Polarizing UFC champ McGregor popular with sports books

Two years ago, Conor McGregor was just another fighter, a former plumber with an attitude, a prospect, a no-name undercard filler to casual fans of mixed martial arts. Today, he’s recognized as the biggest star in the sport, and not just because of his big mouth.

McGregor is a polarizing force, which is exactly what the Ultimate Fighting Championship needs.

“If McGregor gets another decisive win that he can run his mouth about, his fans, the Irish supporters, they love that. He’s backing up what he’s saying,” MGM Resorts sports book director Jay Rood said. “But there probably is a growing segment that wants to see him get it handed to him.”

As loved and respected as McGregor is for his talent and showmanship, he’s also hated for showing zero humility. But there’s no doubt he moves the needle in the right direction, which is what the UFC needs to attract pay-per-view numbers, ticket sales and everything that goes along with fight hype.

The wagering handle is one way to gauge the popularity of a sport or a league, and in that sense the UFC is gaining ground and increasing its relevance. It’s not the NFL, not even close, but the UFC has become an important three-letter word to bookmakers.

In May, when Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather staged the most overhyped boxing event in history, the betting handle at MGM Resorts reached the $25 million range. Rood said a huge UFC card, one headlined by McGregor, might attract $5 million in handle at MGM’s books.

“The handle for UFC last year was nearly equal to boxing, which is saying something because we had a really big handle on the Mayweather fight,” Rood said. “If you have some recognizable names and the card is deep, it’s great. If you have three good fights, that seems to be the key.”

The UFC 196 card set for Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden features two really good fights, one between McGregor and Nate Diaz and the other between women — Holly Holm and Miesha Tate — who are talented and humble.

It was all on display at Thursday’s news conference. Holm and Tate traded compliments. McGregor and Diaz traded expletives and insults before UFC president Dana White stepped in to prevent the two from brawling two days early. In a charisma contest, McGregor wins hands down. The Irishman is a world-class trash talker.

McGregor has so many admirers because he will say anything and fight anyone at any time. And when he predicts knockouts, he delivers. In December, he recorded the fastest knockout ever in a UFC title fight by dropping Jose Aldo with a left hand in 13 seconds.

“So far, he has been able to predict what he’s going to do and be able to do it,” said Lou Finocchiaro, a fight handicapper who posts his analysis and picks on Twitter @GambLou. “I love Conor McGregor. He’s a once-in-a-generation fighter as we speak about him today. He’s that kind of special talent.”

McGregor is predicting another knockout, saying with a cocky confidence he hopes Diaz can survive a round or two to give him some time to showcase his skills. McGregor opened as a 4-1 favorite when the fight was announced last week. The line is up to minus-550 at MGM’s books.

“Right now, it’s mostly McGregor money, and the big money is on McGregor,” Rood said.

McGregor is moving up two weight classes to 170 pounds to fight Diaz on 10 days’ notice. He was only a slight favorite over his originally scheduled opponent, Rafael dos Anjos, who withdrew because of a broken foot. Diaz is no coward. He will show up to fight, but without a full camp to prepare, he probably can’t win if it goes the distance.

“Diaz has a chance. But on two weeks to prepare, not on my money,” Finocchiaro said. “I like the angle that Diaz’s toughness makes this a fight. I do believe it gets to the third round, but I think McGregor is going to find a way to win.”

Rood said Diaz, offered at plus-400, has attracted more small tickets from bettors who are hoping for a big punch and a stunning upset.

“That’s the thing about UFC. The big prices are really scary to book because you know you’re only going to get ’dog money,” Rood said. “It’s such a fierce, wicked sport that a fight can be over really quickly. These guys are like snakes, and as soon as they see an opening, they strike.”

The women can be snakes, too. In November, when Holm knocked out Ronda Rousey in Australia, Las Vegas books took a beating. Rousey opened as a 15-1 favorite, and underdog bettors cashed at fat odds. The fight drew a handle comparable to an average NFL game, which is saying something significant.

“Two women fighting on a Saturday night ruined our college football day,” Rood said. “I’m expecting a pretty good handle for this McGregor fight. His fights alone can’t support the whole card, but Holm-Tate will be a good fight, too.”

Not long ago, Rousey and Jon Jones were the UFC’s biggest stars. Both are on the comeback trail. A decade or so ago, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz dominated the hype. The names at the top can change quickly, and McGregor’s suddenly extravagant lifestyle might eventually lead to his demise.

“When you have a young, ultra-talented superstar, they ascend to the heights of riches and fame so quickly, and then those things will end up destroying the fighter,” Finocchiaro said. “I just hope the whiskey, women and fame don’t bring him down before we get a chance to see it.”

Right now, Finocchiaro said, McGregor has a “tsunami of believers” who want to bet on him to succeed. But similar to the New England Patriots, New York Yankees and Duke basketball, he’s creating a tsunami of critics who want to witness his fall.

Love him or hate him, McGregor is the man of the moment, and he’s boosting the UFC’s popularity at the betting windows.

BOTTOM LINES — After 30 years as a Las Vegas bookmaker, Bert Osborne is calling it a career and retiring as South Point sports book director. Osborne, who ran the Gold Coast book for several years, has been a credit to the profession and will be missed. Chris Andrews, a longtime bookmaker in Nevada, has been named to replace Osborne at the South Point.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247

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