance, with an ability to move in and out of striking range, to cut off his opponent’s escape route, to swoop in for the kill. “Movement,” he said on Friday, “I am obsessed with it. And I will strive toward freedom, freedom of movement.”
Who else in this game talks like that? Who else moves like that?
Whether that flowing dharma will save McGregor from being broken down by Aldo is anybody’s guess. The challenger is like one of those college hoops teams from a mid-major conference that suddenly finds itself in a March Madness game against the ACC crème de la crème. Sometimes these out-of-nowhere teams have it in them to do great things, even if we’ve never seen it out of them before. Other times, they bang their head on the ceiling and tumble to the ground.
Conor McGregor believes his ascension has just begun. A lot of people in Ireland share that faith, and there’s a growing number of believers now here on this side of the pond, too. The doubters still doubt, but they’re not turning their heads away. Everyone on all sides of the cage wants to see if they’ve been right about McGregor all along. There’s only one way to find out. And in a few months, when that Buffer guy bellows “It’s time!” he will be speaking truth.