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Ilir Latifi sympathizes with the ‘artist,’ Conor McGregor, after UFC 200 fallout

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

In the commotion of the Conor McGregor/UFC dispute that ultimately ended up in a main event-cancelling stand-off, people have drawn sides as to which camp they can most empathize with. Fighters, fans and media have been a little divided on the matter.

Yet McGregor’s fellow European, Swedish light heavyweight Ilir Latifi, tends to side with McGregor, who refused to fly overseas to partake in the UFC 200 promotional tour going on this week.

After all, Latifi entered the UFC at the same time McGregor back in 2013 in Latifi’s native country.

"Me and Conor have a pretty cool history, because he debuted at the card that I was the main event," Latifi said during an in-studio appearance on The MMA Hour on Monday. "Since then we’ve fought like three or four times at the same event. But you know he’s an amazing athlete. He’s lifted this sport to another level. What he’s done for this sport is amazing.

"He’s a great athlete, he’s a great performer, but he’s not only an athlete, he’s an artist. [There’s a difference] being a fighter, being able to fight, and taking the fighting to the world. To all the people. And that’s what it is. He’s an artist."

Latifi filled in for the injured Alexander Gustafsson on very short notice against Gerard Mousasi when he debuted in Stockholm. That was the same card that McGregor debuted against Marcus Brimage, and began taking the UFC by storm. Since that time both fighters have emerged as commodities in the UFC, with Latifi recovering from the Mousasi loss to win five of his last six fights, and McGregor transcending the sport of MMA and becoming a superstar.

McGregor suffered his first loss in the UFC against Nate Diaz at UFC 196, a fight that he agreed to at welterweight when his original opponent, Rafael dos Anjos, fell out with a leg injury just 11 days prior.

The rematch between McGregor and Diaz was set for UFC 200 on July 9 in Las Vegas, but things fell apart when the UFC asked the Irishman to come back to America for a promotional tour through Nevada, Diaz’s hometown of Stockton, and New York City. McGregor, not wanting to disrupt his early training sessions in Iceland coming off a loss, refused to come, thus forcing the UFC to cancel the fight.

Latifi, who along with many other of McGregor’s peers, has been watching things unfold with rapt attention.

"At the same time, I understand," he told Ariel Helwani. "Because [McGregor] comes from all these world tours with the mass media and stuff, it takes a lot of energy. And it takes the focus off what you should do. Because as a fighter you always got to stay hungry and train hard. That’s the important thing. It’s not about the talking, it’s not about the flashing and stuff. When the cage closes, you’re there to fight and perform.

"And I think after that last fight he thought, there man, I should go back and do what I should do -- train like an animal. Training hard and being hungry. I’m not saying he’s not hungry anymore, but thinking…man, I’m going back to where I started. Like I do myself, I like go back to where I started in my hometown training at that dirty, dirty gym where I started. To get me hungry again. Sometimes you need that. So I think, it wasn’t like he wanted to dis the UFC or something, it was like, hey man, I’m here. I want to work hard. I want to win this fight. It’s important."

The 32-year-old Latifi has won three straight in the UFC’s 205-pound division, and as such is one of the rare up-and-comers in a division that lacks contenders. He’ll be watching the new main event at UFC 200, the rematch between interim champ Jon Jones and actual champ Daniel Cormier, with an eye on meeting of them in the near future.

Echoing what many others have concluded on the McGregor-UFC rift, Latifi thinks the trouble could have been avoided if the two sides had communicated more clearly. And he thinks that communication is the key going forward, too.

"At the same time I understand the UFC too, because Conor’s such a big name," he said. "This event, the 200 event is so big, they really need him to promote it. But you know, this thing happened, and I think you just got to have communication and work it out."