- UFC's historic debut in New York City was an unprecedented sports experience and complete success, anchored by Conor McGregor's victory and starpower.
It’s heard it all, Madison Square Garden has. The Beatles and their twangy guitars. The rasp of Springsteen and the harmonica of Joel. Speeches from political conventions. The horn consecrating the Rangers’ 1994 Stanley Cup win. The chronic lament of Knicks fans. The boasts of Ali before and after having his way with Frazier.
Last weekend, though, the venue that, with silly self-aggrandizement, calls itself “The World’s Most Famous Arena” got some new additions to its soundtrack. There was a man in a full-length white mink coat arriving late to a press conference and then, in a thick Irish brogue, explaining his tardiness thusly: “I run New York! I’m a fooking pimp!”
Early on Saturday morning, workers took to the arena surface and began banging, clanging and hammering away as they installed a steel octagon directly beneath the overhead scoreboard. Starting 12 hours later, a series of fighters began climbing inside of this eight-sided contraption and unleashing a unique symphony of thwaaacks and ugggghhhhs as they fed (and ate) a diet of punches, kicks and elbows. That is when they weren’t on the ground, grunting and panting as they tried to twist their opponent like a balloon animal.
The occasion: UFC 205, the first Ultimate Fighting Championship card ever held in Manhattan. With the new audio track came an unprecedented sports experience as well, a swirl of rock concert effects and slick production; days of over-the-top promotion that makes the WWE look measured and decorous by comparison; an unmistakably brutal but unmistakably gripping night of competition distilled to its essence.
For a precinct that takes pride in residing on the cutting edge of trends, New York was unfashionably late to the UFC party. As other states sanctioned the sport of mixed martial arts—sometimes eagerly; other times holding their nose—New York was the last holdout. This was less because of high morals or an absence of bloodlust than it was backroom politics. (Long story short: the previous UFC owners, brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, own the Station Casino in Las Vegas, that’s long been locked in a knock-down, drag-out battle with the Culinary Union; in a show of solidarity, the union members in New York responded by applying pressure on local politicians to keep the UFC out of the state.)
It wasn’t until April that the governor signed a bill sanctioning MMA in New York. By then, the UFC had held hundreds of cards and was on the verge of being purchased for $4 billion. Still, there was a sense of milestone. For years, the question persisted: How could a sport be legitimized in the eyes of Madison Avenue or Wall Street when it couldn’t even be staged there? Now, the premise had, in the fighting colloquialism, been choked out.
Let’s be clear: seeing two dudes—or, increasingly, dudettes—beat the hell out of each other in a steel cage will always be an acquired taste. Nevertheless, the UFC did all it could to leave Manhattanites with a strong first impression. Promotion was relentless, as New Yorkers could scarcely enter a cab or pass a billboard without seeing a promo. Fighters held a series of open workouts and press conferences. Above all, “the biggest, baddest fight card,” as the UFC’s ringmaster Dana White put it, was the MMA equivalent of Woodstock, a stacked roster of acts, featuring three title bouts and putting the sport’s diversity—one of its real virtues—on full display. There were men and women; Americans and Europeans and Brazilians; veterans and upstarts; thick former college wrestlers and sinewy jiu-jitsu experts. And there was Notorious.
Conor McGregor, he of the aforementioned mink, is often described as the personification of that pugnacious Notre Dame mascot. Already the featherweight champ, McGregor attempted on Saturday to become the lightweight champ as well. Talented as he is as a fighter, he is comparably skilled in the art of promotion. Last week, when he wasn’t tooling around New York in a $350,000 customized Rolls Royce, he was shopping in Midtown, drawing a crowd wherever he went. “I run this whole sh**,” he asserted before the fight. “I run New York….I’m the reason this whole thing is happening. If I wasn’t here, this whole ship goes down. There’s no one but me.”
Yes and no. With Ronda Rousey coming off a defeat and a protracted layoff, McGregor is, by orders of magnitude, the brightest star in the MMA cosmos. Like any ground fighter, he recognizes his leverage and uses it accordingly. (His compensation includes a cut of the pay-per-view buys, which exceeds 1.5 million for UFC 205.) But, by accident or design, the genius of the UFC is that it’s event-driven, not star-driven. UFC tribalists have their favorites, but unlike boxing—show of hands: who remembers boxing?—most of the crowd is there simply for the spectacle.
On Saturday night, the spectacle played out in front of a sold-out crowd that included Madonna, Odell Beckham and thousands of Irish fans who crossed an ocean. There was the unusual carnival of violence, not least when middleweight Chris Weidman, a local favorite, caught a knee to the left temple and began leaking blood.
By the time it was over, 1:30 a.m. Sunday to be precise, McGregor had knocked out Eddie Alvarez in the second round—winning the lightweight belt and becoming the first fighter ever to hold two belts simultaneously—and the UFC’s New York debut was an unqualified success. It had also set the record for the largest live gate in Madison Square Garden and UFC history with $17.7 million. It has increased the UFC’s colonization.
When, minutes after winning, McGregor gloated, “I'd like to take this opportunity to apologize… to absolutely nobody,” he could have been speaking for an entire sport.