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Conor McGregor at the Garden: The Double-Champ Does What He

On Friday afternoon, twenty-four hours before the grandest mixed-martial-arts event in history, Madison Square Garden was already full of fans who had gathered to watch the athletes weigh in. Actually, this was the second weigh-in of the day—and it wasn’t really a weigh-in at all. The competitors had already stepped onto a scale at a smaller, private weigh-in, which was quiet but consequential: one of them, Kelvin Gastelum, had been too heavy, and his fight against Donald (Cowboy) Cerrone had been cancelled. (These morning weigh-ins, quick and early, are designed to make it easier for athletes on a crash diet to rehydrate, and recover, before the fight.) By contrast, the afternoon weigh-ins were meaningless but loud, and therefore enjoyable, even if the results were already known: drama in the morning, dramatization in the afternoon.

This was all part of the buildup to U.F.C. 205, the New York City début of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the world’s dominant mixed-martial-arts organization. (The sport was illegal in the state until earlier this year.) Coming to New York, the U.F.C. made sure to bring its biggest star, an absurdly entertaining Irish folk hero named Conor McGregor, who is known for his fiercely disdainful attitude and macho-dandy self-presentation; he favors natty suits and walks with an exaggerated strut that he may have borrowed from Vince McMahon, the wrestling impresario. His fans, a number of whom had flown in from Ireland, tend to be exuberant and thirsty, and so perhaps not all of them noticed, on Friday, that Joe Rogan, the announcer, was hollering out the results almost before the competitors stepped onto the prop scale. One, an undefeated virtuoso from Dagestan named Khabib Nurmagomedov, didn’t even bother to remove his distinctive papakha—a traditional Dagestani fur hat that faintly resembles a blond afro wig. The whole spectacle took scarcely more than half an hour, capped by a surprise appearance by Ronda Rousey, after which McGregor’s fans returned, singing, to the streets and bars of New York, confident that their guy would do what he was supposed to do, and also energized by the possibility, however slight they thought it was, that he might not. A good fight combines drama with dramatization: for however many minutes, the athlete and the celebrity are the same person, in the same place, doing the same thing, risking the same fate.

The most fortunate of those fans returned, twenty-four hours later, for the real thing, accompanied by a handful of celebrities. Dana White, the U.F.C. president, had mentioned during the week that President-elect Donald Trump might attend, which would have inspired strong and possibly divergent reactions. (At the weigh-in, some McGregor fans unfurled an Irish flag emblazoned with a picture of Trump saying, “I’ll make America great again,” refuted by McGregor, using one of his catchphrases: “You’ll do fucking nothing!”) But, instead, it was Donald Trump, Jr., who turned up, in a lower-profile appearance—he stayed off the big screen, which flashed proof that Madonna, Hugh Jackman, and Odell Beckham, Jr., were all there. The action began around seven and continued for six and a half hours, with eleven fights that made a strong case for mixed-martial arts as the most exciting sport in the world. The months of buildup made it easier to appreciate the radical austerity of the contests themselves: two people in a cage, each trying to make the other give up.

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