Las Vegas: Dana White wasn’t certain this day would ever come.
At times he was pretty confident it wouldn’t. After all, Conor McGregor just struck it rich. Sure, he was already what any common person would deem wealthy from his prior fighting exploits.
As UFC’s biggest star, McGregor was routinely earning millions. The last time he entered the octagon — a second-round knockout of Eddie Alvarez in November 2016 — the Irishman raked in a guaranteed $3 million that soared past five when pay-per-view upside was calculated.
But when he crossed over into boxing for a megafight with Floyd Mayweather last summer, he banked an eight-figure payday.
So the mere sight of the sport’s biggest attraction once again sitting on the dais two days before a major fight brought a smile to the UFC president’s face on Thursday.
“When a guy makes $100 million, you don’t know if he’s ever gonna fight again. Conor made a lot of money and I’m sure he had a lot of fun and did what he wanted to do,” White said. “No matter how much you make, you can only sit home for so long and you start to go crazy.”
McGregor didn’t just sit at home, though. And he did go crazy. He made an unexpected appearance at UFC 223 media day in April and proceeded to project a handtruck at a bus transporting many of his fellow fighters, including Khabib Nurmagomedov.
The dolly was actually aimed at Nurmagomedov, whom McGregor will meet on Saturday at UFC 229 at T-Mobile Arena.
Nurmagomedov was involved in a dust-up with McGregor’s buddy, Artem Lobov, earlier that week, sending the Notorious One into a rage.
The fracas resulted in several injuries, many fight cancellations and a bevy of lawsuits. He was arrested and charged with three counts of assault. At the time, White cast doubt on McGregor’s status in UFC moving forward.
“Do you want to be in business with Conor McGregor right now?” White asked in April immediately following the incident. “Do you want to chase this guy around for interviews and buy his fights? Do you?
“I don’t think anybody is going to want to right now. I think everybody is going to be pretty disgusted with Conor McGregor right now. Listen, you don’t like Khabib and you don’t like what happened or whatever? Then fight Khabib.”
McGregor is doing just that, and the act White once called “criminal, disgusting, despicable,” is now being used as a promotional vehicle — in video highlights and other materials — to hype the highly anticipated showdown. That’s show business.
Since the advent of sanctioned prized fighting in the 1800s, promoters have used any available tool — both real and imagined — to sell tickets. White can’t be blamed for changing his tune just a few months later.
So yes, White indeed does want to be in business with Conor McGregor. He’s not just the most recognisable name in UFC, but in combat sports as a whole.
“You can tell this guy is passionate about fighting,” White said. “He loves it. He loves breaking records and he loves making money.”
And money he shall make. White projects the event could surpass 3m pay-per-view buys, which would shatter the previous record set by who else? McGregor, whose rematch victory over Nate Diaz in 2016 generated 1.65m buys.
With all the legitimate bad blood swirling between both camps, and a tantalising matchup, maybe White’s prediction will prove right. McGregor is actually the underdog this time. Oddsmakers at Bovada peg Khabib as a slight favourite at minus-160 to McGregor’s plus-130.
The 30-year-old Russian is undefeated and hungry. He also matches up well with McGregor as a highly skilled wrestler who finds way to score takedowns time and again.
McGregor, 30, is at his best when he’s on his feet and able to deliver his pulverising strikes. Following an eight-week training camp to prepare for Mayweather and nine-plus rounds that followed in the ring, Mystic Mac’s boxing ability figures to be much-improved.
But he must contend with a two-year layoff from the sport he’s actually participating in, and a hungry, determined opponent who is looking to etch his name in lore.
“I think beginning of first round I have to be careful with him because he has good boxing but my wrestling is my pressure,” Nurmagomedov said Thursday. “He has to kill me to stop me. I’m going to finish this guy and stop this guy and this is my plan.”
That was the nature of McGregor’s threats. At various times on Thursday he vowed to “knock that man’s nose into the nose bleeds,” and “put a hole in this man’s head”.
“I’m ruthless here. I’m here to put a hole in this man’s skull,” McGregor promised. “I’m starving for this man’s head.”
Khabib possesses the superior grappling ability, and McGregor has tapped out once before (first meeting with Diaz in 2016 when he submitted to a rear-naked chokehold.) Bravado and violent taunts aside, McGregor has a plan.
“I’ve been grappling and wrestling much heavier man this whole camp. 200-pounders, 25 minutes straight,” McGregor said. “I am ready for all outcomes. I feel once I hit him he’s going to turn weak. I expect panic in him early.
“I’ve experienced it all. I’ve gotten tired in there. I’ve been on my back in there. I’ve been in every scenario you can be in under the brightest lights in the entire world. I am a veteran. I am here to enjoy this because this is what I love.”
Enjoy McGregor now, because win or lose, who knows if or when he’ll be back. He was non-committal to fighting again after Saturday. And this is before he’ll earn another pile of money that promises to rank as the best payday of his UFC career.
With Ronda Rousey gone, the UFC is short on stars, but for now, White has his brightest. Now he needs Conor to not just win, but stick around for a while.