There’s something about Brooklyn that brings out the very worst in Conor McGregor. This past summer, while on the third stop of a whirlwind, four-city “global” tour to promote his boxing match with Floyd Mayweather, McGregor showed up to the Barclays Center flamboyantly attired in a white robe with a blue snake streaking across the back and shirtless beneath, looking like a cartoon Irish mobster, and used his mic time to clear the air regarding claims that he was a racist after calling Mayweather “boy” and telling him to “dance for me.”
“A lot of media seem to be saying I’m against black people,” he said, while Mayweather stood nearby snapping pictures of him. “That’s absolutely fucking ridiculous. Did they not know I’m half black? Yeah! I’m half black from the belly button down.”
That one didn’t go over very well. So what did he do for his encore at Barclays less than a year later, this time on an unannounced visit just two days ahead of UFC 223? He crashed the party in the most ridiculous, petulant, and attention-seeking way possible. While fighters loaded into vans to be taken back to the hotel—for many, to resume cutting weight—McGregor and about a dozen in his entourage stormed in, hurling dollies, trash cans, metal stanchions, and other material at a van they presumed Khabib Nurmagomedov was in. There was broken glass. There were injuries. People couldn’t decide if McGregor was on drugs or if this was a WWE-style publicity stunt.
If it was the latter, it worked. McGregor succeeded in taking the spotlight off of Saturday night’s headliners, Nurmagomedov and Max Holloway—the two guys fighting for the lightweight belt that he will formally be stripped of on Saturday—while at the same time ending up in custody, charged with multiple counts of misdemeanor assault and felony criminal mischief. Was it a tantrum from the UFC’s $100 million man ahead of being stripped of the lightweight title he never defended since winning it in 2016? Was it hooliganism? Was it retaliation for what happened earlier in the week, when Nurmagomedov and McGregor’s training partner, Artem Lobov, had a minor encounter at the hotel?
Yes, yes, and I guess?
What it felt like was Gangs of New York in the age of cell phone surveillance videos. Multiple videos surfaced within an hour of the incident showing McGregor going berserker, kind of like he did back in November when he stormed into the Bellator cage and confronted referee Marc Goddard like an entitled dervish. That time McGregor stole the spotlight from his own teammate, Charlie Ward, who had just notched his first victory in a year and a half.
This time, the fact that he overshadowed Khabib and Holloway was overshadowed by the fact that McGregor ended up canceling three fights from UFC 223. Lobov, his teammate who took part in the incident, saw his fight with Alex Caceres canceled because of his involvement in the incident. Michael Chiesa, the lightweight who was set to face Anthony Pettis on the main card, was removed by the New York State Athletic Commission due to the cuts to his face he took from glass shrapnel. Ray Borg, the flyweight who was to face Brandon Moreno, was forced out with glass in his eye.
“This is the most disgusting thing that has ever happened in the history of the [UFC], and there is a warrant out for Conor McGregor’s arrest,” a strikingly unnerved UFC president Dana White told reporters afterward. “And they’re looking for him right now. His plane cannot take off; he cannot leave the state of New York with this warrant. He’ll be grounded, and I’m assuming eventually if they don’t catch him, he’ll turn himself in. You can imagine he’s going to be sued beyond belief and this was a real bad career move for him.”
One day before, on Wednesday, when he was asked at the UFC 223 press conference if McGregor would be at Barclays to watch Nurmagomedov and Holloway duke it out (presumably) for the right to face him in a unification fight, White smiled.
“It would be awesome if Conor was here,” he said.
Be careful what you wish for. A major fight card that was supposed to have 13 bouts now has nine. McGregor, the UFC’s biggest star, put the promotion—and himself—in a ridiculous spot. Now the UFC has to figure out what to do with McGregor after he deals with his charges. What a dubious twist to an otherwise fascinating card.
Round 1: What a Mess
Just this past Saturday, UFC 223 was an illustrious pay-per-view featuring an undisputed lightweight-title fight between the undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov and interim champion Tony Ferguson. The fight was going to be straight fire. It was a long time coming and, more than anything, it signaled a fresh start for the division after Conor McGregor’s hijacking of the belt.
On Sunday, it came out that Ferguson was out of the match with a freak injury, but the fix was a perhaps even more intriguing title fight between Nurmagomedov and the featherweight champion, Max Holloway, who had the brass balls to step in with six days’ notice. Still fire, but the blue part of the flame.
