Jose Aldo vs Conor McGregor was supposed to be the biggest fight in UFC history, and it had the makings of something that would actually deliver. A volcanic rivalry between a shit-talking Irish hothead and a stoic Brazilian badass? Check. Two fighters with exciting, crowd-pleasing styles? Check. Characters who felt larger than life, like embodiments of their respective homelands — stuff of Rocky-style flag-on-the-back legend? Check.
After months of build-up — a hype machine in overdrive, cylinders churning away to create the most expensive marketing campaign the UFC's ever undertaken — it all went down the toilet this week. The injury bug bit Aldo, and it bit him hard. He had to pull out of the fight at the last possible second. Worse, there's a good chance that this fight — which UFC president Dana White thought would be "everything Mayweather vs. Pacquiao was not" — is permanently ruined. I'm gonna recount how we got here and explain why the future isn't exactly looking bright.
OK, so why is this fight such a big deal?
The short version? Conor McGregor. He made it a big deal.
Conor "The Notorious" McGregor burst onto the UFC scene after making a name for himself in Ireland's regional MMA circuit. He's a crafty knockout machine with a weird stance (that's almost reminiscent of the old-timey boxing style people like to joke about these days) and dynamite in his fists. He mixes strong fundamentals with wild capoeira kicks and other showy techniques. Fightland's Jack Slack did an excellent breakdown of his unorthodox style.
Seriously, watch this shit:
But that's only half the equation — and a startlingly small half at that.
McGregor can talk. He wields the mic like a goddamn scepter, like it was made to fit his holy palm, to guide his conquest. Other MMA fighters, they tend to say an extremely narrow, often boring range of things. "I trained really hard for this fight. I'm in the best shape of my life. I really respect my opponent, but you know I just think it's my night. And I have to win, because I have a wife and a kid and maybe a sports car that I haven't fully paid off yet."
That right there? That is 95 per cent of all MMA interviews. I follow this stuff obsessively, and sometimes it is boring as shit. That's kinda the sport's dark secret: these dudes and ladies who punch each other in the face for a living — one of the most extreme careers on Earth — are total snoozers as people. The UFC works incredibly hard to play up rivalries, but they usually come off as forced, inauthentic.
"I like to look good and whoop arse. It's what I do best."
Combat sports thrive on characters. Hell, professional wrestling decided to throw out real combat altogether and become a character factory. But boxing and MMA, they need people who can walk the walk and talk the talk. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, flow like a poet. Or at least a marginally clever human.
That's McGregor. Widely acknowledged as MMA's best trash talker, he's the complete package. He's looked untouchable in all his UFC fights (admittedly against some less-than-stellar competition) and he makes even the smallest verbal clash look like goddamn World War III. I mean, listen to this dude go:
If you can think of an even slightly high-profile UFC fighter, odds are, McGregor's talked trash about them. After only a few fights in the UFC, all anyone could talk about was McGregor. Every ad was McGregor. Every headline was McGregor. Every guest appearance was McGregor.
He strolled into the UFC, and he livened the place up. This during a time when the UFC badly needed new star power, especially after losing the likes of Georges St-Pierre and Brock Lesnar.
Big whoop. What makes his trash talk any more interesting than any other jerk's?
There's a slightly mythical quality about him. For one, he's got the whole nation of Ireland in his corner — that definitely helps — but he also talks all this new age-y shit about balance and movement and artistry. He's deep, man. Or at least, he acts like he is, and he sells it extremely well. Case in point, this video from Fightland:
Despite tipping the scales at a scant 145 lbs, he seems larger than life. That's backed up by his tendency to predict how and when his fights will end. And in a startling number of cases, he's been right. He's called knockout after knockout, right down to the round.
So he's got the Irish crowd — previously lacking an MMA hometown hero — literally screaming his praises at the top of their lungs, and he preaches like he ate the ghost of The Old Warrior Spirit. At this point, the folk hero aura is so pervasive that Sinead O'Connor is gonna sing McGregor into the ring at UFC 189 with a famous Irish folk song.
Don't fights usually involve more than one person?
