On Saturday, Irish fighter Conor McGregor will face Chad Mendes for the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s interim featherweight championship. The bout will be the final chapter of a saga over two years in the making.
McGregor’s rise in the UFC is as much or more about what he does out of the cage as what he does within it. The Irishman is unreservedly the greatest showman in MMA right now, and it’s his brash, shit-talking persona in the lead-up to the fights that has won him the adoration of both his fans and his bosses. UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta has called him “the Irish Muhammad Ali,” and the clumsy comparison has stuck. When UFC president Dana White met McGregor after the fighter amassed 1o knockouts and a 12-2 record on the European circuit, he signed him to the sport’s top promotion immediately. White and Fertitta thought he could be a star, and eventually, they made sure he became one.
McGregor made his UFC debut in April 2013 against Marcus Brimage, a little dude with curiously long arms and heavy hands whose idea of fighting had not yet evolved beyond standing in front of his opponent and punching them in the head until they fell down. The fight lasted just over a minute, and when it was over, Brimage was facedown on the canvas, and McGregor was walking away, victorious.
It was a spectacular knockout. McGregor, at 5-foot-9, was exceptionally tall for a man fighting at 145 pounds, and the Irishman accentuated his length when the bell rang by gliding across the ring in a long, narrow stance with his hands held high; at first glance, he didn’t look too removed from Notre Dame’s mascot. He spun, kicked, countered, and sidestepped with an unnatural calm. It was almost eerie, and if watching men incapacitate other men with their bare hands was your thing, McGregor was beautiful to watch. Even if it wasn’t your thing, McGregor was spellbinding.
McGregor’s next fight was four months later against Max Holloway, a rangy, 21-year-old prospect whose career hadn’t quite taken off, and who won fights throwing endless barrages of soft punches. After drawing applause over the first five minutes for unleashing front kicks, spinning kicks, high knees, and lead lefts, McGregor spent the final two rounds taking Holloway down and then harmlessly laying on top of him. It was an important fight for a few reasons. First, it was the first (and to this day the only) time UFC fans saw McGregor’s wrestling game. But the fight was also in Boston, where there’s a large contingent of Irish-Americans and other people who can get behind an Irishman. Finally, it was the first time most fans were introduced to McGregor’s now-famous persona. He talked shit to Holloway through the entire match, smacking his gloves over his head like a boxer on their feet and spouting into his opponent’s ear on the ground. It cemented the knockout artist as a crowdpleaser, too. The fight was dull, but McGregor was a hit. If you were a skeptical fan, and if you were to trace McGregor’s career backwards to the moment when UFC operators began actively conspiring to make him the next featherweight champion of the world, this night is where you’d land.
The UFC claims to promote a worldwide sport, but MMA is a serious fixture of the sports landscape in only a few places, such as the United States, Canada, and Brazil. McGregor, a flamboyant, hard-hitting, well-dressed Irish dude, was unique in mixed martial arts. If you’re a skeptical fan, the theory is that Fertitta and White saw in McGregor, among other things, an opportunity to expand the promotion’s reach in Ireland. The country is tiny, with about the population of the greater Houston area, but then there’s that Irish-American audience to consider, and anyway a new market is a new market.
And so McGregor, 2-0 in the UFC, headlined a card on July 19, 2014, in Dublin, against Diego Brandão, an 18-9 journeyman who’d been knocked out five times. On its face, the fight wasn’t much to get excited about, but McGregor stoked the flames by insisting over and over again that he’d knock the Brazilian out in the first round. In the weigh-ins the day before, McGregor threw his hat at Brandão. When the two faced up, the Irishman had to be restrained by White.
The next night, the two fought. The opening bell rang; McGregor glided across the ring to the Brazilian. The two traded; McGregor took him down; Brandão fought his way back to his feet; and then McGregor stalked his opponent, hands low, moving at right angles behind lead lefts. Eventually, Brandão backed into a corner, McGregor punched him in his temple twice, the Brazilian laid down, and the referee stopped the fight.
“We’re not here to take part,” McGregor yelled to his Irish fans. “We’re here to take over!”
Later that night, Fertitta tweeted this:
If the goal was to promote and groom a new star and face of the UFC, Fertitta and White couldn’t have possibly chosen a better fighter. McGregor had once watched The Secret on DVD, a film that pimps the Laws of Attraction, the philosophy that if you say positive things and think positive thoughts, positive things will happen to you. McGregor took the Laws of Attraction to heart, and so he proclaimed that he was the best fighter in the division, and that he’d be the featherweight champion, to whoever would listen. He was his own best promoter, especially since he was a beautiful, delightfully savage trash-talker—a funnier Chael Sonnen who could back it up. Three months later, he was matched with Dustin Poirier, a knockout artist from Louisiana. In the months before the bout, McGregor said that he’d knock out Poirier in the first round, and heckled him mercilessly.
“He’s a quiet, little hillbilly from the back arse of nowhere,” McGregor said once. “His cousin is probably named Cletus.”
In the weigh-ins before the fight, the two had to be separated. When the fight started, McGregor talked to Poirier for a minute and a half, then delivered a vicious left hook that clipped Poirier behind the ear and knocked him off his feet. A couple of hammer punches later, the referee stepped in, and McGregor was mugging the crowd, hoisting an Irish flag.
