Conor McGregor Cements Himself as the UFC's Biggest Star

Jeremy Botter@jeremybotterMMA Senior WriterJuly 12, 2015

USA Today

LAS VEGAS — The most incredible thing on Saturday evening—and this means something, because it happened after a night full of incredible things—was the way the Irish celebrated after Conor McGregor knocked out Chad Mendes in the second round to become the UFC's interim featherweight champion.

At first, they stayed, and that is saying something in and of itself. Typical Vegas crowds will begin filing out of the MGM Grand Garden Arena immediately upon the conclusion of an event and often even before Bruce Buffer announces the final winner.

Not this crowd. People stayed, at first in their seats, holding their Irish flags aloft in the air and singing songs. Then they moved, to the concourse and beyond, filling the depths of the MGM Grand casino with their festive sounds, stopping only to bounce up and down and throw beers and high-five.

If you aren't familiar with the word craic, it's an Irish way of saying you are having a good time. And the Irish, who made Las Vegas just another version of Dublin on this night, were most certainly having good craic.

Perhaps the best craic ever.

They came across the ocean by the thousands to see McGregor, Ireland's newest sporting hero. When I went to Dublin for my recent story about his upbringing and the city that molded him, I got the sense that those who are dedicated to him are attached beyond measure. They possess the same fervent self-belief as McGregor.

Ask any fan who made that long flight to Dublin this week who they thought would win the fight, and their answer was immediate. No hedging. They believed McGregor would win, because he believed he would win.

John Locher/Associated Press

And because he believed he would win, they spent money and flew long flights and congregated here, in a place so different from Dublin. And then they made it their own, drowning out everyone who had the temerity not to be Irish.

McGregor's win was the culmination of a night that could not have gone better for the UFC. It debuted a sparkling and clean new graphics package that made old productions seem as though they were dredged from the stone ages. The fights delivered, one after the other, with two legitimate contenders for Fight of the Year and one that teetered on the edge. And then came the main event, with Sinead O'Connor hauntingly singing McGregor to the Octagon and Aaron Lewis (formerly of Staind) doing the same for Mendes.

The jury is out on exactly how well Lewis performed, of course; the Irish nearly drowned him out with songs of their own. And after the fight, when McGregor collapsed to his knees and buried his face in the flag of his home country, they lifted him up by singing songs about him.

There are still questions about McGregor the fighter. Mendes was able to take him down and keep him there, which indicates that the infamous "wrestler question" surrounding McGregor has not yet been fully answered. Or, it has, but not in a way that is conclusive.

We know he can get off his back and persevere, but we also know he can be put there in the first place.

But Mendes at his best is a strong wrestler with the ability to force his will on his opponents. There are no other wrestlers of his ilk in the featherweight division. There is Frankie Edgar, of course, but he is a wrestler of a wholly different variety.

And though I have learned that it is unwise to discount Edgar, I have also learned the same about McGregor. He has been cast aside as a carnival act for his entire UFC run, as someone granted far more than he has earned because of his willingness to say things that others do not.

Some of that is true. McGregor is a favored son who the UFC brass loves, and that will give ammunition to those who dislike him, no matter what he does for the rest of his career.

But the fact is this: McGregor is a superb fighter. He is one of the UFC's best, at least when he is standing. Mendes admitted at the post-fight press conference that McGregor has power in his punches. But he said the biggest problem he faced with McGregor was the Irishman's remarkable striking accuracy.

Well, that and the trash-talking that did not stop even after McGregor was locked in the cage.

John Locher/Associated Press

"I was hitting him with everything I had, and the guy was still running his mouth," Mendes said with a laugh during the post-fight press conference. "I landed a giant elbow on his face, and he said, 'Is that all you've got?'"

McGregor is almost without question now the UFC's biggest star. When Jose Aldo pulled out of this fight, the UFC could have postponed it entirely and saved the big-money attraction for another night. Instead, the promotion rolled the dice. In a gambling town, Dana White and Co. gambled that McGregor could do what he said he would do, thereby creating an even bigger fight when Aldo is healthy.

And in a sport where things rarely work out perfectly, the UFC's gamble paid off. McGregor played his part before the fight, touring the world and promoting it to the nines, and then he went into the Octagon and finished the job.

And now, if you thought you were salivating over Aldo vs. McGregor the first time around? You cannot imagine what the next one will bring. McGregor will do his part once again, and the buildup will be insane, and then fight night will come around, and Vegas will be Dublin all over again.

There will be singing and drinking and dancing, and the Tricolor will be in abundance.

Fine craic, indeed.

Jeremy Botter covers mixed martial arts for Bleacher Report.

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