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It’s never easy with Conor McGregor and the UFC, but end result is always worth it



When it involves the UFC and Conor McGregor, nothing seems to come easy.

Doesn’t it always feel as if we have to endure some level of drama before getting to the end result everyone wants to see, which is McGregor competing in MMA?

I mean, just look at the past few months. That was exhausting stuff, wasn’t it?

Tweets, interviews, passive-aggressive comments, shade, DMs made public … sheesh.

For the record, none of it felt as if it truly crossed the line. However, I do think releasing the DMs of UFC president Dana White was a misstep by McGregor. Ultimately, nothing salacious or inflammatory was revealed, but that’s a trust-breaker that didn’t need to happen.

What it ultimately represented to me, though, was McGregor essentially saying enough is enough. He felt disrespected, was frustrated and snapped. He hated that the narrative being put out in the public was that he didn’t want to fight or that he was turning down fights. This after he repeatedly said his plan was to fight three times this year.

It was an unfortunate byproduct of the past few months, if not years. Truth is, McGregor and the brass haven’t seen eye-to-eye for quite some time, though they are always able to put those differences aside, because, well, they stand to make a hell of a lot of money together. And they always do.

And so, once again, all’s well that ends well, because it seems as if we are on the verge of McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier 2 happening on Jan. 23. (Though, it is worth noting that no bout agreements have been signed, and Poirier hasn’t officially agreed either, sources say.)

Unlike the booking for the McGregor vs. Donald Cerrone bout last January, this news seems to have been met with unanimous praise. Poirier looked great in his last fight, a brutal unanimous decision over Dan Hooker in June. Poirier and McGregor have a history, and if McGregor wants to fight for the 155-pound belt again, beating a top contender like Poirier feels like a fair ask.

So it’s all good. Except for one thing. One part of this equation is gnawing at me.

If the UFC’s ultimate goal is for McGregor to fight for the lightweight title again — and I believe it is, considering White said on numerous occasions before and after the Cerrone fight that a McGregor win would equal a title shot, and they even offered him the opportunity to be a standby for Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson before the pandemic — then why are they booking McGregor three months after the upcoming lightweight title fight?

The undisputed lightweight title will be on the line on Oct. 24, when Nurmagomedov fights Justin Gaethje in Abu Dhabi at UFC 254. Wouldn’t it make smart business sense to have McGregor fight around the same time as the lightweight title fight so that the schedules align?

This is a real thing in the world of the UFC. Cory Sandhagen said as much to me on Wednesday’s “Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show.” He said that he tries to fight around the time the champion in his division competes so his schedule runs parallel to the top dog at 135. That is just smart. This, in case you don’t know, is the case in every division. It’s why it made perfect sense to have the Jan Blachowicz vs. Corey Anderson fight a week after the Jon Jones vs. Dominick Reyes title fight in February, for example.

So let’s say Nurmagomedov walks out of UFC 254 relatively unscathed. Heck, let’s say Gaethje does the same. Ideally, you’d want that champion to return in the first quarter of 2021, right? Well, Jan. 23 is a long way from Oct. 24, and that timeframe all but rules out any plan for McGregor fighting for the title in the near future.

Which brings us to McGregor’s request to fight in 2020, rather than on Jan. 23, which was ultimately denied. Wouldn’t it have made a heck of a lot more sense to have him fight on either Nov. 21 or Dec. 12 — the dates of the next two pay-per-views — so that if he wins, you can turn him around to fight for the belt in early 2021? I think so.

However, White told ESPN’s Brett Okamoto on Wednesday that those dates weren’t open because they already had champions booked then. So? You think Deiveson Figueiredo, who is scheduled to defend his flyweight title against Alex Perez on Nov. 21, would be insulted if he were the co-main to a Conor McGregor fight? No chance. How do I know? I asked his team. I feel confident in saying the other two champions booked on those dates — Valentina Shevchenko and Amanda Nunes — would feel the same. Fighting on the same card as McGregor brings more eyeballs — and money.

