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Conor McGregor cast a long shadow down in Rio

Buda Mendes

Now that UFC 179 is over and Jose Aldo has proven once again that he’s the gold standard at featherweight, one question remains: What was Conor McGregor even doing in Rio de Janeiro to begin with?

McGregor sort of stole every headline last week and nary threw a meaningful punch. He was presumably being sent to Brazil to challenge the winner of Aldo and Chad Mendes’ rematch, but instead -- just days before the bout -- was dealt the German stoic Dennis Siver to end all the drama. Matchmaker Sean Shelby, it turns out, is just that kind of sadist.

So why was he there? Just to rile people up? Just to party for the Embedded cameras? Just to name-drop Uncle Frank and remind everyone of his unrivaled entitlement?

(The answer, far as I can tell, is "yup").

During fight week McGregor popped up in curious ways to overshadow -- and perhaps foreshadow -- the featherweight title. One moment he was doing capoeira on Copacabana, the next he was drinking from a coconut, the next he was standing ten inches taller than Christ the Redeemer in front of hostile crowd for a "Q&A" -- which, in the light of how it played out, might have stood for "quips and abuse." McGregor wasn’t asked so much as told that his (super-charismatic) shtick is not appreciated in Brazil.  

What McGregor heard was that he’s disliked enough to sell out the Maracanã.

He played right through the tension in the room. He spoke about the Brazilian national icon as a mortal man, even if on Saturday night Aldo once again reminded everyone why he’s considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet. To hear McGregor tell it, right now the featherweight division is him, Aldo and a bunch of random dudes. Or, to be more accurate, it’s just him and dollar signs…just him and Lorenzo rollin’ in the Benzo.

And maybe McGregor’s trip to Rio was just that: A psychic table-setting for an eventual bout with Aldo -- just a little taste of what’s to come, even if it’s not coming right now. If that was the intention, it worked. Brazil’s blood came to a boil. UFC 179 was a three-way fight between Aldo, Mendes and McGregor’s swinging shadow. Because of the interloper who was staying at the "Fertitta Hotel," the featherweight division is the glam division right now.

It got to Aldo a bit, too. He's been the master of this domain a long time. After enduring McGregor’s intrusive presence all week, the champ -- fresh off his victory/Fight of the Year candidate against Mendes -- referred to him as a "joker." Later, in the post-fight press conference, Aldo compared the Irishman to the original instigator, Chael Sonnen. "He’s a guy who just talks," he said.

Which is exactly what he does, and exactly what this feels like.

When the UFC returned to Brazil in 2011 after a decade away for UFC 134, Anderson Silva was the center of the fight world. He was getting set to defend his title against Yushin Okami, but rather than talk about the task at hand, Silva was asked repeatedly about Sonnen, whom he’d defeated epically at UFC 117. UFC 134’s sub-narrative became all about Sonnen coming back from his suspension and closing in on Silva. Somehow Sonnen took custody of an event he had, in actuality, very little to do with.

Nothing will hold us back from the fights we want the most.

The rematch for that one was going to be in a big soccer stadium in Brazil, too. It was going to be the biggest rematch since Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. The idea of Sonnen fighting in Brazil became a security crisis for the UFC to even contemplate. The thought of Sonnen beating Silva in a Brazilian soccer stadium was almost unfathomable. What would happen?

God it was delicious. People ate up Sonnen’s audacity as much as they ate up the idea of his comeuppance. Fights like that have so many good layers beyond the simple wrestler versus the striker thing. It galled Silva at the time that Sonnen continued to snap up his headlines.

But the simple truth was this: Silva needed Sonnen as much as Sonnen needed Silva.

Will it be the same of McGregor and Aldo? Time will tell, but it feels like McGregor went down to Brazil this past weekend to make a point that one can help the other.  

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