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Doubters must admit defeat as record-breaking McGregor answers last big question with ease

Paul Dollery signs off from UFC 194 in Las Vegas.

UFC 194 Mixed Martial Arts Source: John Locher

– Paul Dollery reports from Las Vegas

SHORTLY BEFORE HIS first UFC bout in April 2013, Conor McGregor was the subject of an MTV documentary.

“I’m not going in there to be the token Irish guy — with a paddy cap, a ginger beard and a pot of gold. I’m not afraid of Jose Aldo. I would fight that guy in a heartbeat. I would fight any of them in a heartbeat. I would go forward and I would go at him.

“There is no opponent. There is no Jose Aldo. Who the fuck is Jose Aldo? There’s no one. You’re against yourself. And I just feel like I’m able to beat myself. I can beat my mind. I believe in myself so much that nothing is going to stop me.”

When the documentary was released, those quotes stood out. An unknown lad from Dublin, whose most recent fight had attracted 900 spectators to the arena and barely four figures to his bank account, calling out the UFC featherweight champion of the world.

Jose Aldo was just coming off a win — his 15th in a row — against Frankie Edgar in the main event of a UFC pay-per-view card in Las Vegas, yet McGregor hadn’t even made his debut. Viewers laughed, not just at the Irishman’s unrealistic projections for his future, but because of his temerity for even mentioning Aldo’s name.

Conor McGregor’s UFC career is now two years and eight months old. During that time, he has grown accustomed to being ridiculed for expressing his lofty ambitions. His peers in the featherweight division subsequently labelled him a joker and a clown.

It didn’t take the UFC long to recognise the financial value of Conor McGregor as an asset. A funny, charismatic young man with an exciting fighting style who represents a country where the organisation needed to expand, it was in their best interests to carve a risk-free path for him to the top.

When he got there, however, McGregor would have no choice but to confront the type of opponents he was being protected from: elite wrestlers and grapplers who could nullify his impressive striking by taking him down and exposing his supposed flaws on the mat.

UFC 194 Mixed Martial Arts Source: John Locher

But having used his fearsome left hand to overcome an All-American wrestler and a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt via the medium of concussion, the past five months have seen McGregor eradicate any doubts over his legitimacy as an elite mixed martial artist.

McGregor’s win against Chad Mendes in July was special, but the enormous significance of last night’s achievement at the MGM Grand Garden Arena was such that it will require much more than 24 hours of reflection in order to fully appreciate it.

Some of the best fighters in the world spent 10 years trying to overcome Jose Aldo. All McGregor needed was 13 seconds. One of the most dominant world champions the sport of MMA has ever seen was removed from his place at the top of the featherweight division as if he were an unruly puppy being swept off the living room sofa.

The majority of Conor McGregor’s supporters landed in Las Vegas late in the week ahead of last night’s fight. The arrival of the hysterical horde was announced to the world on Friday at a Q&A session with Holly Holm, with one fan borrowing a few lines from Frank Sinatra to express his love for the UFC women’s bantamweight champion.

There was an assumption that the atmosphere at UFC 189 in July would be replicated last night, yet for the most part, UFC 194 was a subdued affair in comparison. A larger presence of Irish fighters on the previous bill sustained the interest of the sizeable green contingent in the stands throughout the evening, but that wasn’t the case here.

Brief and intermittent renditions of ‘Ole, ole, ole…” could be heard and even though UFC 194 was widely regarded as one of the best fight cards in the organisation’s history, the Irish fans wanted to fast forward to the climax, having already been waiting all year.

UFC 194 Mixed Martial Arts Source: AP/Press Association Images

Of course, it wouldn’t be a UFC event without at least one Irish observer bemoaning the prospect of a fight being taken to the ground instead of remaining upright.

“Take him down, Urijah,” yelled an American supporter of Urijah Faber during his win against Frankie Saenz. “Ah don’t mind that shite,” was the response from one Irishman.

