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UFC 178 Aftermath: Conor McGregor backs up the smack talk

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

LAS VEGAS - If Conor McGregor wasn't winning his fights, no one would care about the color of his suit.

If he turned out to be a flash in the pan, McGregor wouldn't have hosted an unprecedented post-press conference media scrum in place of his boss, Dana White, at the MGM Grand on Saturday night.

And if he couldn't back up his talk in the Octagon, those Irish flags would have disappeared from arenas as soon as they had arrived.

But UFC 178 was something different than the usual three-ringed circus we've come to expect when McGregor's in town. This wasn't an undercard fight on friendly Boston turf. This wasn't an event designed around him in his hometown. Conor McGregor went to the fight capital of the world and starched a top-five guy in his division in Dustin Poirier. In doing so, the idea that McGregor could be MMA's next breakthrough superstar became a whole lot more real.

And if you don't believe that, consider how McGregor dominated the post-fight press conference, while the nominal headliners, flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson and challenger Chris Cariaso, were asked a single question between the two of them.

"I'm cocky in prediction," McGregor said, owning the podium. "I'm confident in preparation, but I am always humble, in victory or defeat."

While there are no doubt people who will never like McGregor because of his mouth, there are plenty who admire a tenacious fighter, and the bombastic Irish featherweight has proven to possess tenacity aplenty. McGregor could have pulled out of the Poirier fight with torn thumb ligaments, the same injury which caused Cole Miller to pull out of his fight with McGregor. And let's not forget last summer, when he suffered an ACL injury which kept him out of action nearly a year midway through his fight with Max Holloway, and still toughed out a unanimous decision win.

There was so much fretting about how the UFC would ever find its way forward without Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre over the past year that it seems everyone collectively lost sight of the fact that it only takes the emergence of one or two new stars to push things forward.

And while there's still a ways to go, McGregor took a giant step forward in the direction of filling the void last night.

"As long as I show up and my check is what it says it's going to be, then I show up and I will kill whoever they put in front of me," McGregor said. "Of course I want that gold belt. Don't tell me that gold belt sitting up here right now on this table would not look great along side this ivory, elephant-trunk suit that I have on me right now. It would look perfect, and I know Dana wants to see it. I know Lorenzo wants to see it. Shout out to Uncle Frank; I know he wants to see it. It's what the fans want, as well."

UFC 178 quotes

"I love proving people wrong and proving my supporters right. This is all fun and games to me. I love it. I love my job. I whoop people for truckloads of cash. how could I hate this life? I love it so much. I'm grateful every single day." -McGregor.

"The division seems to be full of rookies and has-beens," McGregor said. "I'm just sitting here enjoying myself, collecting these checks on my way, eliminating each one." - More McGregor

"If you can't get off the stool, that's the end of the fight." - Tim Kennedy angrily confronting Yoel Romero backstage after their controversial finish.

"Bryan Caraway has avoided so many fights at this point. He wouldn't even follow through on the grappling match we agreed to on The Ultimate Fighter. He can't escape me this time. Win, lose, or draw in his next fight I want him. I respect him as a fighter but Miesha has more guts than him." - Manny Gamburyan campaigns to get Bryan Caraway in the cage.

Stock report

Up: Cat Zingano What's there not to love about the next challenger for Ronda Rousey's title? She fights with her heart. She fights with emotion. She seems to have an endless reservoir of mental toughness, both in the cage and in handling what life's dealt her outside the Octagon. Her fights are whirlwind affairs that make believers of out the few remaining women's MMA skeptics. Zingano has taken everything both Miesha Tate and Amanda Nunes can dish out and roared back to win. Can she withstand Rousey's vaunted initial onslaught? That question alone makes Rousey vs. Zingano money in the bank.

Hold: Demetrious Johnson Stuck in a no-win situation with an opponent thrown into a title fight simply for the sake of having one, "Mighty Mouse" did what he had to do. Johnson put on a clinic and made it look easy against Chris Cariaso. Johnson's in some ways a victim of his own success: He's already cleaned out the competition in his division, including defeating the No. 2 guy twice. There hasn't exactly been a flood of bantamweights coming down to meet him and there isn't a lower weight class for a guy to jump up from. While we wait for Zach Makovsky to continue his rise to contendership, all Johnson can do is continue to go along in a businesslike manner, and to that end, the champ has been a pro's pro.

Up: Cruz What superlatives are left to add? Cruz absolutely steamrolled one of the division's toughest, most respected fighters in Takeya Mizugaki. He's never lost a fight at bantamweight, improving to 10-0 at 135 pounds. And he never lost his belt in the cage. That all adds up to a title fight with T.J. Dillashaw which could actually surpass Cruz's rivalry with Urijah Faber in terms of fan interest. Welcome back, champ.

Up: Donald Cerrone It's not just that the UFC's redneck Energizer Bunny keeps on going and going. It's the way he went about defeating Eddie Alvarez last night that catches attention. Time and again, dating back to his WEC days, Cerrone would reach this level - a big, consequential fight on a big card - and fall flat. But not this time. Cerrone made adjustments on the fly and rallied over the final two rounds to defeat Alvarez and improve to 5-0 dating back to UFC 167. Part of me thinks the UFC should strike while the iron is hot and get Cerrone a title shot while his stock is at an all-time high. But part of me also understand Cerrone probably wants to fight again before champion Anthony Pettis and Gilbert Melendez even step into the cage for their title fight.

Down: Eddie Alvarez We're certainly not going to give up on Eddie Alvarez after one UFC loss. But the cold, hard facts of this one are, Cerrone had far too many weapons for Alvarez to counter last night, and there's plenty more where that came from among the fighters at the top of the lightweight division. Maybe Alvarez has been too inactive. Maybe this run is coming a bit too late. Maybe I'm drawing too much from one fight against one opponent. But Alvarez's big opportunity to fast-track his way into the crowded title picture has come and gone.

Interesting calls

What to make of the mess that was Tim Kennedy vs. Yoel Romero? We have to call a spade a spade here: John McCarthy screwed up. Romero didn't answer the call on time for round three. McCarthy's revered spot in the sport's history is well-earned, but he's not infallible.

Romero's corner absolutely pulled, as White called it later, "the dirtiest trick in the book." But the fact a UFC cutman had a Vaseline application mishap is also a legitimate mitigating factor.

Kennedy, who generally can find something to complain about on a good day, was handed a valid complaint. But, well, let's use the NFL's Tuck Rule playoff game as an example. After the infamous tuck rule call went against the Raiders? They still had a chance to stop the Patriots in regulation and again in overtime, and failed both times. And likewise, bad call or no, Kennedy still went from nearly winning to getting crushed in the third. Yes, Romero had extra time, but Kennedy wasn't fighting during that time, either.

Then, Sunday morning, a GIF started making the rounds in which it looked like Kennedy might have been reaching inside Romero's right glove with his left hand while drilling him with those big uppercuts with his right. Whether intentional or not, that's a rules violation, too.

The difference between fighting and football is that the fight promoter has the power to make things right. So give this fight a do-over, Dana. You can take this fight and draw a huge rating for a Fight Night card off this based on the controversy. You can do it based on the fact it was a great, well-matched fight in and of itself. And you can do it because it's the right thing.

Fights I'd like to see next

UFC 178 was basically Christmas in September in terms of pushing big fights forward. Cruz vs. T.J. Dillashaw? Done deal. Rousey vs. Zingano? Done deal. Cerrone vs. whoever is the most exciting opponent available, as soon as possible? Very likely a done deal.

Which brings us back to McGregor. In a pure meritocracy, McGregor should probably have to take one more fight before he gets serious consideration for a title shot. Frankie Edgar and Cub Swanson are ahead of him in the rankings, and who knows whether Jose Aldo vs. Chad Mendes ends in a manner which begets a trilogy.

McGregor challenging for the championship would unquestionably be the biggest-drawing featherweight fight the UFC can make. But drawing it out, teasing it, making a big deal out of a fight against the likes of Edgar or Swanson, and then going into a title fight from there if he wins, makes an eventual title fight magnitudes larger.

Fortunately, with Aldo-Mendes next month; Edgar-Swanson in November; and McGregor needing some time to let his thumb properly heal, we have the luxury of letting things play out.

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