Saturday night, one of the most anticipated fights in UFC history is finally happening. Conor McGregor, the organisation's current big hope for mainstream success, takes on Brazilian phenom Jose Aldo. McGregor — with his shit-talking antics and "movement" mumbo-jumbo — sure will be screwed if he loses, right? Wrong.
First, a little background: Conor McGregor is the UFC's current "it" guy. He's a fast-talking Irish madman who can slug it out with the best of them, but who has, arguably, benefited from a buffet of opponents handpicked to make his slick stand-up shine. He was set to fight UFC featherweight (66kg) champ Jose Aldo earlier this year, but Aldo pulled out with a rib injury at the last second. After months of shit-talking and shenanigans that included McGregor plucking Aldo's championship belt right out from under his nose, it was a massive disappointment. The hype train went off rails and writhed around on the ground like a dying fish. Last-minute replacement Chad Mendes, the featherweight division's go-to number two — and a wrestler, McGregor's presumed poison — seemed poised to finish it off.
Miraculously, though, McGregor won the fight. After getting taken down and elbowed into a crater kiddie pool of his own blood for two rounds, he rallied and punched an exhausted Mendes' face clean to the other side of his head. To this day, Mendes no longer needs to check his blind spot when changing lanes. If there were any doubts that McGregor was ready for a title shot, though, the win over Mendes silenced them. (Well, most of them; Mendes suffered from a truncated training camp, but McGregor claimed he was fighting on a bum knee so HEY AREN'T EXCUSES FUN.)
And now, barring divine intervention (from SATAN) or a weight cutting mishap, McGregor and champ Aldo are finally, actually gonna punch each other until one of them falls down or a clock goes off signifying that they have punched each other for long enough. Fans and pundits are saying the UFC needs McGregor to win here. After Ronda Rousey got dismantled in every phase by Holly Holm, they can't afford for their other New Era superstar to fall from grace. They also think McGregor needs the win, because a loss will prove he's been full of shit all along.
I can see where they're coming from. This time around, the lead-up to the fight has been... well, somehow even stranger than last time. Aldo's been going through the usual motions of pre-fight training, media, and travel, while McGregor's been sparring with The Mountain from Game of Thrones and frolicking on the beach with his "movement coach". What's a movement coach? Nobody on Earth knows, but they teach you how to do stuff like this:
To be fair, McGregor's in-cage movement is erratic and difficult to time. His focus on this stuff is, in part, what makes him a unique fighter, and all the strangeness of his preparation adds to his mystique. But it's not everything — especially since he started fighting on the lead, focusing on power and pressure over timing and craftiness.
Point is, a lot of this stuff sure does look like a bunch of dudes horsing around. If McGregor loses this weekend, I imagine many people will call it that. They will say that he was ill-prepared — that instead of filling legitimate holes in his game like wrestling, he partied it up with stars, played pattycake with his buddies, and trained to balance on poles in Cirque Du Soleil.
Meanwhile, Jose Aldo looks like he's prepared to butcher a colony of baby seals. He's done with the grind; it's time to do his grim duty. All indications suggest he's trained his arse off for this one — likely because, you know, he really, really wants to shut McGregor the fuck up. An unmotivated Aldo? Still literally the best featherweight MMA fighter of all time — only truly tested once, against Chad Mendes. A motivated one? Everyone on the planet just simultaneously urinated at the thought.
So, the worst case scenario for McGregor is, he goes out there, gets his arse kicked to the other side of his body and up to where his face is by the tiny Terminator man-machine that is Aldo, and then he's the laughing stock of the MMA world for his baseless trash talk and phony training methods. Hero to less-than-zero, just like that.
It'd arguably be worse for McGregor and the UFC than Ronda Rousey's devastating KO loss to Holly Holm. The UFC would lose its one remaining cash cow, and he'd be shamed, embarrassed, and rendered inert — his dynamite fists and tongue disarmed. He'd be exposed, and Aldo's now-infamous (or, shall we say, notorious) proclamation would be proven correct: Aldo's a king, and McGregor is merely a joker.
Except that I don't actually believe any of that. I think The McGregor Show has played out perfectly for McGregor and the UFC, and — whether McGregor wins or loses — they will be reaping the benefits for years to come. It makes sense that the UFC's parent company, Zuffa, was founded by casino executives, because their gamble with the McGregor-Mendes fight paid off. McGregor vs Aldo hype is now at a fever pitch, and the fight is going to cap off the UFC's most eventful weekend ever — which features three shows in three days, one of which ties into this season of The Ultimate Fighter reality show, starring (guess who?) McGregor.
Barring a couple fight cancellations due to injury, the situation could not have turned out more perfectly for the UFC. Both parties — McGregor and the UFC — have already made millions off McGregor mania, and they're about to make millions and millions more in a single night. That will happen no matter how McGregor actually performs.
It's tempting, meanwhile, to compare the prospect of a McGregor loss — especially a devastating one — to Rousey's recent fall, but I don't really think they're comparable. Rousey's entire future in the sport is now in doubt. Her mystique was rooted in fast, brutal dominance, and if she gets dominated again, that will likely be the end of her career — or at least her legend. Her division is thin, too. If she's not champ, her only real option is to sit around being in second place — an idea she despises. Or worse: she might even lose to more well-rounded non-champs. She's got big opportunities waiting for her in Hollywood anyway. The UFC needs her more than she needs the UFC.
McGregor, on the other hand, can afford to lose. He's a born salesman. No matter how low-stakes a fight actually is, he can generate interest with his brash quips and diatribes. He's already done it on multiple occasions. Hell, it's one of the reasons he rose so quickly through the UFC's "ranks" in the first place. He's a human soundbite during an era of social media, a time when words matter just as much as actions, if not more so. Sure, he'll lose some of the mystique surrounding his movement and pre-fight predictions, but MMA fans are fickle and, sometimes, forgetful. If he amasses a few impressive wins, he'll be back near the top — his previous disgraces in the rearview mirror.
We've already seen this happen with famous UFC shit-talkers like Chael Sonnen and Michael Bisping. After two masterful shit-talking campaigns of his own (plus some fast-tracking by the UFC), Sonnen lost twice to then-middleweight (84kg) champ Anderson Silva — the second time in lopsided fashion. But Sonnen never stopped being a draw, a guaranteed moneymaker and interest-generator, until he retired (in shame, but that's a long story). He even got to fight then-light heavyweight (93kg) champion Jon Jones immediately after losing to Silva, kinda just because he was around at the time. It was a preposterous mismatch, but it still happened, and Sonnen still walked away a wealthier man.
Michael Bisping, meanwhile, has never actually fought for a UFC title. He's fallen short in multiple number-one contendership matches, but the guy's an intense British dude who can work the mic. His nationality and outspokenness brought previously uninterested viewers to the UFC in droves. Sound familiar? McGregor basically did the exact same thing for Ireland. Despite a spotty record and the fact that his best years are behind him, Bisping is still one of the UFC's go-to moneymakers.
Oh, and that's not even to mention that McGregor's been flirting with a move up to lightweight (70kg). He's said it's likely even if he beats Aldo this weekend. Regardless, McGregor would get a fresh start in another division that needs some spicing up. He could basically reenact his rise to the top of featherweight — except probably faster, because the UFC wants him in as many marquee matches as possible.
All the while, McGregor's living in mansions and texting reporters about the sports cars he's buying. Conor McGregor has already won. This weekend is just a victory lap. He's a smart guy; I imagine he knows this. Still, I hope he hasn't let that go to his head. We're here to watch two guys punch each other into oblivion, after all. If one of them phones it in, well, the biggest loser of all will be the crowd.
Image credit: Getty.