On Monday, no. 12 ranked Anthony Pettis was ready to fight Michael Chiesa on the main card, and Paul Felder was set to take on Al Iaquinta.
On Tuesday, Holloway landed in New York, ready to make history by winning a second title, and everyone in the fight world was lauding his bravery and confidence.
On Wednesday, McGregor was a free man, and nobody knew if he would even turn up in Brooklyn to perhaps confront the winner of Nurmagomedov-Holloway.
On Thursday, McGregor found himself in custody, and Chiesa was forced out of his fight with Pettis because of what McGregor did.
On Friday, Holloway, who was in the process of cutting a massive amount of weight, was deemed “unfit to fight” by the New York State Athletic Commission, and therefore was forced to drop out of his fight with Nurmagomedov. At that point, Pettis—who was left without an opponent—was being discussed as a replacement to face Nurmagomedov. When a deal couldn’t be reached, Felder lobbied for the fight. The UFC wanted to give it to him, but the NYSAC put the kibosh on it, because—get this—Felder wasn’t ranked high enough. That opened the door for Long Island’s own Iaquinta, who—after an impossible set of circumstances—finds himself headlining a pay-per-view. How crazy is that? Iaquinta didn’t even have a name board at the Ultimate Media Day on Thursday. He was forced to make his own.
UFC 223 has had more plot twists than a soap opera, which once again proves that the best UFC cards are just wild hypotheticals until the moment your favorite fighters make the walk. Let’s look at the latest (and hopefully last) iteration of Saturday night’s fights and some of the inexplicable goings-on that led to the changes.
Round 2: By Virtue of McGregor’s Deeds, Iaquinta Ends Up in Main Event
With so many late fight fallouts due to injuries (and other problems), curveballs in MMA are the norm—but sometimes the replacement fight carries a wilder backstory than whatever was intended. That was the case here with Holloway stepping up to fight Nurmagomedov for the undisputed lightweight title on six days’ notice. When Ferguson tripped over a cable and tore his LCL last week while doing promotion for the fight (which really happened), Holloway was ready to answer the phone.
All fine and good, except on Friday the NYSAC deemed Holloway “unfit to fight.” As a massive featherweight, he walks around in the range of 180 pounds, and getting the extra 25 pounds off to meet the 155-pound limit for a lightweight title fight proved too much on six days’ notice (especially when flying from Hawaii to New York consumed a whole day). After Thursday’s episode with McGregor, this was the blow that has many fight fans feeling their sport is cursed.
The UFC reportedly offered Pettis the fight, but not enough money for him to take it. When the UFC didn’t meet his price, he declined the fight. Then the UFC turned to Felder, and the NYSAC said no because … well, because this event can’t catch any breaks.
The last resort was Iaquinta, a native New Yorker who has been disgruntled with the UFC for as long as he’s been competing in the promotion (he debuted in 2012). He was so bothered by the lack of respect and so peeved by the lack of compensation that he segued into real estate on Long Island. He’s fought only once since 2015, a knockout of Diego Sanchez last April, but if he’d been more prolific over the past couple of years we could be talking about a UFC championship contender rather than a sleeper. Iaquinta’s credentials speak for themselves; he has won five fights in a row, with four of them coming via TKO or KO. Overall, he has won eight of his past nine, with the lone loss coming at the hands of Mitch Clarke at UFC 173. That fight was an aberration.
At first it looked like only Nurmagomedov would be eligible to win the title in this new scenario, because Iaquinta weighed in at 155.2 pounds (slightly over the max), but because we needed another weird sentence to make this piece really sing, they weighed his underwear and determined that they accounted for the 0.2 pound overage, so the winner on Saturday will be the new champ.
Iaquinta-Nurmagomedov isn’t nearly as appealing as either Ferguson-Nurmagomedov or Holloway-Nurmagomedov, but it salvages the big draw of Nurmagomedov for his Russian faithful in Brooklyn. And now the crowd will be split in two, with Iaquinta repping his fellow New Yorkers. (Those that know who he is, anyway.) The good news is, the co-main event has always been a main event in disguise.
Round 3: Rose Namajunas vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk II
When these two first fought, Joanna Jedrzejczyk was one fight away from tying Ronda Rousey’s all-time title defenses mark (which sits at six) at UFC 217, and most pundits had her Sharpie’d in to accomplish the feat against Rose Namajunas. Having seen the 25-year-old Namajunas lose in big spots before (including her fight against Carla Esparza for the inaugural women’s strawweight title), there was a strong suspicion that “Thug” Rose wasn’t cut out for high-stakes pressure fights. Jedrzejczyk played up that angle the whole way, questioning Namajunas’s mental toughness up until the moment they squared off at Madison Square Garden.
Turns out Namajunas was plenty ready for the moment. She crashed Jedrzejczyk’s coronation as the Greatest Female Mixed Martial Artist by not just upsetting the Muay Thai kickboxer, but by striking her down via a first-round TKO. It was stunning. We’d never seen the then-undefeated Jedrzejczyk look anything other than invincible.
So heading into the rematch just across the East River, the question of mental toughness is back in play—this time for Jedrzejczyk, coming in as a challenger. How does she handle herself coming off a loss? Will the pressure to prove the first Namajunas encounter a fluke play with her head? Was the first fight a fluke, or was it like when Chris Weidman beat Anderson Silva the first time, a true changing of the guard?
Jedrzejczyk had a lock on that 115-pound belt for two and a half years. She identified with it. People who couldn’t spell her last name (much less pronounce it) took her own suggestion to just call her Joanna Champion. Her title run looked like it would go on until the moment she bolted for flyweight (125 pounds) to try for a second title.
It’s still strange to contemplate her coming in as a challenger, not carrying that golden accessory that she wore out for every big public appearance. This fight will either be a restoration of order, or it will become a catalyst for Jedrzejczyk—who cuts a good amount of weight to make 115 pounds—to move up and reinvent herself as a flyweight.
Round 4: Renato Moicano vs. Calvin Kattar
Like his fellow featherweights Cub Swanson and Frankie Edgar, Moicano is coming off of a loss to the young star Brian Ortega. But with his deep jiu-jitsu pedigree and an ability to dictate action, he’s still a ripple-maker at 145 pounds. Before the Ortega loss, the Brazilian was undefeated in a dozen fights.
Yet the UFC didn’t do Moicano any favors by booking him against the relative newcomer Kattar, the Massachusetts-based fighter who showcased his talents in January during the UFC’s trip to Boston. Kattar tore up the touted prospect Shane Burgos by snapping a crisp left jab into Burgos’s face on a 15-minute loop. Whenever Burgos tried to anticipate that jab, Kattar would come over the top with his right. It was a boxing clinic, in which Kattar—who toiled in the New England regional circuit for years before debuting in the UFC last July—showed just how wicked his hands are.
This is a classic striker vs. grappler matchup, where one or the other is going to find himself in deep water early. All fights start standing up, so it’s Kattar’s job to try to keep it there.
Round 5: The Best of the Rest …
Karolina Kowalkiewicz vs. Felice Herrig: Very quietly, Felice Herrig—one of the stars of The Ultimate Fighter 20—has strung together a four-fight win streak, all after flirting with the idea of retirement. Not all of them have been pretty; she tempered the hype on the young Mexican fighter Alexa Grasso with some tough love, and gave Cortney Casey one hell of a scrap in December. This collision with Kowalkiewicz is her toughest fight to date. After losing her strawweight title bid against Jedrzejczyk at UFC 205 and then getting choked out against Claudia Gadelha in her next fight, Kowalkiewicz looked like her vicious self against Jodie Esquibel her last time out, dominating for three rounds. With this fight acting as the “main event of the prelims” before the money wall goes up for UFC 223, there’s an expectation that this will be a good one.
Zabit Magomedsharipov vs. Kyle Bochniak: For the past couple of years there’s been a lot of “watch out for Zabit” talk, especially on the East Coast. And the 27-year-old fighter from Dagestan—who has a nickname of “ZaBeast”—does carry the feel of a bona fide headhunter, with his background in wrestling and kickboxing seemingly tailor-made for the cage. In his first two UFC fights Magomedsharipov’s shown well, getting submission victories over Mike Santiago and Sheymon Moraes, both overseas. This is his first fight in America, and it’s a step up in competition. Bochniak will bring a fight. But as the biggest favorite at UFC 223 (Magomedsharipov’s -650), this matchup feels like an early peek at a future contender.