Conor McGregor has won 13 fights in a row, 12 of them finishes. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
The fireworks have all been shot, the American flag bandanas are neatly tucked away and the hangovers all but cured, so it is time for UFC 189 on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. In the wake of Independence Day, the Ultimate Fighting Championship sought to push the party in Las Vegas halfway into July; and what a party it will be as throngs of fight fans herd into Sin City to see pair of title fights with very different story lines but one similar backdrop.
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HOW WE GOT HERE: The main event originally pitted the UFC’s new shiny star against a great fighter desperate for some shine. Conor McGregor’s skill with a microphone, coupled with his skillful fists, gave him a clear trajectory to the only UFC featherweight champion in history, Jose Aldo. The matchup brought with it unparalleled promotion, including a world tour, a dozen UFC “Embedded” episodes and a slew of sound bites worthy of Shark Week. It all came crashing down when news came that Aldo had suffered a broken rib, leaving the title fight in jeopardy. UFC President Dana White confirmed the news on June 30: Aldo was out and top contender Chad Mendes was in, demoting the headliner to an interim title fight. The NCAA All-American wrestler had 11 days to prepare and make weight for a 25-minute match with McGregor ... Not to be forgotten, the co-main event features a rematch between familiar foes. Welterweight champion Robbie Lawler returns after a much-deserved six-month break to defend his title for the first time. He squares off against Canadian Rory MacDonald, who has won eight of his last nine bouts. His lone loss in that stretch: a split decision against Lawler in a three-round non-title affair.
MEASURING STICK: No fighter in the history of the UFC has been meticulously developed, vivaciously marketed, properly matched and heavily invested in as much as McGregor. The last several years saw many of the organization’s champions and profitable stars either step aside (Georges St. Pierre and Brock Lesnar), fail performance-enhancing drug tests (Chael Sonnen and Anderson Silva), shelved by injury (Cain Velasquez and Rashad Evans) or face legal troubles (Jon Jones). The UFC got it right just when it seemed like everything was going wrong. What does all that star power get you? So far, McGregor’s efforts yielded more mainstream media attention than anyone not named Ronda Rousey, becoming a monster ratings draw for UFC’s broadcast partner on Fox Sports 1 and drawing record-breaking attendance and enough web traffic to keep hordes of writers staffed. Seriously, I asked a major MMA website editor if McGregor headlines still bring traffic. His answer: “Absolutely. I’ve never seen anything like it.” However, McGregor has never carried a pay-per-view -- the ultimate gauge of a combat athlete’s draw. The idea of star power is a unique element in MMA. Taking a fighter’s abstract brand and turning it into tangible profit is not a perfect science. UFC 189’s numbers will be the perfect measuring stick of what kind of asset the loud-mouthed Irishman is to the sport.
REDEMPTION STORY: Mendes might be the all-time second-best fighter in the relatively young featherweight division. For the last five years, he has been dominant over every opponent except Aldo, falling to the champion twice. While their rematch was competitive and a “Fight of the Year” nominee in 2014, a third crack at Aldo seemed like a long shot until this short-notice opportunity at the interim belt. The Smartest Guy at the Bar regularly scoffs at interim titles. A belt is only as good as the fighter wearing it, and the winner at UFC 189 will not be viewed as the best featherweight in the world. The only real value in an interim title is the fact that it represents a virtual guarantee the holder will get the next shot at the true champion. In a sport where title shots are often promised but never definite, interim championships at least make for nice tickets to the top. Like Jon Fitch to Georges St. Pierre and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira to Fedor Emelianenko, some of the sport’s best fighters have stood in the shadows of all-time greats. If Mendes can produce a third Aldo fight and win, he can promote himself from the silver medalist’s club to the championship tier. For a guy who went undefeated his senior year in wrestling, only to lose in the NCAA final, Mendes has a history of coming up just short of the very top of the combat ladder. Fate -- and more specifically Aldo’s rib -- dealt him a chance for redemption.
FRACTURED LEGACY: Giant spotlights create huge shadows, especially under the Las Vegas desert sun in July. UFC 189 sits under the looming figure of Aldo, the best fighter under 170 pounds in the history of the sport. This is the fifth time the Brazilian has been forced out of a UFC event due to an injury -- the culprit, either a fractured rib or a bruised rib, depending on the doctor. That is a lot of canceled bouts for a four-year timespan. The fan backlash over Aldo’s recent ailment was harsh and, to a degree, understandable. However, Aldo is relatively active by championship standards. Since signing with World Extreme Cagefighting in 2008, the Nova Uniao standout has averaged two fights a year, including two Octagon appearances every year he has been in the UFC. The lone exception was 2012. He gets hurt a lot, but he recovers quickly. Injuries are as much a part of this sport as armbars, pay-per-views and ring card girls. Time will tell if injuries are as much a part of Aldo’s legacy as leg kicks, belts and endless highlight footage.
SAY WHAT: To the surprise of absolutely no one, McGregor did not mince words when discussing Aldo’s recent injury. After months preparing for a muay Thai-style striker, the 26-year-old now has to face a boxer-wrestler in Mendes. He also saw the title belt he so covets receive that awful “interim” tag. He even went so far as to say the UFC should strip Aldo of his own hardware. It is a ludicrous statement considering the Brazilian fought just eight months ago and all signs point toward just months on the shelf in recovery. “If a man pussies out, and he’s pussied out time and time again, [then he should be stripped],” McGregor said. “He’s pulled out of contests time and time again. I mean, the medical reports state he is fit to fight, so there’s no more questions. If you’re fit to fight and you’re not going to fight, the belt rightfully should be stripped, and this [fight with Mendes should be] for the regular featherweight belt.”
THAT OTHER FIGHT: The Conor McGregor Show is a whirling tornado that sucks in all the attention around it. It should come as no surprise then that the two soft-spoken welterweight title combatants got sucked into the fray and were almost forgotten -- a shame considering the stakes. The UFC welterweight division is traditionally the most stable of any weight class. From 2001 to 2014, the division was essentially ruled by two men: Matt Hughes and Georges St. Pierre. Outside of brief hiccups against B.J. Penn and Matt Serra, respectively, Hughes and GSP were near locks for more than a decade. St. Pierre’s exit left a vacuum at 170 pounds, with Johny Hendricks, Lawler and MacDonald looked upon to fill the void. Lawler and Hendricks fought for almost an hour in their two title fights, splitting the series and leaving the masses unsure about the identity of the superior fighter. Lawler and MacDonald had about as close a fight as one can imagine in 2013. Moving forward, expect the welterweight crown to mimic the light heavyweight title before Jones showed up -- a hot potato bouncing between contenders.
AWARDS WATCH: Brandon Thatch’s video-game, button-mashing fighting style is built for post-fight performance awards. His opponent, Gunnar Nelson, is more than capable of submitting the tall striker, but the Icelander got outstruck by Rick Story in his last fight. Expect Thatch to bounce back from losing to Benson Henderson in a big way … The undefeated Thomas Almeida has exactly one decision win among his 18 victories. There is a reason the UFC put the 23-year-old on the main card of a high-profile pay-per-view, and it was not to lose to Brad Pickett. The Brit is a tough veteran, but his 4-5 UFC record pushes him toward gatekeeper status. Almeida should win in spectacular fashion and cash a performance check … McGregor is a high-action fighter with plenty of fan-friendly firepower. Mendes is surging and coming off two of the best outings of his career, with a quick knockout of Ricardo Lamas and a “Fight of the Year” candidate against Aldo. Sign up the main event for “Fight of the Night.”