NEW YORK – It’s a strange situation to have three fighters involved in the biggest title fight of the year less than two weeks out. But that’s where things stand ahead of UFC 189, which takes place July 11. We know that Irish superstar Conor McGregor is fighting somebody. The question is whether it’s current featherweight champion Jose Aldo, who is nursing a rib injury. Or if it’s Chad Mendes, who is training as if his shot against McGregor is set in stone.
One way or another, a belt will be on the line in Las Vegas.
At the Reebok unveiling on Tuesday, the UFC’s stars were in New York -- including McGregor himself -- to showcase the new "kits" that fighters will begin wearing at UFC 189. UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta was also on hand, and he said the UFC’s attitude heading into next weekend’s big pay-per-view event -- which anchors International Fight Week -- is to roll with the punches.
"You kind of feel like you’re just trying to keep everything together," Fertitta told MMA Fighting. "As [UFC president] Dana [White] has mentioned, we have invested more money and more time and more energy internally with our partners -- whether it be Reebok, whether it be Bud Light, with all of these entities – to get everybody moving in the right direction to promote July 11. And the majority of all those assets are obviously Aldo and McGregor, because that’s the storyline that everybody’s drawn to. Without taking anything away from Rory and Robbie, at the end of the day, that’s the main event.
"So, you get thrown a curve ball. And after the initial shock you have to take a step back and say, hey, we’ve been here before. We’ve been in these situations. We know how to react, we know how to deal with these things. And so we sat down with the group and said, what are our options? What’s Option A, what’s Option B? We knew it was a situation that no matter what direction we went we’re going to make some people happy and some people unhappy."
When news of Aldo’s injury spread last week, a number of fighters volunteered to stand in against McGregor if needed. Among them were Mendes and Frankie Edgar, both who more than deserve a title shot.
Yet the most important figure in an opponent swap this late in the game is the guy who isn’t hurt, the one who has to refocus on an entirely different opponent. In this case it was McGregor, who has been training for a phenomenal Muay Thai striker in Aldo for the past five weeks, and now must train for a 5-foot-6 power wrestler.
Fertitta said that McGregor didn’t balk at the idea of taking on the wrestler Mendes should Aldo not be able to go.
"What happened was we basically drove down to the McMansion, woke up Conor and said, hey, this is the deal, this is what we heard, and what do you want to do?" he said. "Conor didn’t have any idea what was going on, but he said you know, I want to fight. One hundred percent. His hair was sticking up, he’d just woken up, he was in his boxers, and he walked into the kitchen and said, ‘I’m fighting -- I don’t care who it is, I’m showing up on the 11th.’ So we said, okay, now we know what we can do."
One point of contention among some fans was that the UFC opted to go with Mendes ahead of Edgar, who is coming off a victory over Urijah Faber in May. Asked how the UFC came up with the decision to go with Mendes as the fallback, Fertitta said it was a toss up.
"At the end of the day we looked also at…look, Mendez is formally ranked No. 1 ahead of McGregor," he said. "It would have been a little weird if we picked Frankie and then Chad would say, but I’m number one. Not that we always go distinctly by one, two or three, but both guys were available, and he was number one and Frankie was number two. I think looking at Mendes’ past performances [helped]. That fight last fall against Aldo [at UFC 179] was one of the great fights in UFC history. In his last fight against Lamas he blew right through the guy. And it was like, you know what, he’s got the momentum we feel like, and we feel like he deserves it.
"And quite honestly, it was funny because I was literally sitting in my office, and I was on Twitter or something and I think [MMA Fighting’s] Luke Thomas tweeted something like, ‘one thing I know is not going to happen today is they’re not going to announce that Mendes is the replacement.’ And I was like, it’s Mendes."