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Conor McGregor Delivers in UFC’s New York City Debut

5 minute read

Conor McGregor really wanted his second belt. The UFC superstar had just knocked out Eddie Alvarez on early Saturday morning, to gain the lightweight title and become the first UFC fighter to earn championships in two different divisions (he already had the featherweight crown). During his post-fight interview in the Octagon, to the delight of a delirious Madison Square Garden crowd, he called the UFC “cheap m———–s” for failing to bring out the featherweight belt so he could strut around with the two jewels. He dropped a few more f-bombs before UFC president Dana White—who later said it was in fact McGregor’s responsibility to tend to his own belts—gave McGregor a second belt, which White borrowed from welterweight champ Tyron Woodley. “It’d like to take this time to apologize,” McGregor shouted into the mike, “to absolutely nobody.” The packed area roared.

In one of the most important nights in the history of the UFC, which was holding its first event in New York City— the largest market in the United States—after the sport’s nearly 20-year ban in the state, the greatest showman in fighting delivered an unforgettable act. McGregor, the experienced carnival barker from Dublin, was amped all week. During his pre-fight press conference, he almost threw a chair at Alvarez, who hails from Philadelphia. For his part, Alvarez had promised to “silence the country of Ireland” and yes, wait for it … “make America great again.”

Ireland, however, won the night. When McGregor was announced before the fight, he spread his arms like a schoolyard bully and approached Alvarez. Decorum doesn’t go far in the cage. McGregor came out swinging after the opening bell. In the second round, McGregor knocked Alvarez down with two left-right combinations. Before he could sit atop a fallen Alvarez and bash his head, the ref stopped the fight.

McGregor-Alvarez capped off a long night. The fight went off at 1:21 am, after 10 preliminary and main card bouts. But the UFC enjoyed a wildly successful New York debut. Over 20,000 fans packed Madison Square Garden. The event generated a $17.7 million in gate revenues, new records for both the UFC and the Garden. The fights will likely surpass the UFC’s pay-per-view record, 1.65 million buys.

New York has been starving for big-event fights. Boxing has long shipped its glamour bouts to Las Vegas. Frank Sinatra, who photographed the Ali-Frazier “Fight Of The Century” in 1971 at Madison Square Garden, wouldn’t recognize UFC combat: kicking, wrestling, skin on skin smackdowns in a cage. UFC taps into a primal instinct. For some people extreme violence, like when one fighter holds another fighter’s head close to the ground, and bloodies his face with blow after blow, is just thrilling to watch.

In 1997 the state of New York banned mixed martial arts (MMA), which Sen. John McCain labeled “human cockfighting” in its unbridled early days. The UFC, after years of intense lobbying, finally harpooned New York in April, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill legalizing MMA. UFC has boomed for 15 years without a presence in the country’s largest market. So the impressive New York numbers bode well for the sport’s future. “Tonight was a massive win for the UFC,” says White.

McGregor drove its success. Roxane D’Ambrosa, a resort owner from Point Pleasant, NJ, has traveled to Las Vegas for several McGregor fights. So she wasn’t going to miss a bout in her backyard. She wore a t-shirt that said “Me and My Billionionare Boyfriends,” with pictures of D’Ambrosa kissing McGregor and White. Two Irish flags stood on her hat. “Let me tell you man, it’s all about Conor,” she says. “Bring it in. Bring in the money.” Many fans waved Irish flags; a few wore shamrocked seersucker suits.

“There’s no one like him,” says Randy Brown, an electrician who flew from Kildare, Ireland for the fight. “You know that, I know that. No one person can sell a fight like him. He’s taken over boxing, MMA, everything.”

Indeed, McGregor leaves New York the biggest star in combat sports. Ronda Rousey once held that distinction, but she hasn’t fought since losing last November. Over in boxing, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao are reportedly chirping about a rematch. But both fighters are past their prime. And remember their last immensely hyped bout, in 2015? The fight failed to live up to expectations, which were a decade in the making. Why would a rematch?

McGregor knows he’s fueling the UFC. In July WME-IMG, the sports and entertainment conglomerate that runs events and manages talent throughout the world, recently bought the organization, for some $4 billion. (The previous controller owners, brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, purchased the company in 2001 for $2 million) Celebrities like Tom Brady, Ben Affleck, and Conan O’Brien have now invested in the company. McGregor, who announced after the fight that he was expecting a child with his longtime girlfriend next year, wants more attention, and offers, from the new owners. “No one’s come to talk to me since the sale has happened,” says McGregor. “Where’s my share? Where’s my equity? … Whoever runs this house now, shit, has to come to me and give me a slice.”

His return trip to New York may depend on it.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com