Sunday July 12th, 2015

The hopes and dreams of the UFC were dripping blood and taking a beating. Millions upon millions of dollars—those already spent, those being counted on from a presumed starry future—were dissolving like a wasteland mirage at MGM Grand Garden Arena. The building in Las Vegas was packed with a restless 16,019 fans and a least that many grand expectations, yet the oxygen was being sucked out of the place late Saturday night with each shut-your-mouth elbow that slammed down into the smarmy face of a grounded, immobilized Conor McGregor.

An hour later, the Irishman was back on his feet and standing backstage, blood still dripping down his bruised cheekbone from an elbow-inflicted gash next to his right eye. But now he was smiling, sharing a laugh with Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta. The majority owners of the UFC were in finely tailored suits. McGregor was shirtless, a tattooed torso his dapper suit of armor. The three of them lifted glasses of Irish whiskey and toasted their bright future.

The concussive conclusion of the UFC 189 main event had been the most glorious moment in the fight promotion’s two decades in business.

When McGregor had escaped from underneath the blanketing beatdown of Chad Mendes in the final minute of that second round, scrambled to his feet, stared into the tired eyes of the Californian and calmly dropped him with a straight left hand, the cage-side crowd had let out a roar that encapsulated the emotions of the UFC brass as well. The company craves stars, had been seeing them fade away or lose their luster of late and now has in its midst the most shimmering star it ever has seen.

The sky is the limit, thanks to the loquacious McGregor. And thanks, too, to the audacious UFC.

Prior to Saturday night’s fight for the interim featherweight title, a bout made necessary by the injury and withdrawal of champion José Aldo less than two weeks before fight night, McGregor was a star with an asterisk. Throughout his two-year stint in the UFC, matchmakers had carefully put the 26-year-old Dubliner in the cage with opposition that played to his strengths. It’s not like he was fighting tomato cans like a boxing prospect would, but no one who ever had worn a wrestling singlet was allowed anywhere near the lad. McGregor, the slickest striker in the game, was dominant. And suddenly he was booked for a challenge of Aldo.

The UFC knew what it had. Its champion had not lost in a decade and was at the top of many a pundit’s pound-for-pound fighter list. The challenger was not one to cower or even show due respect. So the promotion spent big bucks touring this frosty pair from Rio de Janeiro to Dublin, with half a dozen promotional stops in between. There was bluster and swagger. There was the goading theft of a shiny brass-and-leather belt. There was electricity in the air, felt even outside the bubble of MMA fandom.

Then, when Aldo pulled out, the UFC faced a chilling dilemma. UFC 189 had swelled in magnitude thanks almost entirely to the mouthy McGregor—it was his show, with some 2,500 fans said to be flying over from Ireland—so he couldn’t be yanked from the fight card to wait for Aldo to heal. Yet the only replacement opponents who made sense were Mendes and Frankie Edgar, both high-level wrestlers. Would the UFC risk putting its golden boy in the cage with his kryptonite?

Well, the Fertittas haven’t made a fortune in the casino business without knowing when to go all in. Sometimes a risk is tied to a reward so colossal that it would be imprudent to resist.

McGregor after UFC 189: Aldo's day will come

The bosses might have had second thoughts early on during Saturday night’s main event, when the prevailing sounds in the arena were not triumphant cheers that would come later but the pfffffffft of tricolor balloons being deflated. Questions about McGregor’s wrestling were being answered emphatically. Mendes (17–3) planted him on his back in the bout’s opening seconds, and though McGregor (18–2) did get right back to his feet, he would be taken down two more times in the first round. He was bloodied up and lost the round on all three judges’ scorecards.

Before the second round was a minute old, McGregor was on his back again, and Mendes kept him there for nearly the entirety of the session, resuming his parade of elbows. But Mendes had taken this fight on just 11 days notice, and that, combined with some well-placed body kicks by McGregor back in the first, had Mendes feeling depleted. So rather than being satisfied with his steady assault from on top, Mendes decided he needed to end the fight. Just as the round entered its final minute, he passed guard and went for a guillotine choke. He didn’t get it. That was the escape route McGregor needed.

Jose Aldo pulls out of UFC 189 with rib injury

When “The Notorious” rose off the canvas, so did the energy in the arena. And when McGregor connected on the button with the left hand that dropped Mendes, just before referee Herb Dean jumped in at 4:57 of the second, the crowd exploded. So did the sport itself.

This was to be a momentous night for the UFC no matter what. The company was unveiling its new Reebok fighter gear and apparel. The whole production was given a slicker presentation, from revamped graphics on the pay-per-view telecast to colorful video being projected right onto the octagon canvas between bouts. It all added up to a professional look that might very well attract a wider audience to the sport, although there always will be limits to that, given the brutal nature of this game.

Ultimately, it’s always about the fights. And while this truly was “The Conor McGregor Show,” the supporting actors played significant roles in making the night special. The co-main event was a classic, with Robbie Lawler entering the final round needing a finish in order to retain his welterweight title … and getting it, with gusto, putting Rory MacDonald down with a hard left to the bloodied Canadian’s already broken nose. The other three main-card dramas also produced stirring finishes, two of them flying knee knockouts. And before all of that went down, we got to witness some delectable Matt Brown violence.

What a night for the UFC to present the greatest event in its history.

And the best is yet to come. Now that McGregor has proven himself against a Top-3 contender who also happens to be the featherweight division’s most potent wrestler, there should be no hesitation for fans and pundits in situating him among the elite. His scuttled showdown with Aldo already was going to be a big deal. When it’s rescheduled—CEO Lorenzo Fertitta told ESPN that McGregor and Aldo probably will meet Jan. 2 in Vegas—it will be the biggest fight in UFC history.

Georges St-Pierre was a star when he walked away from the sport last year. Anderson Silva had grown into that status, but now his big fight is to clear his name in the face of a failed drug test. Brock Lesnar was immense in every way, until unafraid heavies began chopping him down to size. Jon Jones has seen his star fizzle and crash to earth, right square in a courtroom.

All that’s left in the starry UFC sky is Ronda Rousey. She has crossed over to the mainstream in ways even McGregor has yet to do, although Stallone soon will decide the Irishman is irreplaceable for his next Hollywood project, I’m sure, and come calling. But here’s the one thing McGregor has that Rousey doesn’t: something to push against. Rousey headlines the UFC’s next PPV, on Aug. 1, against an opponent, Bethe Corriea, who is unbeaten but largely unproven. It’s mismatch—Rousey’s a 15–1 favorite—but who else is out there for her? Unless the monstrous Cris “Cyborg” Justino can cut to 135 pounds or the UFC reverses course and agrees to a catchweight fight, there’s nothing enticing on the horizon for Rousey.

Contrast that dearth of competition to what lays in wait for McGregor. There’s Aldo, of course, and if McGregor can do the unthinkable and beat Aldo to trade in his faux belt into the real thing, his reward might be a tussle with Edgar. The former lightweight champ has relentless wrestling chops, like Mendes, but is far quicker and smoother on his feet than Mendes. If McGregor can handle that, maybe he would then move on to Edgar's old stomping grounds at 155 pounds.

For both McGregor and the UFC, an abundance of opportunity awaits.

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