LAS VEGAS — Her face marked and still red, Holly Holm stared blankly ahead as Conor McGregor walked in, looking a lot worse for the wear himself.
An hour or so earlier, McGregor had been in the fight of his life, taken somewhere he didn’t want to go by a last minute stand-in who was supposed to crumple in his path like so many others before him. Now, he patted Holm on the shoulder and sat down next to her, and she gently patted him back.
Two proud warriors trying to come to grips with unimaginable defeats. Two big UFC stars wondering if they had just given away the lottery tickets that seemed sure to pay off big.
“A bitter pill to swallow,” McGregor said softly, and for once he seemed at a loss for words.
That wasn’t the case a few days before, when the Irishman who ran roughshod through the UFC featherweight division promised to not only beat journeyman Nate Diaz but hunt him down like a gazelle and eat his carcass in front of his gazelle friends.
Those are the kind of things you can say when you’re the baddest man around at 145 pounds. Those are the kind of things you’re supposed to say when you’re headlining what may have been the most lucrative UFC event ever at the MGM Grand arena and there are pay-per-views to be sold.
In this case, it wasn’t just Diaz’s gazelle friends who were watching. A packed house was roaring with approval, sure they were watching the coronation of a splendid fighter whose mouth made him as much of a star as his fists.
Already on Saturday night they had seen the best laid plans of UFC chieftain Dana White go awry when Miesha Tate somehow found a way to choke Holm into near unconsciousness at almost the last possible moment and ruin a megafight rematch in the fall with Ronda Rousey.
Holm, who scored one of the biggest upsets in the brief history of UFC when she stopped Rousey in November, was heading for what at worst would have been a draw when she allowed Tate to take her down with less than 2 minutes left in the final round and finish her off with a rear naked choke.
Instead of fighting Rousey for millions, Holm was left without a title and facing a comeback of her own.
“Big mistake,” Holm said. “It cost me everything tonight.”
But the biggest shocker of the night was still to come, and from an unlikely source. Diaz was no more than a journeyman fighter taking a fight without training or sparring, and given little chance against McGregor.
But because UFC is as much spectacle as it is sport, McGregor agreed to fight at 25 pounds above his normal weight to salvage the card. And while he bloodied Diaz’s face, he couldn’t stop the larger man from coming forward relentlessly before stopping him with a rear naked choke in the second round.
“Inefficient energy,” McGregor kept repeating, as if trying to convince himself about what happened. “It was simply me fighting a heavier man, that was it. He can take a shot and remain in there, remain in your face. I make no excuses. I took a chance and it didn’t pay off.”
Another huge summer pay-per-view card was likely ruined, but no matter. This was the kind of stuff that only grows the UFC legend, as evidenced by the deafening roars of the sold-out crowd of 14,898 as Diaz finished both McGregor and the night off at the MGM.
And if there’s one thing White has shown in building the UFC empire, it’s that he knows how to manufacture new stars and resurrect old ones.
“After 16 years in this business, the one thing you don’t ever do is think you know what’s going to happen,” White said. “Because you don’t.”
One thing White does know is that the UFC’s version of mixed martial arts has found a sweet spot in the world of combat sports that should only grow over time. That was evident by the crowd that paid a gate of $8.1 million — or an average of $543 a ticket — to fill the arena at a hotel where Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s face still graces the outside of the building.
The fighters didn’t make nearly the $300 million that Mayweather took in for his final fight in the arena last year, though they surely did well for themselves. McGregor became the first UFC fighter to have a listed $1 million purse, which was expected to grow much more than that with a share of the pay-per-view and bonuses and Holm had a $500,000 guarantee.
But though the night was profitable for both, it was costly, too. They were huge losers, who now must claw and climb their way back to the top, with no guarantees that will happen in the tightly controlled UFC hierarchy.
McGregor still has his featherweight title, but he’ll have to find his aura once again, and that could be a problem. The trash talk that was so entertaining before may now ring hollow.
The bearded Irishman seemed to understand that as he searched for the right words afterward.
“I’m simply heartbroken, that’s all,” he finally said.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg