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UFC dig hole for themselves but strike PPV gold with potential Khabib-McGregor fallout

Don’t be surprised to see Saturday night’s events used to promote a rematch in a few months’ time.

Gavan Casey reports from Las Vegas

CONOR MCGREGOR, THE final drops of fight being squeezed out of him with two minutes left in round four of his feverishly anticipated scrap with Khabib Nurmagomedov, would have seen the next six months flash before him: his phone suddenly going quiet; the sympathetic looks; the pats on the shoulder; the memes — dear God, the memes.

Conor McGregor dejected after losing Source: USA Today Sports/Stephen R. Sylvanie/INPHO

He’s been there before.

And as Nurmagomedov’s noose tightened, the Dubliner will have been confronted by the harshest realisation in combat sports: he probably could have been better prepared.

He’s been there before, as well.

What followed — an off-the-books ‘knock’ — won’t have been alien to him either, but the question remains as to why a fighter who had been beaten and submitted moments prior was forced to negotiate his way through a World War Z-like invasion of the octagon while he was technically out-of-office.

At the post-fight press conference UFC president Dana White addressed that question, claiming the organisation had taken every security precaution available to them in advance of what was bound to be a rowdy one. He thanked the police and officials who intervened not only in the cage but outside of it, where the victorious Khabib Nurmagomedov was also running amok having hopped the fence.

Of course, had the UFC not unabashedly glorified the incident from which all of this stemmed in order to sell Saturday’s event, White might have been fielding questions about an honourable world title scrap — and a marquee night for the sport he’s helped build — rather than unsolicited acts of thuggery which serve only as fuel for its detractors.

UFC 229 Mixed Martial Arts Conor McGregor is escorted out of the T-Mobile Arena after being attacked by members of Khabib's team Source: John Locher

In attempting to justify use of footage of April’s bus debacle in Brooklyn as a promotional vehicle for Saturday night’s showdown, White has repeatedly claimed McGregor’s feck-acting that day was ‘part of the fight’s story.’

This speaks to the organisation’s promotional strategy since McGregor first waltzed into public consciousness half a decade ago: the story is king, long live the story, and this one will live long into 2019 and perhaps beyond. Indeed, we’ve probably seen only season one from three in the tale of McGregor and Khabib.

That tells a story in itself. Think back to April, and a seemingly rattled White admonishing the Barclays Center bus attack as the most disgusting thing ever to happen in the history of the UFC.

The instigator’s penance was a comeback title shot in the promotion’s biggest-ever fight following a two-year absence, a sponsorship deal which saw his whiskey brand logo adorn the very canvas on which he was fighting, and three Hail Marys — two of them suspended.

That oughtta teach the rest of the roster to behave themselves, all right.

UFC 229 Mixed Martial Arts There was ugly scenes early on Sunday morning. Source: John Locher

And while White was quick to voice his disgust once more after Saturday’s ugly crescendo, the Nevada Desert will freeze over before Khabib Nurmagomedov faces any significant disciplinary action from the UFC for his conduct on Saturday night.

In eight or nine months’ time, give or take a couple, he and McGregor and their respective legions of gloom will descend upon Las Vegas once more, and already by then the promotion for their rematch will have descended to farce.

When White is asked why he saw fit to use footage of his lightweight champion doing wreck among members of the public at T-Mobile Arena — to the extent that the governor of Nevada was forced to flee the venue in fear of his safety — he’ll explain that it’s all part of the story of Khabib-McGregor II.

When he’s quizzed as to the inclusion of footage of his most valuable asset being assaulted by a member of Khabib’s team — an act which rendered the nearby streets tense, volatile and even violent in the event’s immediate aftermath — he’ll say there’s no point in hiding it; it happened, and everyone knows it happened.

What he won’t say is that there are several million reasons to shamelessly flaunt what happened.

UFC 229 Mixed Martial Arts Dana White. Source: John Locher

Surely not even the most besotted of McGregor disciples could have watched Saturday night’s fight and deemed the former two-weight champ worthy of a rematch in a purely sporting context.

Rusty and out of sync, ‘The Notorious’ was dismantled physically and mentally before Khabib delivered the coup de grace in round 4.

You could perhaps argue that McGregor edged the third round and credit to him for that, because you can make a stronger argument that he lost the second 10-8 as he was beaten to the brink on the floor.

It was chilling to see the conventional roles of a typical McGregor fight reversed: ‘The Eagle’ did everything he had proclaimed in advance of the fight and more, even shading the odd boxing exchange against the 155-pound division’s most celebrated striker before dragging McGregor back to to the basement for the real maulings.

This was an open-and-shut kind of fight: the Russian opened McGregor up and shut his mouth, retaining his title not with ease, but with an almost nonchalant assurance.

And so were it not for the stupid barbarity which followed, and people’s natural inclination towards a bit of scandal, an immediate sequel would have been rather difficult to justify.

UFC 229 Mixed Martial Arts Source: John Locher

It’s duck soup now: a straightener. Two camps, the legitimacy of whose animosity towards each other can’t be questioned at this stage; a pair of protagonists who would fight each other for free (and genuinely might), and a chance for McGregor to attain redemption or for Khabib to write him out of the big show for good.

We still await numbers for the original, but the inevitable rematch will certainly become the biggest UFC pay-per-view of all time, and probably hit the top three for biggest ever combat sports PPVs.

And so the UFC has once again dug a hole for itself only to strike gold. One wonders if any lessons will truly have been learned from Saturday’s cataclysmic conclusion or if it’ll just be the same old story the second time around, but like most sequels, much worse.

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