By CATHAL KELLY
Saturday, October 6, 2018
TORONTO -- Though he is the world's most famous competing fighter, Conor McGregor has always been a better talker.
His prefight news conferences are so unhinged and entertaining that promoters put on a series of them - like Christopher Hitchens visiting every cowtown in America to disassemble religious figures on stage. Except wonderfully stupid.
Some of McGregor's out-ofcontext highlights: On religion: "Me and Jesus are cool. ... Gods recognize gods."
On being in Rio de Janeiro to fight a Brazilian, with his feet up on the dais: "I own this town."
On his dream matchup: "I would like to fight myself. Imagine the numbers that one would do."
That's a summation of his mission statement. McGregor is no longer a fighter, per se. He's a performer and a pitchman. A year after succeeding in not humiliating himself in a boxing match, McGregor returns to mixed-martial arts on Saturday.
He'll take on Khabib Nurmagomedov from the Dagestan area of Russia.
It's a big deal in what feels like the shrinking world of MMA.
Nurmagomedov has never been defeated. He's what you might call a technician - which is to say that the only thing he does very well is fight.
A sample Nurmagomedov zinger: "I don't think about [McGregor]. ... Why do I have to think about him?" I don't know, because he's intent on stoving in your head?
Shouldn't that merit a little consideration? What else are you busy thinking about? Your dry cleaning?
Owing to a lack of facility with English and what seems to be a habitual reticence, Nurmagomedov hasn't been much use in selling the match.
That's pushed McGregor's natural volume - already an 11 - up to about a 13. It's not been pretty.
He is the midst of becoming the fight game's Brett Kavanaugh.
McGregor's massive appeal has always been fairly focused.
He lacks in just about every marketing advantage. He's only a semi-entertaining fighter once he's in the ring. He comes from a tiny country. He is a smallish man, not what you would call physically charismatic.
He doesn't date Instagram models, or star in films or have any obvious way to re-embed himself in the cultural consciousness between bouts (and the layoffs are getting longer).
What McGregor had was an unholy amount of swagger, paired with the sense that he was also in on the joke. The dissonance was electric.
He was also relentless. In a world where people, especially famous people, are forever apologizing for their thought crimes, McGregor would enter rhetorical territory other athletes could not find with a map. He was Donald Trump without the political baggage. It was delightful.
Now he's Trump with the intent to menace, and it's become a bit worrying.
The impetus for Saturday's main event was an unsanctioned fight in April. McGregor showed up uninvited at the media day before another of Nurmagomedov's cards.
McGregor ended up in the loading dock below Brooklyn's Barclay's Center, attacking a shuttle with a steel cart. He hurled it through a window, injuring two fighters on board. He was arrested, pleaded no contest and was sentenced to a brief stint of community service.
Fifteen years ago, UFC and its president, Dana White, might have welcomed the publicity. But MMA's premier fight league has since been sold for billions and is attempting to put some polish on people kicking the hell out of each other for sport. This is no longer the tone they're looking to set.
White had to deny the attack was a stunt. Several fights on the card were cancelled. In pubic perception, McGregor went from an amusing lout to a man seemingly on the edge of ... well, of what was hard to say. But nothing good.
He has deepened that impression in recent weeks. All the former suavity - custom suits, the louche, bemused air - has disappeared.
Now, McGregor is a shrieking weirdo in an undershirt. He's the next-door neighbour from hell.
In Thursday's last media tuneup in Las Vegas, McGregor hadn't arrived by the appointed time.
Nurmagomedov - cauliflowereared and beginning to look bored by all the carry on - proceeded without him. Then he left.
When McGregor did show up - in sweat pants - he was in a profane rage. He called Nurmagomedov "a smelly Dagestani rat."
He talked with relish about his desire to kill his opponent - "My heart is black towards this man.
... I'm here to put a hole in this man's skull."
He also did a heroic amount of shilling for his own brand of whisky. All the cleverness that made McGregor a global brand had evaporated. What remains is a low-rent appeal to our worst nature.
If you're just in it for the bloodlust, you can save a hundred bucks on the pay-per-view and I'll suggest a couple of bars you can swing by at closing time. I'm pretty sure there'll be some blood.
Combat sports appeal to a general public because they are elemental, not because they are base. Very few of us enjoy seeing other humans get badly hurt. We haven't fallen quite that far, yet.
What we want is to watch people brush up against that risk and come out the other side intact.
We understand that the emotional temperature is torqued up ahead of time to add spice, but we expect that once the encounter is done, there will be some show of mutual respect.
If we're to take him at both his words and his actions, McGregor has crossed over that threshold.
He's got so far into the character he once played on TV that he's become that guy in real life.
It's not entertaining. It's unsettling.
Saturday's fight may or may not be great. McGregor hasn't faced a real competitor in his native discipline for two years. He's 30 now. Some performance dropoff is to be expected.
Not caring one or the other about the result, it could be an interesting encounter.
But for me, the real fascination is the end of the fight. Win or lose, will McGregor stay in his noxious, prefight character, or was this all an (ill-judged) act?
Because if it wasn't, and he wins, UFC might well worry. That would mean it is being fronted for several years by a guy who has become hard, verging on impossible, to like any more.
After arriving late, Conor McGregor took an opportunity to criticize his next opponent, Khabib Nurmagomedov, at prefight news conference in Las Vegas on Thursday.
ISAAC BREKKEN/GETTY IMAGES