In one of the public bathrooms at the MGM Grand Garden Arena before the fights kicked off, Brazilian UFC middleweight contender Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza was accompanied by a representative of the United States Anti-Doping Agency — a surprisingly open setting for such a practice. As he emerged from a cubicle and handed over his cup of urine, Jacare was given an encouraging pat on the back by an Irish fan: “All the best, Jackie lad!”

Inevitably, the first big roar of the night was saved for Conor McGregor, which drowned out his entrance music juxtaposition of ‘The Foggy Dew’ and Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Hypnotise’.

Aldo energetically bounced his way to the octagon to the sounds of Rihanna’s ‘Run This Town’. It would turn out to be the final walkout of his six-year reign as a world champion.

Thirteen seconds after referee John McCarthy signalled the beginning of the contest, McGregor brought it all to an end. As the Dubliner perched himself on top of the cage to bask in the glory of his biggest scalp, McCarthy tended to the disorientated former champion.

UFC 194 Mixed Martial Arts Source: John Locher

A truly surreal sight, at first it didn’t quite make sense. Jose Aldo doesn’t lose, you told yourself, and even if he did, he certainly wouldn’t be cut down quite so emphatically and abruptly. There must be some error here.

But there wasn’t. The only mistake was Aldo’s decision to engage with McGregor with a laboured offensive movement so early in the contest. In December 2012, a similar slip and left-counter-punch gave Conor McGregor the Cage Warriors lightweight belt at the expense of Ivan Buchinger. In December 2015, his reward was a UFC title. Undisputed.

At Wednesday’s press conference, McGregor stated that he’d be ‘a ghost’ in the octagon: “He will think I’m there… and then I am not there.” At the time it seemed like an unusual way to explain his approach, but today it makes a lot of sense.

McGregor’s reaction to the win was in stark contrast to his tears in the aftermath of his defeat of Chad Mendes. That was an expression of relief, it seemed, given that he entered that fight with a knee injury. There were measured celebrations last night, but nothing more. Euphoria isn’t necessary when you’ve been certain about an outcome since the pre-UFC days of MTV documentaries.

Relief may not have been the overriding feeling in McGregor’s camp last night, but as for the UFC? Having witnessed their other major superstar, Ronda Rousey, being temporarily erased from the top table last month, a similar defeat for McGregor would have left President Dana White and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta with plenty of thinking to do over Christmas.

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But McGregor didn’t let them down, as he secured the win by breaking Rousey’s record for the quickest ever finish to a UFC title bout. Such numbers and figures are important to McGregor and he was eager to address them in the post-event press conference.

One reporter said: “Conor, this event set a Las Vegas UFC record for gate receipts of $10 million…”

“$10.1 million,” McGregor interjected.

UFC 194 Mixed Martial Arts Source: John Locher

Conor McGregor has succeeded in breathing life into a featherweight division which was struggling prior to his arrival, to the extent that it’s now one of the most compelling in the UFC. Next, he plans to do the same at lightweight.

Now, even his most fervent detractors will struggle to deny his status as one of the most captivating sportspeople in the world. And while it’s understandable to be irked by some of his antics, that shouldn’t prevent anyone from acknowledging his greatness.

In a small country like ours, sports fans seldom have the luxury of being able to savour the achievements of an athlete who can genuinely be regarded as one of the best in the world. When such an opportunity comes along, it would be a shame to let it pass by.

As the spectators filed out of the MGM Grand Garden Arena last night, one of Conor McGregor’s fans who was passing the press area nudged me on the shoulder and said: “I hope all the journalists here are admitting that they got it wrong.”

“Got it wrong? I backed McGregor to win tonight,” I responded, defiantly.

“In what round?”

“The third,” I said.

“Exactly. Didn’t he say it wouldn’t get out of the first? Ye should know by now not to question ‘Mystic Mac’.”

The fan was right. Conor McGregor continues to raise our expectations with the increasing levels of excellence in each of his performances. It’s not just the doubters who are being taught a lesson.

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About the author:

Paul Dollery

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