Saturday’s knockout defeat at Dustin Poirier’s hands seems to answer so many questions concerning Conor McGregor and his legacy. The former two-division champion turned business mogul from Ireland captivated our interests for the last half-decade. So, seeing it all come crashing down around him offered me a mix of cathartic schadenfreude and sadness. The McGregor circus was finally leaving town.
There is no doubt that Conor is a special athlete. He’s a rare breed of charisma and talent that backs up a boisterous personality with action. That combination only comes around once or twice in a generation. Muhamad Ali, Babe Ruth, and Michael Jordan come to mind. But how much talent vs. the spectacle made up Conor’s MMA tenure will always be a contentious topic concerning his legacy.
The story of Conor McGregor’s rise is every young MMA fighter’s dream. Mystic Mac was born in Dublin and spent time receiving welfare assistance from the government in the early years of his MMA career. But as his level of fighting excelled, Dana White noticed the youngster’s talent and was quick to sign him to the UFC roster.
He was destroying people on the European circuit, and when he took it to the next level in the UFC, things stayed that way while he dismantled the best the brass threw at him. He went on a remarkable 7-win streak that saw him leave the 2nd round only once in a unanimous decision against Max Holloway, KOing everyone else, including Denise Shiver, Dustin Poirier, Diego Brandao, Chad Mendez, and Jose Aldo.
But Conor’s story gets murky after the Aldo fight. The 13-second win, while impressive and wholly aligned with his previous body of work, always left fight fans with a “?’. This win was the defining moment of his career, and it’s undeniably open to some dispute. Did Conor get lucky?
Equally discouraging was the lack of a proper rematch between the two fighters to clear the air. Conor instead decided to fight Rafael Dos Anjos for his lightweight title, a match that was canceled due to an injury, so Nate Diaz took the fight on a week’s notice at Welterweight.
It was clear early that the larger Nate outmatched Conor, but his stock never dropped. Losing against one of the iconic Diaz brothers outweighed and without a full camp fight made him the ultimate warrior who will take on any competitor.
The Conor McGregor machine became larger than life then. More significant even than Dana White and the UFC at times. He was very much in the driver’s seat, and the rest of us were just along for the ride.
The next fight was a rematch with Nate, only this time at lightweight, requiring the much larger Diaz to cut weight. Conor went on to win the rematch in a tight majority decision that some pundits believe he lost.
Still, another fight decision now faced Conor, and once again, the UFC allowed him to make it himself. Instead of fighting Jose Aldo at featherweight to give him his rightfully deserved rematch, Conor fought for the Lightweight title against the formidable former Bellator champion Eddy Alverez. A fight that Conor won with astonishing dominance. It was his combative masterpiece.
Now a two-division champion and the most recognizable athlete on the planet, he decided to follow his own plan again. Instead of defending either UFC title, he left MMA completely and brokered what would become the 2nd largest PPV selling fight of all time.
Conor’s boxing match against Floyd Mayweather catapulted the Irishman’s iconic image into the stratosphere and made him extremely wealthy. Estimates show that Conor netted nearly $100 million for the bout, which he has wisely reinvested into his whisky company Proper 12, and life kept moving.
Conor seemed content with living the life of a millionaire playboy until the temptation of another blockbuster fight convinced him to step back into the cage, this time against the unbeaten Khabib Nurmagomedov.
The antics surrounding that event and the loss left us wondering what to expect. Finally, after a long-awaited return, Conor defeats Donald Cerrone and gets KO’d by Dustin Poirier in an obvious run at another huge payday by tempting Khabib out of retirement for the highly anticipated rematch.
And here we are. What’s next for the beleaguered general of the Conor McGregor campaign for world dominance? After losing this weekend, his stock for matchups has fallen significantly. The “red panty night” fight talk is over. There will likely never be a rematch with Khabib, and Conor may even unimaginably fight on an undercard if he sticks around. It is not a very appealing prospect for a guy with a $100 million whiskey company now climbing the ladder again through the murders row of talent inhabiting the UFC’s deepest division.
But, the more important question is, where does Conor’s legacy rank him if he retires? There is no denying Conor was a fantastic fighter, possibly one of the most dynamic strikers of all time. But was his ability to market himself into a larger-than-life persona, he became more relevant to the fight game than his actions in the cage.
Two fights on his way up were debatably lucky KOs. He fought the solid wrestler Chad Mendez on a week’s notice after a late drop out from Aldo, managed to luck his way out of a fight with RDS in his dominant prime, then got finished in two of his last three contests.
Conor McGregor’s legacy is tied directly to the icon he created himself into. It is a genuinely extraordinary story of a man that willed himself to the top of the world by capturing our hearts and minds, and his still-unfolding tale is remarkable.
But as far as fighting goes, his confidence in himself made him the ultimate pressure performer, and at times he was phenomenal in the cage. Still, the persona proved to be more noteworthy than the warrior, and history’s honest assessment will remember him that way in the end.