Just as hype sells fights, styles make them. In MMA, where people can’t really box all that well, McGregor—an amateur boxing champion—had an advantage in what were essentially kickboxing matches. The most interesting fight for McGregor, one hearkening back to old-school UFC fights, would’ve been against a strong wrestler like Chad Mendes or Frankie Edgar. The safest for him would’ve been against another, lesser kickboxer. After the Poirier fight, McGregor tweeted this:
Soon after, it was announced he would be fighting Dennis Siver—a 36-year-old fossil of a kickboxer who was nowhere near a title shot, and who had once competed at 170 pounds, but was cutting down to fight McGregor at 145. You know how this goes: McGregor called Siver a Nazi before the fight, bucked at the man during the weigh-ins, and, during the fight, knocked Siver to the ground with a left hand. He cleverly passed Siver’s guard, sat on his chest, and punched until the referee told him to stop. It was an impressive performance, though the skeptical fan would say he did exactly what he was supposed to do. After he was pulled off, though, he jumped the fence and sprinted directly to the UFC featherweight champion, José Aldo, who was in attendance.
McGregor was ranked third in the division behind Mendes and Edgar—albeit not on the basis of any wins over really elite competition—but that visual more or less sealed the title shot for him. How you take this depends on what you think the purpose of the UFC is, and should be. If you think the UFC is a mechanism with which to discover the best fighter at each weight class, then McGregor jumping the line to contend for the featherweight belt without having answered the question of what he can do against a wrestler in a division filled with them is a bullshit sham that sullies the entire sport. If you think the UFC is a mechanism with which to create and promote exciting stars with bombastic personalities who will cause controversy, sell tickets, put on an entertaining show, and turn a profit, then McGregor fighting for the belt is still probably a bullshit sham—but you’re okay with it.
From the start, though, there was a tension and excitement about the bout for a few reasons. The first was that Aldo is one of the, say, two or three best fighters in the entire world. He’s the only featherweight champion the UFC has ever had, and has beaten anyone worth beating along the way. He’s a jiu-jitsu black belt, but has some of the most crippling kicks of anyone in the history of mixed martial arts, and knocks people off their feet with a single blow. He can and does beat people’s asses standing up or on the ground.
The second was that with McGregor being waved through to a championship bout so quickly against what really fucking looks like competition handpicked specifically to get beaten in spectacular fashion by the Irishman, we still don’t know if he can fight, or how well. He’s never been seriously challenged.
Finally, the UFC spent more money marketing the fight than any other before, claiming to expect this to be the highest-grossing fight of all time. (It won’t be.) There was a 10-city press tour earlier this year that spanned three continents and featured bits like McGregor calling Aldo a boy, McGregor grabbing Aldo’s belt at a press conference, and McGregor saying despicable, racist things like, “If this was a different time, I would invade his favela on horseback and kill anyone that was not fit to work.”
The lead-up to the fight was as electric as it was grotesque, because it was all premised on the fact that at some point, Dana White wouldn’t be able to step between McGregor and Aldo. Whatever McGregor said and did didn’t matter, because at some point, he’d be locked in a cage with a real-life Yu Yevon, and he’d either get the shit kicked out of him, which would be funny as hell, or he’d show that he’s actually the real deal, which would be entertaining in its own right.
And then, a few weeks back, Aldo broke a rib in training.
It was the worst possible thing. McGregor called Aldo a coward, and White claimed that the Brazilian just had a bruise, but when the x-rays were released, everyone in the world could see that Aldo was legitimately, seriously fucked up. The fight was off.
It got even worse for McGregor. The UFC said that the Irishman would be fighting for an interim championship while Aldo was on the mend. His opponent would be Chad Mendes.
Mendes is one of the best fighters in the world. His record is 17-2, the same as McGregor’s, and against much tougher competition. He has only lost twice in his career, and only to Aldo. Three years ago, he was 11-0 when he caught a knee from Aldo in the very last second of the first round of a championship match, and was knocked unconscious. He ripped off five more wins over the next two years, and fought Aldo last October in a title rematch. He lost a decision in the best bout of the year. No one else has really given the guy a fight.
A knock against McGregor has been that for all the highlight reel techniques he can pull off, his bouts can actually be slow, plodding. The pressure he puts on his opponent comes from walking them down against the cage, keeping distance with his length, and picking the other fighters apart with long-range kicks and counterpunches as they try to fight their way out of one of the eight corners. But Mendes is different. He pushes the pace, and makes fighters work harder.
If Mendes took the fight on two months notice, he’d be the heavy favorite to beat McGregor. He’s a two-time NCAA All-American wrestler; he’s the hardest puncher in the division; he’s very, very fast; he has limitless endurance; and he’s fought the best in the world. On paper, Mendes is a worse matchup for McGregor than even Aldo. And, a skeptical fan would point out, Mendes is precisely the guy McGregor somehow avoided en route to his title shot.
Eight months ago, just before Mendes lost to Aldo, the two sparred over the phone. McGregor teased the 5-foot-6 Mendes, pointing out how small he was.
“I can rest my balls on your forehead,” he said to laughter.
But even Mendes’s height helps him out in the shortened camp before the fight. McGregor and Aldo are both enormous featherweights, who could easily fight at lightweight. It takes time for them to strip their frames down to 145 pounds, and Aldo’s so big that he’s known to fade as fights draw on, still fatigued from the brutal weight cut. But Mendes is a smaller, more natural featherweight who trains and diets year-round. He’ll make weight, and he’ll be fit.
A skeptical fan would say that McGregor is a UFC creation whose career has been built and manicured by Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta in the style of a WWE personality. He’s never been hurt, and has been made the face of the Ultimate Fighting Championship without ever having to really fight. But that doesn’t mean he can’t.
For months, Conor McGregor had a date with the best fighter in the UFC. Tomorrow night, after his fight with Chad Mendes, the world will finally know if he deserved it.
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