Right, I was getting to that. So in one corner you have McGregor, the wild-eyed Irish phenomenon. In the other, you have Jose Aldo, the UFC's reigning featherweight (145 lbs) king since the title was invented in 2011. In case you hadn't guessed it, he's a monster.
Considered by some to be the top pound-for-pound MMA fighter on Earth, Aldo has destroyed countless top tier challengers with relative ease. He has, in some cases, looked almost human in the octagon (he used to be prone to getting tired as fights wore on), but his striking is dynamic as it is devastating. Watch:
Dude is scary. A former soccer player, you do not want him to kick you in the legs — or anywhere, for that matter. He once reduced ex-WEC champ Urijah Faber to literally crawling at him, a whimpering puddle of sweat and blood. He kicked the poor guy's legs so much that he couldn't stand anymore. It was a terrifying display of dominance, and a signal of things to come. For years and years and years.
Wow, why hadn't I heard much about him before?
Because, like many UFC fighters, he's not all that interesting of a person. He's generally quiet and respectful, if a bit arrogant. He's also champ in a lighter weight class, which generally have a harder time gaining traction (which sounds more interesting to you: small people punching each other or giants punching each other?). He just didn't have that crossover appeal. It took McGregor to bring it out of him.
What's their rivalry like? Why is it so special?
Oh the dynamic they have. McGregor pushes and pushes and pushes. Every time he can say something snide, he does. Every time he can throw Aldo off his game, he goes for it. At first Aldo attempted to remain stoic, unflappable in the face of The God-King Of Flapping. After Aldo won a massive victory over number two featherweight Chad Mendes in what many consider to be last year's best fight, he coined a now-famous line in reference to McGregor as his next challenger:
"I think the court is complete," he said to a blaring audience during his post-fight interview. "I'm the king, Chad's the prince, and now we have a joker."
McGregor, in turn, amped up his antics even more. After a decisive knockout win over German kickboxer Dennis Siver, McGregor leaped out of the cage and tore into the crowd, straight to where Aldo was seated. This was the result:
McGregor screaming, Aldo laughing. One of the most iconic images in this fight's entire build-up.
But that, as it turned out, was only the beginning.
I am spellbound by this tale of a strange yelling man and a dude with a cool facial scar. Keep going.
Thanks! So anyway, earlier this year the UFC did something it's never done before: a ten-stop multi-country world tour to build up the fight. This meant two things: 1) more people than ever would know about this fight and its ramifications, and 2) McGregor and Aldo would be in relatively close quarters for more than a week. The latter took this wacky odyssey from great to amazing.
The UFC does this cool series called "Embedded" where they follow fighters around for set periods of time, usually in the weeks leading up to a fight. Here, however, they did it during a promotional tour, and they got so much gold. McGregor pestered Aldo like a hummingbird with the roar of a lion. Poking, prodding, yelling, laughing, almost as if he'd already beaten Aldo in the ring. Day in and day out, he wore away at Aldo's resolve. The once stoic Brazilian couldn't keep up his facade. He got angry. He got emotional. He got tired. McGregor even won over portions of the Brazilian crowd — Aldo's beloved home country — and held it over Aldo's head every chance he got. Aldo did his best to keep up, but he could hardly get a word in edge-wise.
And then McGregor started messing with Aldo's championship belt, and things... escalated.
You might think McGregor seems like kind of a complete arsehole, and you're right. Some people love him, others despise him. But no one can look away.
This sounds amazing. So what happened? Why did the fight get called off?
After the promotional tour, Aldo and McGregor returned to their respective homelands to train for the big fight in July. (And then McGregor temporarily relocated to Las Vegas to train from a mansion, but that's A Whole Other Thing.) The UFC plastered all their events with ads for Aldo vs McGregor, and everything seemed to be going according to plan. People were amped about this fight. I got a text from my dad about McGregor. My dad doesn't watch fights at all, but he wanted to know more.
And then, a couple weeks from the day of the fight, disaster struck. Aldo injured his rib in training. Initially, there was debate over whether it was bruised or fractured, and whether Aldo would be able to resume training after a few days of rest. But I mean, look at that injury. Gnarly, right? And all indications point to it feeling even worse. Rib injuries like that make breathing, walking, and even lying down excruciatingly painful — even for seemingly invincible man machines who get punched in the face for a living. So Aldo pulled out of the fight, promising to return once he's all healed up.
