UFC 229: The Promotion Has Begun, But Something Feels Flat

Conor McGregor at the UFC 229 Press Conference
Conor McGregor, UFC 229 Press Conference Credit: UFC/Youtube

Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov finally came face-to-face ahead of UFC 229 next month, and despite the usual antics of McGregor, much of the affair felt flat.

The promotion for UFC 229 began today. The real promotion, not recycled interviews and an endless barrage of bus attack footage from the Barclay’s Center from April. Going live from the Radio City Music Hall in New York, the UFC brought together the stars of what will certainly be its biggest card of the year, unless they somehow convince Conor McGregor to fight again before January.

McGregor faced off against his latest arch-nemesis, Khabib Nurmagomedov. What’s the plural for nemesis? He threw barbs at the stoic Dagestani. He taunted Nurmagomedov about the bus attack incident that made front page news around the world. “Stayed on the bus” was a common refrain, implying Nurmagomedov was scared. Too scared to get off the bus and face him. You know, rather than being smart enough not to risk one’s career with criminal charges.

The press conference was a familiar scene, almost comically so. You could have photoshopped Jose Aldo over Khabib, and little would have changed. Replace Russia with Brazil. Rinse, repeat. The show even got going late, with the UFC looping endless promos and 25th anniversary shorts in an effort to stall for time. A little rock star behavior, perhaps, though what caused the holdup is unclear. Hey, Axl Rose got away with being hours late to shows for years. The fans only rioted on occasion. What’s thirty minutes?

Yet something about the entire affair on Thursday in New York City felt… flat.

Perhaps McGregor’s act is getting old (there’s really no perhaps about it). Maybe it was the shameless shilling of a new line of Whiskey, Proper No. Twelve. We made an editorial decision not to run a story about Conor McGregor launching his “own” brand of Whiskey (in reality, he’s affixed his name to existing stock at a distillery, and a great breakdown is found at the Irish Times). Then again, we ran his Burger King ad. Either way, the promotion felt cheap. And maybe it was the fact that Nurmagomedov was so disinterested at times. At least Eddie Alvarez chirped back. But when ‘The Eagle’ did squawk, he was outmatched on the mic. As expected. It’s rather pointless to embark in a jawing match with someone who barks on the mic like it’s second nature.

The best bits of the press conference, frankly, were the ones that cut deepest. Forget the bus attack, it’s tired old footage. Asked about including it in promos for the event, UFC President Dana White pointed out, rightly so, that it’s part of the story. Yet it’s only a small part. McGregor bringing up Nurmagomedov’s association with Ziyavudin Magomedov was far more interesting. Magomedov is the Russian oligarch who owned Fight Nights Global, and founded Eagles MMA, Nurmagomedov’s team. Earlier this year, he was arrested on embezzlement charges, a shocking turn of events (and very likely politically motivated to some extent). In essence, he bankrolled the UFC star. Bloody Elbow’s Karim Zidan took an in-depth look at the case earlier this year. Nurmagomedov had little to say on the subject. He appeared take off guard that McGregor even brought it up.

Then there was Noah, who McGregor name-dropped when Nurmagomedov’s controversial manager, Ali Abdelaziz, decided to try to get involved as the fighters faced off. Dana White wisely had him thrown out of the building. Abdelaziz is a frequent figure backstage at UFC events, as he manages a large roster of fighters. However, the manager and former WSOF matchmaker has been surrounded by controversy for years, having worked as an NYPD informant with connections to terrorism. Oh, and Noah? The son Abdelaziz allegedly abandoned.

Yet those comments, as revealing and pointed as they are, are not something the UFC can promote, unless they wish to throw both their champion and one of the biggest managers in MMA under the bus. So instead, we’ll get another week or two of bus attack footage. “Highlights” from Thursday’s presser that are actually lowlights.

And it won’t matter, because everyone will watch it anyway. The fight, after all, is trending toward 2.5 million buys, if you take P.T. Barnum Dana White at his word. And while that number may be a long shot, it’s a safe bet UFC 229 does well over a million buys, maybe even two. With or without a stale press conference to promote it. McGregor is still a star, even if he’s a star who has become a caricature of himself.

Oh, and Proper No. Twelve? It’s an official sponsor of UFC 229. It’ll be on the canvas.

All that said, and before anyone else says it — yes, we’ll still be watching. The fight itself is a classic grappler vs. striker match-up featuring two of the best fighters world today. Maybe that’s why the UFC 229 press conference fell flat: no one aside from a few media members wanted to talk about the actual fight.