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SportsColumnistsMark La Monica

UFC 264: Nobody draws a crowd like Conor McGregor, even after his inactivity and decisive defeats

Conor McGregor motions to the crowd during UFC

Conor McGregor motions to the crowd during UFC 205 Open Workouts at Madison Square Garden on November 9, 2016 in New York City.  Credit: Getty Images/Michael Reaves

Here comes another Conor McGregor fight week, sure to include more than its fair share of fantastic sound bites and fine suits.

There will be plenty of headlines surrounding McGregor. Some will convey good vibes, others not so much. Some may even allude to his fight on Saturday night. (It’s against Dustin Poirier, by the way, a lightweight contest atop the bout lineup for UFC 264 in front of a full crowd at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.)

There will be billboards to drive by and billi struts to imitate, programmatic ads to scroll past and Proper No. Twelve whiskey mentions to endure. It all will create a buzz unlike any other MMA fighter can stir up.

Will that buzz resemble the scene at MGM Grand in Las Vegas in the early morning hours of Dec. 13, 2015, when McGregor fans marched through the casino floor in revelry after their hero became a king? Or when 15,480 people flooded Madison Square Garden on Nov. 11, 2016, for the weigh-ins — the weigh-ins!!! — and then danced around outside Manhattan’s venerable arena to celebrate McGregor’s pending coronation as the UFC’s first double champion?

McGregor’s inactivity in the five years since that night – three MMA fights and one boxing match against Floyd Mayweather Jr., and decisive losses in two of those UFC bouts along the way — would suggest the answer likely is no. Plus, those nights were moments in time, the culmination of a star’s rise to its zenith.

But perhaps McGregor’s greatest strength — then as now — is his ability to move the masses. To excite and delight a fan base with a simple sentence or hand gesture. That’s star power. And it’s rare among athletes of any sport.

And McGregor fans travel the world for his fights. The arenas, and their attached hotels and casinos, are cloaked in Ireland’s colors, a sea of green, white and orange flags moving through the atmosphere. For his fight against Jose Aldo at UFC 194, a UFC official said approximately 20% of ticket sales were from the United Kingdom. McGregor fans also tune in, as his boxing match with Mayweather drew 4.3 million buys on pay-per-view.

Needles, moved.

A McGregor fight isn’t McGwire vs. Sosa, with live cut-ins to each at-bat during a record-breaking chase that captured most of America, let alone baseball fans of two teams in the Midwest in a previous century. MMA doesn’t work that way. MMA fighters get two or three chances per year – if even that many – to capture an audience and leave an indelible impression that makes the crowd scream their name, retweet their fight clips, and buy T-shirts adorned with their likeness and memorable post-fight interview quotes. And perhaps more critical to their future financial success, get fans interested in shelling out $70 the next time they fight.

McGregor did all of that in his ascent into superstardom. He still commands that pulpit now, despite the work rate.

When McGregor fights, more journalists write about it, more TV stations talk about it (and presumably more of his Irish whiskey gets sold). Even on New York sports talk radio, which traditionally sticks to New York sports only, the name "Conor McGregor" will be heard a few times over – and not just in paid commercial spots.

It’s no coincidence that on a Google Trends chart of the past five years, six of the seven biggest spikes in "UFC" searches encompass a McGregor fight week. (The one exception? Ronda Rousey’s last UFC fight against Amanda Nunes.)

Helping elevate McGregor along the way? He also happens to be a very talented fighter. That he backs up his bravado with the requisite skills only brightens the aura and heightens the mystique. Will the McGregor who ripped through the featherweight division in the previous decade show up at UFC 264? Or even the McGregor that spoke of his re-invigoration 18 months ago when he stopped Donald Cerrone in 40 seconds? Or might the McGregor who lost to Poirier in their last meeting at UFC 257 this past January because he seemed to never have seen a calf-kick before, enter the octagon for the trilogy bout?

We’ll find out on Saturday night, but this much is certain: the fans will show up in force around the globe to see their king in battle once more.

New York Sports