It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Conor McGregor became the biggest star in the history of the UFC.
Maybe it was in 2014 when McGregor headlined his first card and starched Diego Brandao in the first round. It was in front of a raucous home crowd at the O2 arena in Dublin, Ireland, and showcased McGregor’s potential star power.
It’s possible that McGregor’s star didn’t shine fully until UFC 194 when Conor took on pound-for-pound great Jose Aldo for the UFC Featherweight Championship. He once again showed his brilliant mic work and marketability, this time on a full-blown world tour. The doubters were many, but after McGregor knocked out the featherweight king in 13 seconds, even his biggest critics were left in awe.
No matter when it happened, or why it happened, Conor McGregor revolutionized the modern-day mixed martial artist. His meteoric rise to fame was amazing to behold, but what if his legacy is also responsible for some of the woes the company faces today?
The warrior and the businessman
Conor blended being a warrior and a businessman better than anyone who has stepped in the Octagon.
Four of the five most purchased UFC pay-per-views of all-time feature McGregor as the headliner. While this is a testament to McGregor’s star power and popularity, three of those fights ended with monumental wins for “The Notorious”. UFC 194 brought in 1.2 million pay-per-view buys and fans saw McGregor knockout Jose Aldo in just 13 seconds. Madison Square Garden’s UFC 205 did 1.3 million buys, the fourth most in the history of the company, and showcased McGregor’s move up in weight to dismantle the then lightweight champion in Eddie Alvarez. UFC 202 boasts the highest UFC pay-per-view buy rate of all-time and was headlined by, you guessed it, Conor McGregor, as he avenged his only loss in the UFC against Nate Diaz.
His accomplishments in the Octagon catapulted him into a place to crossover into other sports. Floyd Mayweather Jr. deemed a fight with McGregor lucrative enough an opportunity to come out of retirement. The spectacle did 4.4 million domestic buys, the second most in the history of that sport and netted McGregor nearly $100 million, a figure most mixed martial artists wouldn’t dare to dream.
Love him or hate him, there is no denying that McGregor brought many new eyes to the sport, and opened up the eyes of many combat sport athletes as to the extracurricular opportunities available to them, from crossover fights to Burger King commercials.
What could be negative about that?
A dangerous precedent
While obtaining fame and fortune might be in the best interest of the individual fighter, it is not necessarily best for the legitimacy of the sport. Even though McGregor’s accomplishments have been legitimate, many will suggest that McGregor rose to the top so quickly on the back of his ability to talk and sell fights.
Those people wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.
Conor was able to reach the featherweight title fight by avoiding some of the division’s stiffer competition. After winning the belt, he was then given a lightweight title opportunity having never competed in the division in the UFC. He was also allowed to immediately avenge his loss to Nate Diaz at welterweight while holding the featherweight title, all while earning increasingly larger paychecks.
There’s also the elephant in the room in the form of McGregor never defending any of his titles without irreparably damaging his popularity. Add all of that together, and it sets a dangerous precedent for the rest of the roster.
The era of the “money fight”
No fighter will go ahead and admit they are trying to channel their inner Conor McGregor to get ahead. However, it is fair to draw that conclusion when so many men and women on the roster are clearly mimicking McGregor’s tactics to reach the top.
The concept of “money fights” is front and center with the fights pitting the best against each other taking a back seat. Champions and contenders alike who wish to take the fight that makes them the most money are becoming more numerous. It takes two to tango and the UFC is more than happy to entertain these demands having seen what sort of revenue a major star can bring them.
This dangerous mix has bred fights like Michael Bisping vs. Georges St-Pierre, the anticipated Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier clash, TJ Dillashaw and Demetrious Johnson, Amanda Nunes vs. Cris Cyborg and everyone and their mother wanting to fight a Diaz brother. It’s possible that many UFC fighters have had a secret desire to partake in professional boxing, but it sure seems like a lot of them are volunteering to partake in the sweet science after McGregor’s summer epic with Mayweather.
It’s hard not to make the connection between the current landscape of the UFC and the astronomical success of Conor McGregor. His peers have witnessed the tactics that brought him great financial success, and many are clearly mirroring. Alternatively, the company witnessed an employer bring them in more money than any other individual fighter before and are beginning to reward those who possess the same characteristics.
Only time will determine whether this new “era” will succeed, or the time-tested art of pitting the best against each other will make a roaring comeback.
A 29-year-old paralegal by day, but I rather write. MMA nut since '04.