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Conor McGregor: 'Handcuffed' Jose Aldo is being 'forced into this'

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

LAS VEGAS - Over the past year, Conor McGregor and Jose Aldo have locked eyes more times than any other fighters in recent memory. From the insanity of their spring world tour, to the months worth of various P.R. obligations, the two featherweight rivals have developed a sense for their particular brand of staredown.

But on Wednesday, following the conclusion of UFC 194's pre-fight press conference, the fighting pride of Ireland and the Brazilian legend faced off for the first time with any sort of stakes within arms' reach. After what seemed to be an eternal wait, McGregor and Aldo are both finally in Las Vegas, days away from putting their talk aside for their Dec. 12 showdown. And in his eyes, McGregor could sense resignation within his opponent's icy stare.

"I feel that he feels like he's handcuffed," McGregor said on Thursday. "He's handcuffed and forced into this. He doesn't want to be here. He's forced.

"He is confused. He doesn't know where he is. He doesn't know what's going on. He just cannot wait for it to be over, and that's what I saw when I looked at him yesterday."

The refrain is familiar because it is one McGregor has echoed since Aldo pulled out of July's planned contest at UFC 189 with a broken rib. But while McGregor's words have not changed, the demeanors of both men have shifted to an unexpected place. Missing throughout fight week have been the explosive encounters and heated arguments that have typified the year's most anticipated rivalry, replaced instead by a subtler level of acknowledgement from two fighters who seem to realize that the time for talk is over, and the time for actions is nearly upon them.

"Respect, for me, is earned through battle," McGregor said. "If he shows up, fights with his heart, he will have my respect. But I cannot respect a man that has run and has evaded. If he stands opposed from me and gives me the exchanges he says he can, he will have my respect."

Though the Irish contingent that religiously follows McGregor has been a noticeably absent presence throughout fight week, signs of the impending invasion were beginning to show during Wednesday's open workouts. Growing pockets of green, white, and orange erupted into song during various portions of McGregor's public workout, which included a lengthy routine with McGregor's new and ever-present movement coach, Ido Portal.

For the first time all week, the ‘big event feel' was starting to come alive, and McGregor burst into a wide grin each time his countrymen overpowered the microphone with their adoration.

"I don't feel like an employee. I feel like a business associate," McGregor said. "I think one of the reasons why maybe [the UFC is] hesitant to let a fighter have a say when or where he does not fight is because a lot of them don't want to fight. They make it out like they want to fight, but me, the reason I want to do it, is because they're not letting me fight enough.

"I wanted to have like three fights by now. Urijah Faber, I asked for. The Duffy-Poirier fight, I asked for. Now we're here. So, I would love the freedom to pick and choose my own fights, of course. But I want to stay busy while I'm young, fresh and healthy, and then we can make that money."

For whatever his critics may say, McGregor's insistence to fight was clear in July, when he remained on UFC 189 and defeated Chad Mendes despite tearing a majority of his ACL in the lead-up to the event. This time around, though, the circumstances are far different. McGregor seemed spry and energetic throughout his workout, despite it taking place just 24 hours before weigh-ins. And though it is the fight game's oldest cliché, the 27-year-old vowed that the he couldn't be in a better place to face the culmination of his three-year journey.

"I wasn't lying when I said I had a hell of a lot of adversity to overcome in that last camp," McGregor said. "The training was tough, it made the cut even tougher. So here you are, you're seeing my in my prime. I came in prepared. And that's what you're seeing the day before weigh-ins, one of the most tough times for any competitor, and I feel good in my body, look good in my face. So I put the work in. Saturday, I will reap the rewards."