Conor McGregor struted on stage to show UFC needs him more than ever

After the disaster of losing Jon Jones, the sport’s greatest fighter and the face of UFC 200 to a failed drug test late Wednesday night, he could at least present his greatest sellable asset: McGregor with a microphone.

So there UFC president Dana White stood Thursday afternoon, with Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz finally back in his grasp, inside the sparkling new arena that would host his organization’s signature event.

But as McGregor began to talk, his jaw working a wad of gum as his words tumbled out, White threw up his hands. In the cavernous new stadium, McGregor’s baying blurted from the speakers like guttural garble of grunts. No one could understand most of what he was saying.

“I can’t hear anything Conor’s saying,” he shouted.

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UFC 200 bout against Daniel Cormier

There is nothing the UFC needs more than to have McGregor talking, and talking, and talking. Even as rumors flew that Anderson Silva would be Jones’s replacement against Daniel Cormier, potentially saving UFC 200 from a nightmare, the presence of McGregor at a UFC function gave new energy to an event that was quickly fading.

He strutted onto the stage Thursday like a rooster in a green shirt, cocking his head, looking for a word, a question, an opening on which he could leap to tweak the organization that has made wealthier than he could ever dream. He wore sunglasses indoors, and smirk on his face, as if his months-long power struggle with White is very much alive – even as the two men stood side-by-side on the arena’s gigantic stage.

“I could say: ‘Well, well, well,’” he said about Jones’s positive PED test. “But I’m a successful human being, and successful human beings don’t celebrate in the misfortune of others. I wish Jones well, I wish the (UFC officials) backstage well. I know they are running around like headless chickens trying to get everything right.”

He smiled. And the smile suggested the UFC could have avoided all this trouble simply by allowing him to skip a publicity event for 200 two months ago rather than pulling him off the card, prompting a retirement and weeks of negotiation before settling for the August fight.

“All I missed was a press conference,” McGregor said, as a roar rose from the 3,000 or so in the arena who had come to see he, Diaz and White on a stage again. “It is what it is,” he added, calling his 20 August UFC 202 rematch with Diaz “the real 200.”

Then he offered his own solution for salvaging Saturday’s event.

“I’m here, I’m in shape, all they have to do is ask,” he said.

McGregor’s dominance in the octagon is still in question after Diaz submitted him in March’s UFC 196. The Irishman may be one of the sport’s great champions, able to acutely predict the manner in which he will beat his opponents, as he did when he knocked out Jose Aldo 13 seconds into their UFC 194 fight. He might also be a good fighter with a quick mouth who is not a match for the martial arts skill of someone like Diaz. This second Diaz fight will go far toward defining his legacy, as he will again compete 25lbs over his current title weight of 145.

But he remains the most compelling of the UFC’s fighters, someone who could have sold out the new Vegas arena as well as a record number of pay-per-view packages, regardless of what the UFC charges for them. He has always brushed away suggestions he is the MMA’s Muhammad Ali, and rightfully so: he has nowhere near the cultural impact of Ali. Still, he is the one fighter who can get people to line up on a 100F day to listen to him talk about a fight that won’t happen for another six weeks.

It is unfortunate that he and White battled over control back in the spring, ruining the chance for and he and Diaz to headline UFC 200. The reasons for his tussle with the UFC are still unclear. He talked vaguely about being affected watching fighter Joao Carvalho die in Ireland in a loss to one of his training teammates. He said he was “sad” at the time adding “there was a lot of stuff going on,” which is why he retreated to a training camp in Iceland, skipping the press conference that got him pulled from 200. He wondered if he should have communicated his feelings to White better than he did.

Nate Diaz and Conor McGregor exchange pleasantries.
Nate Diaz and Conor McGregor exchange pleasantries. Photograph: Ed Mulholland/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

“It probably would have played a little better,” he said.

Who knows what wounds remain. Several times on Thursday, McGregor appeared to take tiny digs at White. When Ariel Helwani, the reporter White banned at UFC 199 causing a small firestorm, stood to ask a question, McGregor applauded. Then several times he glanced at White in a subtle show of defiance for the man who effectively runs the UFC.

White did not return the look. Maybe he knew better than to glance McGregor’s way.

But no matter what happens on Saturday, McGregor is right: the real UFC 200 will be the one he and Diaz fight in August. That will be the event that generates the massive excitement, draws thousands of fans from Ireland and sells pay-per-view packages. Everyone in the arena, even with the balky sound system, understood this.

“I’m going to go in and do what I always do,” McGregor said of that fight. “I’m going to press forward, have that man backed up the way I had him backed up the last time and this time I’m going to tee off on him. I’m going to be more prepared for the size and the weight and the distance also. One thing I misunderstood was his durability and his experience. I will not make that same mistake again.”

Standing between those men, the president of the UFC must have wished that fight could happen now.