There’s a familiar rhythm to UFC fight week and open workouts are the first heavy beat of the drum.
Conor McGregor, out of sync with that rhythm following his self-imposed exile, offered the first public exhibition of his skills with the 6oz gloves in two years.
A legion of fans crammed inside Park Theatre and strained for a glimpse of the ‘Notorious’ as he strutted out in his flat-cap and vest with Conor Jr in tow. His young son was totally unphased by the crowd. It must be in the genes.
Conor McGregor arrived for the open workouts ahead of UFC 229 with his son Conor Jr
Fans at the Park Theatre in Las Vegas were kept waiting for the ‘Notorious’ on Wednesday night
But McGregor gave them enough of a demonstration that it was worth the extended wait
He then changed into an all-black outfit and demonstrated his continued skills to the crowd
The Dubliner kept his expectant fans waiting, disappearing again to change into workout gear. Eventually, kitted out in his all black ensemble he demonstrated the instantly recognisable movement, smooth evasive grace and rasping thud of fists on Owen Roddy’s pads, it was all there.
Well, maybe not all, no doubt the Irishman will have been selective in what Khabib Nurmagomedov and his team could observe.
The Russian’s father and trainer, Abdulmanap, has previously deployed a spotter within eavesdropping distance of an opponent’s corner during fights. The coaching information would then be relayed in between rounds.
Morally questionable? Probably. Crafty? Absolutely. The Dagestani cohort will exploit any opportunity for an edge and no doubt McGregor will have kept his cards close to his chest. In the casino capital of the world there is surely no other way to play it.
The Irishman stretches out ahead of working out with his usual partner, Owen Roddy
McGregor demonstrates that he has not lost any of his trademark poise and ability recently
He has been on a break from the Octagon but is set to take on Khabib Nurmagomedov
After working up a sweat, McGregor addressed the crowd with a two-minute burst of energy, promoting his whiskey and pledging to separate Khabib from consciousness.
‘It will be a devastating KO, too flat-footed, too predictable, I’m going to knock him straight out. It’s good to be back, it’s going to be a proper fight. I’m going to come out the gate fast, I’m coming out to take his f***** head,’ he roared.
The Dubliner, MMA’s finest showman could sell ice to the eskimos, let alone his own brand whiskey to the Irish but his public appearances have been uncharacteristically sparse in the build-up to this one.
There is an understanding that Nurmagomedov is the most dangerous opponent he has faced
‘I’m coming out to take his f***** head,’ McGregor roared while watched on by countless fans
Aside from one compelling press conference in New York, the former two-weight world champion has curbed his promotional activities to focus entirely on training.
The general understanding is that after taking home $100million from the Floyd Mayweather fight, McGregor doesn’t need to waste energy squeezing extra pay-per-view buys.
That, and the fact that Khabib is the most dangerous opponent he’s ever faced.
Nurmagomedov throws a training partner to the floor as he goes through his routine
The Russian exclusively focused on grappling during his open workout, spending ten minutes mauling two unfortunate training partners before grabbing the mike and arguing with McGregor fans, then heading back from whence he came.
He said: ‘Three days. You’re going to like me. I know you’re going to love me.’
Nurmagomedov, who has questioned McGregor’s pride in his Irish heritage, did so once again.
Referencing McGregor’s grandfather’s time with the British Merchant Navy, he said: ‘These guys talk about (how) they fight English people but his grandfather worked with the English navy.’
The Russian argued with fans of McGregor and again questioned his rival’s Irish heritage
Nurmagomedov added: ‘I have a question for Ireland: what about your language, what about your Irish language? Where’s your language? What’s wrong with your language?’
All in an afternoon’s work.
The wrestling superstar doesn’t know what defeat feels like, having steamrolled his way to a perfect 26-0 record. His suffocating pressure and dexterity on the ground will be unlike anything McGregor has encountered before and he looked freakishly nimble on the stage at Park Theatre.
Nurmagomedov looked more concerned with arguing with the crowd than working out
Khabib is capable of throwing grown men around like rag-dolls and there is a reason why the bookies rate him as favourite to retain the lightweight title. McGregor recognises that threat and is taking this fight deadly seriously, ‘preparing for war’ as he puts it.
There have been very few signs of fallibility in Khabib and his work rate is phenomenal, a concern for the McGregor camp as the Irishman has previously struggled in the championship rounds.
That said, Khabib hasn’t yet faced the cream of the crop. He was rattled momentarily by Michael Johnson and his defences can look shaky. McGregor is brilliantly adept at finding a home for his howitzer of a left hand at any moment and can counter with deadly precision.
The strategy of both men is plain to see but there are so many uncertainties over how Saturday night will play out.
With open workouts done and dusted, the next time fans see McGregor and Khabib with their gloves on it will be for real. The rhythm of fight week is starting to build up Saturday’s crescendo.
If Khabib vs McGregor is the main course, there are plenty of appetisers to savour on the main card…
Tony Ferguson (23-3-0) vs Anthony Pettis (21-7)
Tony Ferguson may be fighting in the co-main event on Saturday night but he must feel like the forgotten man. ‘El Cucuy’ was scheduled to fight Khabib for the lightweight title in April but suffered a freak accident, rupturing all of his knee ligaments after tripping over a tangle of wires whilst fulfilling media obligations prior to the bout.
The unorthodox striker has been on an incredible run of 10 victories and is arguably more deserving of a big pay day fight with McGregor than Khabib is. But fate and misfortune have blocked his path. An emphatic victory over Anthony Pettis would put him right in the frame to face the winner of this weekend’s main event.
Pettis is capable of extraordinary creativity in the octagon, famously knocking out Benson Henderson with a flying kick off the cage. ‘Showtime’ lives up to his moniker more than most fighters and there should be fireworks in what, on paper, looks like it could be one of the most exciting bouts of the night.
Ovince St Preux (23-11-0) vs Dominic Reyes (9-0)
OSP is one of the most active fighters in the UFC. He likes to stay busy and at 35-years-old he needs to string some wins together to reestablish himself as a contender.
Reyes, nicknamed the ‘Devastator’ has so far looked just that inside the octagon. He’s one of the most impressive young talents in the 205lbs division.
St Preux is a formidable athlete but there have been holes in his stand-up before, if Reyes can turn it into a boxing match he could well have his hand raised and creep inside the top 10.
Derrick Lewis (20-5-0) vs Alexander Volkov (30-6-0)
Volkov might be one of the most exciting talents in the heavyweight division right now. ‘Drago’ looks every inch the Rocky villain and overcame Fabricio Werdum in London last time out.
If he can avoid the destructive power of Lewis, the Russian could well be next in line for a shot at the title.
Lewis is one of the most popular fighters in the organisation but his last scrap with Francis Ngannou was an absolute stinker, one of the worst fights in UFC history. Perhaps he’ll feel the pressure to give the fans something to cheer this time around.
Michelle Waterson (15-6) vs Felice Herrig (14-7)
The only women’s fight on the main card will kick things off in the T-Mobile Arena. Michelle the ‘Karate Hottie’ Waterson is usually undersized compared with her opponents but has always given a solid account of herself.
Watch out for her judo throws and slick ground game against Herrig. The 34-year-old muay thai fighter is well rounded but should look to keep this a stand-up battle.
Herrig’s physical superiority should be enough to secure at least a couple of takedowns and Waterson may struggle off her back against the heavier woman.