When the first press conference for UFC 229 went down in New York in late September, it’s fireworks were limited to the members of the press in attendance. Fans eager to get a glimpse of the return of Conor McGregor and the lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov got their chance at the event’s open workouts when the party moved west to Nevada.
If there was ever evidence that fans of Conor McGregor travel well, it came in the first workout of the afternoon when lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov took the stage. To be sure, fans of The Eagle were in attendance, but the boos by those backing the Irishman drowned out any other sounds in Las Vegas’ Park Theater.
Unfazed, Nurmagomedov put on a typically sharp workout that demonstrated the wrestling prowess that to date has made him unbeatable. When the boos continued to rain down at the conclusion of his performance, Khabib took the mic and sniped at the native Irish in attendance about their time under British rule, a continuation of the nationalist banter he and McGregor exchanged at the New York City presser days earlier.
If he was bothered by the booing, it certainly didn’t show. Smiling, he promised his detractors “You’re gonna like me in three days.”
If the tribalism of the Khabib vs Conor supporters dominated the early part of the show, the crowd was more uniformly supportive of the next participant, former lightweight champ Anthony Pettis.
Assisted by his brother Sergio (also appearing on the UFC 229 card), Pettis put on an impressive show that resulted in a flood of slow-motion videos on social media. Respectful of his co-main opponent Tony Ferguson, Pettis remarked to host Megan Olivi “[He’s] a beast. 10-fight win-streak; you can’t deny it. But he hasn’t fought me yet.”
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Speaking of Ferguson, the warm welcome that greeted his arrival to the stage was grounded in an eagerness to see one of his historically unique workouts, combined with excitement and relief that he appears fully recovered from the freak accident that has kept him out of the Octagon for a year.
Bumping old school jams, trading football passes with members of the audience and breakdancing were but a handful of the highlights of one of the most singular fighters in the sport. Never short on surprises, he closed out his allotted time with a motivational speech. A seeming reflection on his recent recovery, Ferguson declared in-part “Anything that you’re going through right now, know that there’s light at the end of that (expletive) tunnel. Always know that. There’s always room for growth.”
A bit of a wait then ensued, but it didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the faithful who have waited nearly two years to see the former double champ wearing the four ounce gloves once again. A chant of “Go Conor McGregor” to the tune of “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes keep the mood festive and only increased the anticipation of his return.
After nearly being upstaged by his toddler son who showed off some of his father’s strut when he toddled across the stage, The Notorious finally appeared to the thunderous welcome of the devoted.
The crisp workout that followed evaporated any doubts that his time away might have dulled his skill set. For fans, it seemed a confirmation that yes, this is really happening. The single most charismatic personality in the sport is back, and with him all the confidence and swagger that has become his brand.
“It’s good to be back. I’m going to have a proper fight. I’m going to come out there fast. I don’t give a f--- about anything; any wrestling, any technique, anything. I’m coming for that man’s head from the f------ bell. Trust me on that.”
Steve Latrell is a writer and producer for UFC.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheUFSteve