LAS VEGAS >> Conor McGregor left the MGM Grand Garden Arena in sunglasses, a bow tie and yet another gorgeous suit, heading off into the Vegas night to celebrate his UFC title in his inimitable style.
“Right now, I’m running this game,” McGregor said.
By now it’s clear that the mixed martial arts game needs this smack-talking Irish featherweight as much as he needs that shiny new championship belt to put in his trendy wardrobe.
The UFC realizes it has something special in McGregor, who dramatically won the interim 145-pound title Saturday night by stopping Chad Mendes in the waning seconds of the second round.
Just when the promotion desperately needed a charismatic new star, McGregor is becoming perhaps the UFC’s biggest name, and a bridge to new MMA markets in Europe and beyond. His quick wit and a taste for fight-game theatrics make him even more irresistible — and his next fight against injured champion Jose Aldo looms as possibly the most lucrative night in the sport’s history.
“It’s a crazy game, and you know, I absolutely love it,” McGregor said. “I love this job. I love this game. I love this ride I’m on. I’m happy to have taken the belt. It wouldn’t have mattered if it was Jose or it was Chad. This was my belt. This was my night.”
McGregor’s victory capped an electrifying night of pay-per-view fights, including a spectacularly bloody welterweight title bout won by Robbie Lawler. UFC President Dana White was thrilled by the show afterward, calling it bigger than the landmark UFC 100 event in 2009.
White said the show set a U.S. record with a gate of $7.2 million from the 16,019 fans in the UFC’s hometown. White also is cautiously optimistic for more than 1 million pay-per-view buys, which would put UFC 189 among the biggest sellers in promotional history.
And that’s not even counting the weigh-in, where a singing, flag-waving crowd of roughly 11,500 showed up just to watch McGregor scream when he took the scale.
The entire weekend is a remarkable achievement for McGregor, the unquestioned main attraction of a major pay-per-view show in just his sixth UFC bout. His entire career is unprecedented for a fighter from the lighter weight classes — and he’s just getting started, as he is quick to confirm.
“I have every record right now, and at the end of the day, I’m still only 26 years of age,” McGregor said. “I am still very, very young in this game.”
Even McGregor got sick of his own voice during the weeks leading up to UFC 189. Although his rapid success is partially due to his self-promotion skills, the constant media attention wore him out — to a point, anyway.
“It’s damn hard work,” McGregor said. “There were times when I said, ‘I’m not doing this again.’ Then I get handed the check, and I think, ‘All right then, I’ll do it one more time.'”
With Jon Jones suspended and several divisions lacking a compelling champion, UFC 189 leaves McGregor as likely the biggest male star in MMA. He is competing with bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey — who fights Bethe Correia in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 1 — for name recognition among active fighters.
“Ronda is an absolute machine,” McGregor said. “She’s an animal, and I relate to Ronda a lot, because I know the work she puts in media-wise and training-wise. I look at her and I take a great inspiration from Ronda, her work ethic. I feel it’s me and Ronda at the top of the game, and I’m honored.”
And despite his public pronouncements to the contrary, McGregor didn’t look invincible in his championship win — and that also makes him more intriguing.
Mendes largely controlled the fight on the ground before McGregor got loose on a failed submission attempt, and McGregor ate his share of punches in both rounds. Both Aldo and former lightweight champ Frankie Edgar are likely salivating at the chance to test McGregor’s all-around game, and both might still be favored in a matchup with McGregor.
But along with praising McGregor’s trash-talking skills, Mendes gave credit to the new champ’s punching acumen, which is extraordinarily precise by MMA standards.
“My feet were planted,” said Mendes, whose reach is eight inches shorter. “That’s the mistake I made, and Conor was able to stand in front of me and tee off. More than anything, he’s accurate. That’s what plays into the success he has. He’s got power, but he’s more accurate than anything.”