Conor McGregor has taken the UFC by storm. He's brash, he's well-spoken, he's a thrilling knockout machine in the cage. He can't keep this up.
If you didn't already think McGregor was incredible, this weekend's fight against miniature man tank Chad Mendes proved it. McGregor can run his mouth like nobody else, but with people like that, you've always got to wonder: do they actually believe what they're saying?
McGregor believes he is unstoppable -- perhaps to a fault.
Going into the fight, people (myself included) doubted McGregor's ability to deal with Mendes' freight-train-like wrestling style and nuclear punches. And boy did McGregor eat his fair share of takedowns and punches. He just didn't give a shit. Not one single shit. McGregor walked Mendes down, backed him against the cage with sheer positional pressure, and kicked Mendes' stomach until he could barely breath.
It should be emphasised that Mendes is probably the hardest hitter in the UFC's featherweight division behind McGregor himself. And McGregor was walking straight into a goddamn minefield of power punches. These are the same shots that nearly knocked out Jose Aldo, the only featherweight champ in UFC history, and put away durable dudes like highly ranked contender Ricardo Lamas with ease. McGregor took these hits flush. His head snapped back. And he kept coming forward, unfazed.
Then he got taken down and elbowed -- cracked so hard his brow split open -- for most of a round. Boom. Crack. Crunch. Bone slicing flesh like a butcher knife. But he got back up. And he came forward. And, with half a minute left in round two -- a point at which most fighters, after being elbowed for a small eternity, would prefer to suck wind and let the clock run out -- he got up in an exhausted Mendes' face and nearly took it clean off. Mendes hit the ground, McGregor followed with more punches, and just like that, McGregor's darkest hour had suddenly become his brightest.
It was incredible, truly. It wasn't quite as incredible as the fight that had preceded it (that's another story for another day), but it was controlled chaos incarnate. Actually, it was more than that. It was channeled chaos. Because that's what Conor McGregor does: he channels chaos so it works to his benefit. He taunts lions and puts on a show.
I would be lying if I said I wasn't worried, though. Fighters who eat knuckle sandwiches like they're on a Subway diet don't tend to have much longevity. Damage mounts, durability fades, chins crack. Smooth talkers find that they have misplaced their precious, precious brain cells. And while McGregor's always been kinda hittable (relative to more defensively sound fighters), he only recently started Asking For It.
Back in the day, he was a counter-fighter. He watched, he waited, and he struck when the time was right -- both to take advantage of his opponents' lowered defences and to fuck up their timing, turn flush strikes into glancing blows. He was crafty as hell about it, too, and his movement was intoxicatingly smooth. You just wanted to stare forever, drink it all in. The knockout he scored in this 2012 fight against Ivan Buchinger, for instance, was textbook -- absolutely gorgeous:
Punch comes in, McGregor bobs his head off the center line with sublime speed, and boom: the counter hook from hell. Somewhere above the cage, Buchinger's ghost appears. "The fuck just happened?" it asks.
Bloody Elbow's Connor Ruebusch wrote an excellent piece chronicling McGregor's transformation from wily counter-fighter to slugger drunk on his own power right before he squared off against Dennis Siver, an ageing kickboxer who had no business tagging McGregor as much as he did. But McGregor let him, because he was headhunting -- looking for that sweet, sweet knockout. Speaking of McGregor's match against Dustin Porier, yet another fight in which McGregor got clocked way too much, Ruebusch wrote:
"Something seemed different about McGregor. This wasn't the same fighter who had so effortlessly picked apart Ivan Buchinger just before coming to the UFC. This wasn't the same man who had danced around Marcus Brimage in his debut. No more testing and measuring range with his right hand. No more subtle manipulation of distance. No more setting and springing of traps."
And then, this devastating closer:
"McGregor seems to be learning that he doesn't need the full extent of his skill to win. For the most part, he's right. He can take an opponent's shot just fine, and his opponents can't take his. It seems obvious, really, to worry less about the small things and focus more on hitting the opponent, because all it takes is one to end the fight. And each time the opponent defends or counters, it just takes one more."
"This is the puncher's path, and it leads to oblivion."
That assessment, so far, has not proven untrue. But neither has it proven entirely accurate. McGregor hasn't reached the end of the puncher's path. He's still gleefully running down it, even if that run is starting to look like a sprint to an early finish.
And that's not even factoring in McGregor's gruelling out-of-the-ring schedule, which continues to include countless media appearances and, soon, a stint on the UFC's flagging reality TV show, The Ultimate Fighter. He is undoubtedly the UFC's biggest star (at least, purely as a fighter who can draw eyes to cards; Ronda Rousey is arguably a bigger name, but her fights don't get quite as much attention). The organisation needs him to do all this stuff, and he happily embraces the role because he makes damn good money. But that takes away from time to train properly, time to learn, time to get healthy.
That last part is key. McGregor himself said that he had problems just as big as Jose Aldo, his rival who pulled out of what may well have gone down as the biggest fight in UFC history due to a brutal rib injury. I'm tempted to believe him. He looked bizarrely unwell against Mendes -- creaky in his movements, paler than usual, hair divided into sickly tufts.
But McGregor, despite everything, refused to stop coming forward, refused to back down. The K.O. has become his M.O. He never stops, in the cage or out. It's what makes him incredible. If he keeps going at this rate, though, it's also what will destroy him.
Top image credit: MMAJunkie.