Anticlimax, thy name is UFC 189.
— Nathan Grayson (@Vahn16) July 1, 2015
That sucks, but they can just duke it out later, right?
Maybe. And it's a big maybe.
See, McGregor is still fighting at UFC 189. He's just dealing with a last-second opponent switch.
Now he's facing Chad Mendes, who you'll remember Aldo defeated in a barn-burner of a battle late last year. Thing is, Mendes is a completely different type of fighter than Aldo. Where Aldo is largely a striker — someone who can be extremely proficient on the ground but prefers to keep things standing — Mendes is a musclebound wrestle mountain. His takedowns hit people like freight trains driven by The Incredible Hulk, and once he's got you down, he keeps you there. Then he rains down punches, and after that, it's often lights out.
There's a saying in MMA: "styles make fights." Certain fighters match up better with certain styles than others. McGregor has embarrassed pretty much every striker he's faced, but his ground game remains a giant question mark. Worse, his only losses (admittedly in the distant past) have come on the ground, by way of submission.
So here's the situation: McGregor spent months preparing to fight a striker — possibly neglecting his takedown and submission defence in favour of devoting more time to punches, kicks, counters, and the like — and then had the rug pulled out from under him this week. He's now got only a handful of days to prepare for Mendes, a monster in his own right, the dude who gave Aldo the biggest test of his entire career. And some of that valuable time — those precious flecks of sand in the hourglass — are being used up on more promotional efforts, something I was worried was taking away from McGregor's training time even before the Mendes swap happened.
Much as I'd like to see McGregor get the win and storm back into contention against Aldo, his chances don't look great.
What happens if McGregor loses to Mendes?
I don't think the McGregor-Aldo fight would lose all of its steam, but it'd lose a hell of a lot of it. McGregor's sauntered through the UFC like he owns it. If Mendes beats him in lopsided fashion, a part of his larger-than-life mystique will evaporate into thin air. He'll have to work damn hard to get it back.
In more tangible terms, it also means there'd be no reason for McGregor to fight Aldo at all in the near future. His title shot would go down the drain, and he'd have to earn it back with another win or two. Meanwhile, Mendes and Aldo would fight again, which might throw things even further into disarray. And all the while, memories of McGregor and Aldo's rivalry for the ages would fade, a shadow of a husk of a distant memory.
But what if McGregor wins?
Presumably, he'd then fight Aldo sometime later this year, but that all depends on how long it takes Aldo to get better. Also, there's always a chance Aldo will get injured again. He's a bit injury prone, as it turns out.
However, if all goes according to plan, the end result might actually benefit. Some people feel like McGregor didn't really earn his title shot, and beating Mendes would destroy all doubt. It might be tough for the UFC to get hype levels back to where they were before Aldo got injured, but their fight would still be A Big Deal.
So I should be rooting for McGregor, then?
Yeah, unless you just really don't like the guy and want to see him get his clock cleaned, thrown to the floor, and busted into shards so tiny that all the king's horses and all the king's men will say, "Fuck this. Just go ahead and behead me." I could understand that. McGregor's a polarising figure.
You still seem kinda down. Is there any real bright side here?
Well, I mean, one way or another McGregor was gonna face Mendes someday. They're both near the top of their weight class. Also, Mendes and McGregor don't like each other much either, so they have got a pseudo-longstanding rivalry going. It's nothing like the special hatebond shared between Aldo and McGregor, but still, moments like this interview (from late last year) were fun:
The UFC's already started an Embedded series focused on UFC 189, and the fight doesn't happen until July 11th. If we get an episode every day until then, there's room for a fun, if truncated build-up here. Will it lead to the biggest fight in UFC history? No.
But it will be another episode of The Conor McGregor Show, and so far every episode has been gold. McGregor loves his hyperbole, but perhaps there's a degree of truth to what he said in a recent media call about the Mendes fight:
"People are showing up to see me," he said. "It doesn't matter whether it's Jose or Chad. I mean, it would have been nice if Jose didn't pussy out, but we'll take the substitute. We'll take the B-level guy, and we'll still break records with this."