The UFC shies away from a non-title fight headlining over a title fight, but it has happened before. McGregor vs. Nate Diaz 1 wasn’t for a belt, and it headlined over Holly Holm vs. Miesha Tate for the bantamweight title. Heck, Gaethje vs. Ferguson was an interim title fight, and that just headlined over a real title fight involving Henry Cejudo and Dominick Cruz in May.



Take a look back at Conor McGregor’s best moments inside the UFC Octagon.

White also said he didn’t want to move a champion off a card. That’s a good reason. It’s insulting to said champion. But McGregor never asked to move anyone off a card. Neither publicly nor privately, I’m told.

I believe the reason the UFC denied McGregor’s request to fight on either one of those cards was because it doesn’t want a fighter who stands to earn a percentage of the pay-per-view revenue, which most champions do, to reap the benefits of being on a McGregor PPV, which probably would generate somewhere between 1-2 million buys, when that fighter didn’t really have anything to do with that number. McGregor, the biggest draw in the sport, will get his percentage regardless. But the UFC stands to lose money when it has to divide the pie a little more. That’s why McGregor doesn’t fight on the same card as champions these days. He hasn’t since 2016, and any current top fighter, who is privy to PPV points, or their management, knows it’s a long shot to land on a McGregor card. It’s just understood. Now, could it happen in the future? I suppose so. But the UFC certainly shies away from it. The UFC also declined to comment for this story.

That’s the reason, I believe, the UFC would prefer McGregor fight on Jan. 23. It’s the next available pay-per-view without a champion already booked on it. Otherwise, don’t you think they’d jump at the chance to have him fight right away? Who wouldn’t want the revenue McGregor generates? I mean, if they would have booked him next month, he could conceivably be ready to go again in January.

So, to recap, this was the game of chess being played between the two sides.

• White continuously says McGregor is retired and doesn’t want to fight.

• McGregor gets mad and says he’s fighting Manny Pacquiao.

• White brushes off the Pacquiao talks publicly, even though the UFC was aware of them and is on board with exploring the idea of the superfight, per sources.

• McGregor tries via Twitter to book a charity fight against Poirier.

UFC offers McGregor the Poirier fight on Jan. 23.

• McGregor accepts the fight but wants it in 2020.

• UFC says no, only Jan. 23.

McGregor agrees to Jan. 23 but wants the fight to happen at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, so that fans can attend.

If that isn’t a classic game of one-upmanship, I don’t know what is. And as of right this moment, you’d have to say the UFC won the battle: McGregor is back, and UFC doesn’t have to share his PPV percentage with anyone else.

By the way, regarding the fans in Texas, the Texas Commission of Licensing and Regulation announced recently it would allow fans to fill up to 50% of a venue, so that’s why the AT&T Stadium request was made.

Does the UFC make this happen? No word just yet.

So, in the end, McGregor gets pushed to the next available pay-per-view date, which just so happens to be three months after the lightweight title is defended.

And, in case you’re wondering, Ramadan 2021 begins April 12, which means the UFC will have only 14 Saturdays between McGregor-Poirier to book McGregor-Nurmagomedov 2, if all goes according to its plans. Nurmagomedov, as you probably know by now, is a devout Muslim and won’t fight during Ramadan or shortly thereafter.

Make no mistake about it, the UFC’s plan and hope is for Nurmagomedov and McGregor to fight each other again as soon as possible. It’s why the idea of them being coaches on The Ultimate Fighter 2.0 was out there and why White keeps saying that’s what they want.

Yes, I know Nurmagomedov doesn’t seem hot on the idea. Nurmagomedov has said he doesn’t think McGregor deserves a rematch. And it’s personal. But in the fight game, you must always follow the money, and the biggest money fight the UFC can make for the foreseeable future is that one. No doubt about it.

And ultimately it might just happen. Maybe the UFC is resigned to the idea it will happen next fall, if all goes to plan.

The good news for now seems to be that for the first time in months McGregor is closer to returning to action. When it involves the UFC and McGregor, nothing seems to come easy. But the end result is worth it.


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast


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