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As the UFC 189 world tour kicks off, feathers are already getting ruffled

Guilherme Cruz, MMA Fighting

This thing? This world tour that the UFC is doing for UFC 189 with Conor McGregor and Jose Aldo, traipsing them around the globe and dropping them into key ports…letting them steep in all the things they intend to do to each other in July…all the sunglasses and scowls and defiant shows of bravado? This is fun. This is pure Fight Game theater.

The contender McGregor and the UFC’s 145-pound champion Aldo came together for the first time on Friday at the Maracanazinho Arena in Rio de Janeiro. This was the initial stop of a ten-city, five-country tour, a tour that the UFC hopes will generate fervency for the biggest featherweight fight in company history. McGregor, the company darling with all the spoils. Aldo, the company executioner. The spoiler.

Brazil, of course, belongs to Aldo, and later, when this little teaser hits Dublin on the last leg on March 31, it’ll be McGregor’s. Not that those designations are set. McGregor told the cariocas assembled on Friday that he in fact owned the city of Rio. He had his feet kicked up on the dais when he said it. As the chorus of death wishes rained down, he cupped his ears.

This is how it should be.

McGregor went into a spiel about how in the old days he’d have shown up to the favela on horseback and killed everyone who was not fit for work. He was all nerve. He talked about Aldo as a "coaster" who can’t finish fights, and called his chin "battle worn." As an asides, he swiped Chad Mendes -- poor neutral Chad Mendes -- for having alligator arms. He said he could see fear in Aldo’s eyes, and he removed his sunglasses to emphasize that his own Baby Browns are not what you might call sane. Dana White stood at the podium between him and Aldo and could barely conceal how much he was freaking loving life.

That’s because if McGregor is a fool, he is a damn brilliant one. He only has to smile to kick off a war between Ireland and Brazil. When he was introduced for the press conference, he strolled out in a three-piece like a boulevardier full of irrational sweet nothings. He blew out kisses to a sea of middle fingers and vitriol. How to describe the kind of passionate hate he was receiving? Or that he took it all in true despotic stride?

In a word: Fantastic.

And part of what makes this sport fun is how a given country lives vicariously through its athletes. That’s what you’re reminded of when the UFC does something like this. Back in the day, when Chael Sonnen was being set up for his rematch with Anderson Silva, the idea of the fight happening in Brazil seemed almost too good to be true (and it was). Sonnen being dropped into enemy territory felt appropriately sacrificial, just as the idea of a person going up against the world has remained a romantic one down through the ages.

Look at Rocky IV. Or Jeff Monson in Russia, taking on Fedor. Or Ronda Rousey, who was also on hand Friday, to announce that she’d be fighting Brazilian Bethe Correia in Rio, to avenge the losses of her friends Jessamyn Duke and Shayna Baszler.

UFC 189 will happen in Vegas, during its International Fight Week, so a personal appearance tour like this is all about context and involvement. Aldo was an extension of not only Brazil’s soil on Friday, but the general sentiment. He was a form of justice. When the microphone was opened up for fan questions, it became a series of declarations and statements of what Aldo was going to do to the great waxed dandy who sat there provoking them. Aldo’s fists are tuned to millions, who will live and die with everything he throws in July.

And how great was Aldo through the first leg of this dog-and-pony show? If anything counters audacity and blowhardism it’s the knowing. Aldo is the only featherweight champion Zuffa has known. His middle finger conveyed the message. He called McGregor a fool and said he was in "deep sh*t," which sent a zing down the Amazon. He wasn’t screwing around up there. When they went to square off, Aldo stood unflinching as McGregor yapped. It was a great moment of intensity.

The underlying thing being that this fight is going to happen. That McGregor has no reverence for Aldo. That Aldo has no reverence for fools. And that everything in between is just a loud countdown to the truth.

In other words: Fun.

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