Immortality awaits McGregor in the Garden, but there are no guarantees

Those who have visited the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave often get a rude awakening on their arrival in New York.

Instead of the outstretched arm of the Statue of Liberty with her torch raised to welcome them, there is usually a long, winding queue for passport control.

Not so this week as I waltzed through Newark Airport and straight up to gate 49, where a clean-shaven young man inspected my newly-minted passport with both courtesy and studied detachment.

“What is the purpose of your visit, sir?”

“To watch the UFC and the NBA.”

He nodded approvingly.

Fingerprints and photographs taken, he snapped the passport shut.

“You’re all set. Let’s hope our boy wins on Saturday,” he said, his face cracking into a wide smile.

“Our boy” is Conor McGregor, and if the Irish once ruled New York, from the firehouses and the police precincts to City Hall and back, he is claiming it back at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, but the stakes are arguably higher than they ever were in Las Vegas.

Interest in McGregor is at fever pitch, but Eddie Alvarez, whom he faces as he seeks to become the first two-weight champion in the history of the UFC, is no slouch.

McGregor has seemed swept up in the hype this week, his manic behaviour at Thursday’s press conference a perfect example of a man highly strung, so close to achieving his dream, yet still vulnerable to failure.

No customised Rolls Royce or Gucci fur coat could hide the fact that, on Saturday, it will be Reebok shorts, four-ounce gloves and a gate that snaps shut when the moment of truth arrives – and that is all that matters.

If he wins, his legend will be complete, and the much-touted major announcement he has promised after the fight will take on even greater significance.

He will effectively control the UFC for the foreseeable future, reversing the master-and-servant relationship that once saw him beg Dana White for sixty grand; instead, White will be forced to go to McGregor on his knees if he wishes to keep the company steamrollering forward on the back of its most notorious fighter.

Lose, and the questions that were prompted by his defeat to Nate Diaz in March will once again echo around the sport.

Ronda Rousey and others may have done the spadework, but McGregor is undeniably the sport’s biggest truly cross-cultural global icon, but there is a huge risk that, with tens of millions in the bank and a promotion that has little choice but to bend to his demands, that McGregor will find himself surrounded by yes men – and that could signal the beginning of the end.

Those who have known him a long time say he has changed – he has become a brand, a one-man global industry with spin-offs and offshoots, with a bottom line and bills to pay, and expensive tastes to satisfy.

Honed over a decade or more, he knows his craft inside the octagon better than anyone else.

Given his meteoric rise, it would be foolish to assume that his mastery of the outside world – of the business of fighting and celebrity and investing – is at the same level, although the iron control he exerts over his brand and his support staff would suggest he is a fast learner, at least in terms of minimising the risk to himself.

It is unlikely that we will ever again see an open-hearted interview which allows us to see into the soul of the man – instead, we will be treated to staged videos and set-piece interviews where the answers are decided in advance, and are entirely independent of the questions.

He is uncouth and vulgar at times, but McGregor is no fool – he knows that the prospect of getting punched and kicked in the head for a living is not going to be attractive forever, and even at this stage he probably has his exit strategy mapped out.

Whatever that strategy is, it is surely based on the presumption that he will win this iconic fight in this iconic venue on Saturday, cementing his legend and opening up a world of wealth, fame and possibilities, financial and otherwise, beyond even his wildest dreams.

There is talk of movies, a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather and even a brief but lucrative move to professional wrestling and the WWE.

But the difference between the UFC and professional wrestling is a stark one – nothing in the octagon is scripted, and one clean shot could lay waste to whatever plans McGregor may have.

And you can be sure Eddie Alvarez is planning an entirely different ending.

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