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Nothing beats boxing but Conor McGregor and UFC are captivating cocktail

Saturday was a night of firsts in our house. It marked the first time my 14-year-old son sat down with my wife and I to watch a bill of live boxing as, with slightly widened eyes, he saw the showbiz walks, raw exchanges and thrilling uncertainty before Chris Eubank Jr and Anthony Joshua recorded significant victories at the O2 Arena. It felt like an old-fashioned family night in front of the TV – apart from the fact that this was a pay-per-view event while our daughters preferred the X Factor in the room next door.

The second first was very different. Once Eubank Jr had fought with exhilarating panache to stop ‘Spike’ O’Sullivan, and Joshua overcame some troubling moments before producing a devastating uppercut which knocked out Dillian Whyte, I reached for the remote control. I recorded my first-ever UFC fight – as Conor McGregor prepared to face José Aldo in the early hours of the morning in Las Vegas.

Ever since I interviewed McGregor earlier this year, after his crushing victory over Chad Mendes in July, I have been forced to occasionally look beyond an old-school boxing ring and finally accept the increasingly shuddering impact of UFC as a spectacle and a sport. McGregor was like some of the great fighters I’ve met in the past. He was bold and brash, amusing and ridiculous, courageous and a little crazy.

I liked the stories he told me about escaping the life of a plumber in Crumlin, Dublin, and how he had replaced it with 10-hour shopping sprees in Vegas with his girlfriend. McGregor boasted that he had become so rich that he never rolled out of bed before two in the afternoon. I wondered how long an extravagant lifestyle could keep hubris and violent humiliation at bay.

McGregor’s name kept rising up in interviews I did with other sportsmen. Whether it was the rugby international Paul O’Connell, talking about the way in which the whole of Ireland seemed to have fallen under the spell of their cocky countryman, or a rugby league icon in Jamie Peacock asking what I thought of UFC, I had to admit my studied ignorance of mixed martial arts.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship began only in 1993 and its shallow history yelps from every screaming promotional showcase. McGregor v Aldo was the headline fight of UFC 194. Boxing in the United States is threatened by the popularity of UFC but I have chuntered on with my usual scepticism because mixed martial arts cannot lay claim to men of the stature of Joe Louis or Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard.

It’s a ludicrous argument. We don’t fall for the grace and wonder of Lionel Messi or Dan Carter, Usain Bolt or Novak Djokovic, because of their historical predecessors. We just step back in amazement because they are so brilliant in the moment, in the here and now.

And so McGregor, and even UFC, has become a creeping presence in my head. Last month I found myself interested in the build-up to a fight between Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm in Melbourne. I was intrigued by the way in which a woman like Rousey had become the biggest star in a business as swaggeringly macho as the UFC.

I didn’t watch Rousey against Holm on television but I looked for the result early one November morning. It was shocking to read that Holm had won – and a little distressing to see how badly the seemingly invincible Rousey had been beaten.

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McGregor faced similar dangers against Aldo – a tough Brazilian who had not lost for over a decade. I could imagine how Dana White would be twitching because I had been in Dublin last month when the head of the UFC was also in town. White had flown to Dublin “to show Conor some love” – with the promise that if McGregor defeated Aldo he will headline a UFC extravaganza at Croke Park next summer. My Dublin friends assured me 82,000 tickets will sell out in an hour.

In recent weeks I’ve interviewed boxers as different as David Haye and Andy Lee. We spoke about Tyson Fury but I was struck by how animated Haye and Lee both became when the conversation switched to McGregor. There was no scepticism of UFC here – even if Haye took pleasure that Holm, a former boxer, has used some of her sweet science to outclass Rousey.

All of these thoughts swirled in my head as I finally plunged into the UFC whirlpool on Sunday morning. My son was still asleep and the girls were out shopping as the recording began to roll. I spooled on fast-forward through the preliminary bouts, grimacing at the sight of barefooted wrestling, men punching each other on the floor and blood pouring down faces.

I wondered if my son felt the same uneasiness when watching O’Sullivan being pounded by Eubank or Whyte knocked cold by Joshua. But growing up in a house where I’ve written books about Joe Louis and Emile Griffith, he’s been told boxing is about much more than brutality.

Slowing the recording to normal speed I watched McGregor prance his way to the octagon. He looked utterly at ease amid the searing intensity. Aldo, in contrast, seemed muted. I was as involved as if watching the last few minutes before a fight between two boxers I had followed for years.

All week McGregor had promised he would knock out Aldo in the first round. But I felt the old surge of uncertainty while the Irishman bounced lightly on his bare feet and nodded intently.

It happened so fast, with the fight lasting only 13 seconds, I actually stood up in surprise. I immediately hit the rewind button and McGregor’s left hand detonated again. As the black lights clouded his head, and he fell down hard, Aldo still landed a punch of his own. McGregor was bleeding as he climbed up the side of the octagon like a deadly spider who had, somehow, made it all the way from Crumlin to Vegas. He screamed out at the heaving MGM Grand – as if this was the UFC’s equivalent of a ‘King of the World’ howl from Cassius Clay.

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The knockout went viral and McGregor is now even more of an online phenomenon. You would not know it if you leafed through the sports pages of Britain’s national newspapers on Monday. There was plenty of coverage of Joshua and Eubank – but barely a word in print about McGregor or the likelihood he will earn more money than any boxer in 2016.

If given a choice to interview McGregor or Fury again I’d opt for the UFC featherweight rather than boxing’s new world heavyweight champion. But on Monday night I also chose to talk about boxing rather than UFC to my son. Instead of highlighting the stunning achievement of McGregor I promised him that there will be an absorbing middleweight contest this coming Saturday night between Andy Lee and Billy Joe Saunders. Closer to home, it still feels right to try to stem the seemingly unstoppable rise of UFC and concentrate on the traditional virtues of the boxing ring. I don’t want to lose my boy to the octagon quite yet.


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