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Moment of truth for Conor McGregor and the UFC. What if he loses?

What once was genuine now seems contrived. What used to be endearing has made a turn toward annoying.

Conor McGregor kept the fans who came to his public workout Wednesday waiting for 45 minutes beyond the scheduled start time. McGregor is habitually late for these events, , but the payoff is usually some verbal entertainment.

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This time, he turned his back to the crowd to conduct a television interview with Fox, returned for a short session of flashing his punching speed and targeted kicks, hyped his new whiskey and spoke for no more than 90 seconds about Saturday’s UFC 229 main event fight against lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.

“It’s good to be back,” he said after taking a near two-year-long absence from the octagon to participate in, among other things, a boxing loss last year that paid him $100 million against Floyd Mayweather Jr., and an April hand-truck-throwing incident toward a bus occupied by Nurmagomedov that confined the boisterous Irishman to a Brooklyn jail for one night.

“Saturday night, I’m going to take his head off,” McGregor continued. “Trust me. Devastating KO,” contending Nurmagomedov is “too easy to hit, too flat-footed, too predictable. … I always come out of the gate [on] fire. I don’t give a [care] about anything -- any wrestling, any technique … I’m coming for that man’s head from the … bell. Trust me on that.”

The words seemed partially pulled from the scripts of his old UFC fights and the Mayweather promotion,

McGregor’s “a very popular fighter. People love him -- rightly or wrongly -- and they’ll tune in to watch him win or get knocked out,” former UFC middleweight champion and Fox UFC analyst Michael Bisping said. “Either way, it results in pay-per-view sales, a lot of money, and ultimately he’s winning.

“If he loses, where does he go from there? That’s the question.”

While McGregor (21-3) has struck a six-fight extension with the UFC, he stands as a slight (plus-140) underdog against Nurmagomedov. McGregor’s strategy will be to land a power punch on Nurmagomedov, expected to seek takedowns of the Irishman and “maul” him, as the new lightweight champion has said.

It’s a compelling draw, one UFC President Dana White said he expects to break the 1.6-million-pay-per-view record.

Still, a defeat could cause major headaches for White and the UFC.

While he has plenty of possible opponents to summon afterward, all of them would specialize in taking the fight to the canvas like Nurmagomedov.

Among the options are a trilogy date with Nate Diaz, a move up in weight against welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, or a meeting with Orange County’s former interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson.

Conor McGregor speaks during a UFC 229 news conference Sept. 20 in New York City.
Conor McGregor speaks during a UFC 229 news conference Sept. 20 in New York City. (Steven Ryan / Getty Images)

Defeat exposes fighters, diminishes their drawing power, and transforms the rapid-tongued brilliance of McGregor into the ramblings of a man desperate to recapture what has vanished.

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Was Wednesday’s appearance a preview of that?

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Bisping says he envisions two endings to this: an early McGregor knockout victory, or an extended punishment by Nurmagomedov, who not only dodged that hand truck that McGregor tried to throw at him, but has listened as the Irishman has battered his father, his Islamic religious beliefs, his political friends and his relationship with Vladimir Putin without the flinching of other McGregor foes.

“I don’t underestimate his striking game,” Nurmagomedov said. “He’s very good on timing, power. People have to wait for Saturday night. It’s a very interesting fight, stylistically. You have to improve yourself as champion because I’ve noticed a lot of champions … they change with [the acclaim of] a lot of [public] appearances and the money. These things can change your skills. You have to be focused.”

Bisping, for now, isn’t buying those projecting that the precipitous downfall of McGregor begins late Saturday night.

“Conor didn’t take a lot of time off. He fought Mayweather in one of the biggest fights of all time,” Bisping said. “He’s always in the spotlight. He’s an egomaniac. And in a scenario like this, that helps you.

Nurmagomedov looked out at McGregor’s supporters Wednesday.

“Three days ... ,” he told them. “ ... you’re going to like me.”

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