Over the weekend, Conor McGregor became the first UFC fighter to ever simultaneously hold belts in two different weight classes. He is, without a doubt, a legend-in-the-making, a star we should appreciate while he’s still around. But he’s also hotheaded and petulant, and I worry that both the UFC and other fighters are learning the wrong lessons from him.
McGregor constantly says things like, “I run this game, “This game is nothing without me,” and (paraphrased) “I use the word ‘game’ a lot because it makes me sound cool.” Once upon a time, that stuff was bluster, the logical next step after, “We’re not here just to take part. We’re here to take over.” These days, though, it rings truer and truer each time McGregor steps into the octagon. He calls the shots, and the UFC groans and shifts to accommodate his whims, like so many magic Harry Potter staircases.
Most recently, McGregor got to run it back with Nate Diaz after the most devastating loss of his career, and then, off the back of a narrow win at 170 lbs, challenge for the 155 lb belt while continuing to leave the 145 lb division in resentful cryostasis. Multiple deserving 155 lb challengers like Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson were brushed aside, and interim 145 lb champ Jose Aldo—hungry for revenge against McGregor, who hasn’t defended his 145 lb belt since jackhammering Aldo a year ago—is threatening to quit fighting altogether over what he perceives as insulting treatment from the UFC.
And yet, McGregor got his way again, because he’s just too dang valuable. The three fighters I just mentioned—three of the absolute best on planet Earth, or as it will be known in several years: “Trump Hotel: Earth (permanently closed)”—are merely the tip of an iceberg sticking out of an ocean of grievances against McGregor. With his history-making win on Saturday, however, McGregor just ascended to a whole new plane of bargaining power. Forget elephant trunk suits; soon he’ll be showing up to press conferences clad in suits made of ethereal light and Dana White’s foreskin. The UFC really, really wants to strip him of his 145 lb belt and straighten all of this out, but… well, I wouldn’t count on it actually happening. Heck, if he gets his way, he might try jumping back up to 170 lbs to nab a third belt.
MMA fans like to talk about “eras.” Usually, it’s in reference to fighters with pioneering styles dominating their weight classes. At 205 lbs, for example, it was the Jon Jones era until he drove himself into a metaphorical and literal ditch. Before that, it was the Machida era (lol), which was brought to an early halt by the heartbreakingly brief Shogun era.
Right now, though, the entire UFC is living in the McGregor era. It’s not just the (three, I guess???) divisions he’s a part of. Other fighters and divisions are changing to fit McGregor’s mold, because after the UFC struck a deal with Reebok and kept fighters in the ghettos of contractor-dom, they want some damn money. Folks like improbable middleweight champion/soon-to-be murder victim of a monster truck crammed inside the skin of a Cuban man Michael Bisping are eschewing rankings in favor of “money fights.” They want big names and big paydays, and the UFC’s been happy to oblige… to a degree.
Bisping’s first title defense came against Dan Henderson, an actual human corpse, because of a beef the two had when dinosaurs still roamed the planet. At bantamweight, champ Dominick Cruz will be taking on Cody Garbrandt because they’ve got some beef stew brewing, even though Garbrandt isn’t ready and TJ Dillashaw, obnoxiously whiny though he might be, deserves a rematch. Meanwhile, 170 lb champion Tyron Woodley unabashedly campaigned for big names over deserving challengers despite not having a single title defense to his (not very big) name. His wish was not granted, so at least there’s that.
It’s quite apparent, however, that new UFC owners WME-IMG are keen on drinking, bottling, and selling the McGregor kool-aid. They want the UFC to start earning more money, and they want to do it asap due to contract stipulations that will net them hundreds of millions of dollars if they can seriously up earnings by the end of June 2017. They plan to do this with a mix of tent-pole events ala UFC 205 (next up: the return of Ronda Rousey at UFC 207) and cost-cutting that, in some places, seems awfully shortsighted. Expect a big roster cull in the coming months, too.
Don’t get me wrong: I, of all people, certainly can’t say crazy circus fights are intrinsically bad. Many fighters, despite choosing one of the most insane career paths possible, are dull-ass people, and I love a good trash-talk laden storyline as much as the next guy. And there’s no denying we’ve gotten some phenomenal fight cards this year. But when the organization that touts itself as the NFL of MMA begins routinely shafting top tier talent—its biggest asset—in favor of eyeball-drawing absurdity or Once-In-A-Life-Time sensation, I can’t help but feel that things are out of whack. This stuff wears thin after a while, and if the UFC puts all its efforts behind pre-existing stars at the expense of new talent, eventually the stars are gonna burn out, with nobody to take their place.
I am also getting sick of obviously contrived beefs. Again, the occasional nasty war of words is fun. I don’t doubt that what McGregor and Aldo had, or what Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier still have (assuming Jones can stop sabotaging his career) is real. Real rivalries and stories are the lifeblood of fight sports. They draw people in. You don’t have to be an obsessive diehard to appreciate them. But when other fighters try to imitate those rivalries to drum up interest, it’s often cringe-inducing. More and more, that’s becoming the general tenor of the UFC: “Rawr, grrrr, I don’t like you for reasons!” “Bark, moo, meow, woof! I dislike you as well. Let us trade pithy insults.” Once upon a time, I loved guys like Gegard Mousasi because they were silent killers. These days? Not so much.
Even McGregor’s own “feud” with ex-lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez came off as petty rather than momentous. I mean, come on, the thing with the chair? What breathtaking silliness. For everything else they said to each other, you could’ve swapped out any other fighter and had basically the same scenario. It wasn’t unique or special. For me personally, the bickering kinda sucked the wind out of the fight. I remember being beyond stoked for McGregor vs Aldo—literally shaking with anticipation before the fight started—but I didn’t even feel compelled to watch McGregor vs Alvarez live, despite the fact that it was the more historically significant fight.
Still, this is McGregor’s shtick, and there’s no denying it works. I’ve read spicy takes lamenting that this isn’t “the real Conor McGregor,” which I think is patently inaccurate. Diehard fight fans might love the soothsaying, fight poet version of McGregor—the one who compares himself to ancient Irish warriors and makes the whole sport feel a thousand times grander than it really is—but he’s always had a temperamental, petulant side. He’s always been happy to yell incoherent threats and say his opponents are “like women.” It’s just easier to ignore when he follows it up with some lofty metaphor about lions and gazelles. He did not do that this time. He didn’t need to. In the end, UFC 205 still broke “every record,” and Alvarez admitted that he fought a stupid fight because McGregor got in his head.
Despite all that, I have to admit that when I finally got around to watching McGregor fight Alvarez, I still got chills. McGregor’s striking was smooth and powerful as ever, and his timing was beautiful. And holy shit, that moment when he put his hands behind his back in the second round. He risked history against a dude with bricks for fists to showboat like an asshole, but it totally summed up what makes McGregor special: he’s not afraid to look like an idiot.
Despite that, he went on to make history, and he made it look effortless. Sure, McGregor’s received special treatment from the UFC in recent times, but there’s no denying he earned most of this. And so, the moment when he floored Alvarez, and it set in that he’d once again achieved everything he said he would, pretty much in the exact fashion he claimed he would, it was hard not to be amazed.
Then McGregor spent his post-fight interview throwing a fit about only being handed one belt to hoist in victory, and things stopped feeling larger than life. For better or worse, that’s pretty much the McGregor era in a nutshell: amazing moments we’ll never forget surrounded by a bunch of dumb bullshit we wish we could.