Careers in fight sports are forged over countless hours, months and years. But they can be snuffed out however with one split second lapse in concentration or one poorly judged or executed decision. It is precisely why boxing, UFC, whichever code of fighting you choose, is so exciting, so dramatic, and why it spawns so many heroes.
To cement your place in history, to turn yourself from transient hero to legitimate legend, you need to do it over a sustained period of time. Defeats don’t necessarily put an end to careers and reputations, but how you deal with those defeats can. The late, great Muhammad Ali suffered defeats, but they haven’t diminished his name or legacy in any way at all. If anything, the way he dealt with those defeats – two against Norton, let’s not forget – and came back to ultimately triumph, is the very essence of why so many people looked up to him, and still do.
Through a combination of unbelievable talent, an incredible amount of hard work, and a natural talent for self-promotion and marketing, Conor McGregor made himself one of the biggest names in sport. In little over three years he had become the face of the UFC, seeming to be able to control the body’s ruling authorities outside the octagon almost as easily as he was able to dispatch his opponents when inside it.
That was until it all came crashing down on the 5th March. What has followed hasn’t helped his cause. The bigger you are, the more you shout about it, the more people there are desperate to throw it back in your face when the unthinkable happens. It was the exact same with Ronda Rousey. So, after a turbulent time, the next two months will see which way McGregor goes. His long awaited rematch with Nate Diaz on August 20th has suddenly become the most important fight of his career. Bookies consider him the favourite, giving him odds of 4/5 over Diaz’ 21/20.
McGregor’s UFC Highlights
The Dubliner is such a massive name in the sport, and so popular with fans, that it is easy to forget he only signed for the UFC in February 2013. His rise has been nothing short of meteoric, packing into that time many memorable fights and finishes. McGregor’s first fight after signing for the UFC also won him his first “knockout of the night” award when he laid out Marcus Brimage in a little over a minute of the very first round.
More wins and awards were to follow, as were the last minute opponent changes which were to play a major and ultimately damming role in his UFC career. A points win over late replacement Max Holloway was significant for the fact that it was later confirmed McGregor had suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament during the fight, an injury that would prevent him from fighting for almost a year. A first round TKO in his comeback fight against another late replacement Diego Brandão, earned Conor his first “Performance of the Night” award. Two subsequent early stoppages brought him two further “Performance of the Night” awards, and meant that his reputation was starting to grow – and not just in his home country. The second of those victories (against Dennis Silver) also saw the start of his rivalry with then featherweight champion José Aldo, when he leapt out of the octagon to call the Brazilian out.
The fight against Aldo was scheduled to take place at UFC 189 in July 2015, but a rib injury meant Chad Mendes stepped in with just a few days’ notice to fight McGregor for the interim belt. Despite a tough opening round, Conor knocked out the Californian in the second to win not only the belt but his fourth successive “performance of the night” award.
Later that year, the SBG-based fighter would finally get to fight Aldo for the belt proper in a fight that sealed his reputation as one of the deadliest strikers on the planet. In a record-breaking night, McGregor dispatched the champion in just 13 seconds (the fastest title fight finish). In doing so, he became the first Irish born UFC champion, and the first fighter to win five “Performance of the Night” awards in a row.
Then his world would be turned on its head.
UFC 196 and 200
Conor announced that he was stepping up to Lightweight to take on Rafael dos Anjos in an attempt to be the first person to hold belts at two weights. He isn’t the first Irish fighter to step up to lightweight, but just over a week before the fight, dos Anjos broke his foot in training and was forced to pull out. In a decision in keeping with the aura that McGregor had built around himself he agreed to fight at welterweight, and take on Nate Diaz. It was a decision that would cost him dearly. Despite an encouraging opening round where he meted out several significant strikes to the American, McGregor got caught early in the second, and was subsequently taken down and tapped out to taste his first defeat in the UFC.
Almost immediately, McGregor started demanding a rematch. And in a move that had many in and around the sport questioning just who was pulling the strings in the UFC, Dana White or McGregor, he was granted his wish. McGregor Diaz II was to be the headline fight at UFC200 – the biggest show in the UFC’s history.
McGregor then pulled out of the fight (or was dropped, depending on who you believe), citing he was unwilling to meet the gruelling media commitments, and subsequently announced he was retiring.
It was no surprise however when he came “out of retirement”, and is now set to fight Diaz once more, this time at UFC 202 at the T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas.
A fully prepared and fit Nate Diaz will be McGregor’s biggest test to date by far. Diaz is an extremely good striker and has fantastic ground skills, something McGregor cannot compete with. If he loses again, his reputation, his aura and maybe his career will be in tatters. Will he be willing to go back to featherweight and defend his belt against Aldo or Mendes? Would he opt for another legacy defining fight by switching codes, and taking on a fighter such as Mayweather?
There is always the media. Conor has shown he is as comfortable behind the microphone as in front of it. Maybe he could take a leaf out of Paulie Malignaggi’s book and combine the two.
The fact is that the next two months will define exactly what legacy Conor McGregor leaves. If he beats Diaz, he can move forward, his reputation intact, and this episode will be forgotten in a year or three. If he doesn’t? Only Conor himself knows what lies ahead then, and it is extremely unlikely that possibility has ever entered his head.