It’s been a stressful year for Conor McGregor – that swashbuckling charm that enticed us all was replaced by angst as he sought revenge for a major humbling. But now the swagger is back, and that could spell trouble for Eddie Alvarez…
The cocksure smile was first wiped from McGregor’s bearded face back in March when, minutes after a surprise defeat to Nate Diaz, he astutely assessed his own shortcomings. He emerged with credit for explaining the “inefficient energy” that led to his loss but that moment forced the UFC’s great entertainer into a volcano of vengeance.
Gone were the one-liners that had been a welcome part of every McGregor pre-fight tirade. He should be commended for locking himself away for five months to become the subject of his own sports science experiment, embracing the harsh desert environment of Nevada in an effort to match Diaz’s fitness, but the toil took an obvious strain.
It included the debacle of UFC 200, a milestone event that McGregor was expected to lead with Diaz as his dance partner. Amid rumours of a rift between the enigmatic Irishman and his employers, he was eventually removed from the event due to failing to attend a New York press conference on the premise that he was too busy training – this, in turn, led to the infamous retirement tweet that broke social media records and had the sports world wondering. McGregor had always been proud of the businessman behind the athlete but never had such malice crept into the forefront of his merriment.
The foreboding of McGregor’s mission to rectify his sole UFC defeat to Diaz took an uneasy turn in the days before he re-entered the cage – plastic bottles were hurled between the fighters’ respective entourages in an ugly spectacle that shone a light on the pressures of the upcoming performance.
The featherweight champion from Ireland addressed the major flaw on his record by outpointing Diaz in a 25-minute slog when the seeds of five laborious months were finally sewn. He cut a relieved and justified figure afterwards, yet still the laughter has only recently resurfaced.
McGregor had his audience in hysterics during a press conference alongside Alvarez, the lightweight champion who he will challenge next, in a welcome return to the fighter who first captured imaginations two years ago. His put-down of Jeremy Stephens, a fringe contender who shared the same stage, was the type of hilarious response absent from the Diaz chapter.
More recently, he appeared to genuinely enjoy a public work-out at Madison Square Garden, the venue for his fight, successfully completing a free-throw of a basketball on the home turf of the New York Knicks. On Thursday, the faux-aggression displayed was akin to a WWE sketch rather than anything more threatening.
McGregor is at his best acting as a jester not a juvenile. His wit, when deployed with humour, has played havoc with opponents’ mind-sets heading into previous fights – on more than one occasion it could be attributed to making them act irrationally during the heat of battle.
This is the same McGregor who, two years ago, reduced Diego Brandao to a ball of pent-up frustration by insightfully detailing what lay ahead. Dustin Poirier got the full brunt of McGregor’s comedy routine – “He’s a quiet little hillbilly, I have nothing against the guy, I’m sure he grew up in a circus or a fair, he’s a nice little kid” – before Jose Aldo was tortured verbally for nearly a year and was in disbelief when the Irishman stole his championship belt during a Dublin event.
His UFC career has been horrendous. He’s very, very lucky to be in the position he is. He understands that.
Conor McGregor on Eddie Alvarez
Analysing Alvarez’s world title win, McGregor quipped: “I thought it was very sloppy. The shot selection was very, very poor. He got blessed. He got blessed with a lucky shot. His UFC career has been horrendous. He’s very, very lucky to be in the position he is. He understands that.”
McGregor first caught the imagination of the wider sports world for boldly describing the downfalls of established champions, mixing a tongue-in-cheek assessment their skills with hilarity-inducing rants that less articulate opponents simply couldn’t respond to. Losing briefly muted him but rediscovering his shtick is troublesome for Alvarez.
McGregor, with designer sunglasses hiding his poker face, has returned to the casino as the high-stakes gambler that he is. He looks revitalised by the fresh challenge of Alvarez, whose wrestling acumen could well prove to be a flush hand. Defeat would undo much of McGregor’s brash talking but that’s exactly how he’s excelled in the past.