Conor McGregor Rules The UFC, For Better And Worse

Over the weekend, Conor McGregor became the first UFC fighter to ever simultaneously hold belts in two different weight classes. He is, without a doubt, a legend-in-the-making, a star we should appreciate while he's still around. But he's also hotheaded and petulant, and I worry that both the UFC and other fighters are learning the wrong lessons from him.

Image source: Getty.

McGregor constantly says things like, "I run this game, "This game is nothing without me," and (paraphrased), "I use the word 'game' a lot because it makes me sound cool." Once upon a time, that stuff was bluster, the logical next step after, "We're not here just to take part. We're here to take over." These days, though, it rings truer and truer each time McGregor steps into the octagon. He calls the shots, and the UFC groans and shifts to accommodate his whims, like so many magic Harry Potter staircases.

He calls the shots, and the UFC groans and shifts to accommodate his whims.

Most recently, McGregor got to run it back with Nate Diaz after the most devastating loss of his career, and then, off the back of a narrow win at 77kg, challenge for the 70kg belt while continuing to leave the 66kg division in resentful cryostasis. Multiple deserving 70kg challengers like Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson were brushed aside, and interim 66kg champ Jose Aldo -- hungry for revenge against McGregor, who hasn't defended his 66kg belt since jackhammering Aldo a year ago -- is threatening to quit fighting altogether over what he perceives as insulting treatment from the UFC.

And yet, McGregor got his way again, because he's just too dang valuable. The three fighters I just mentioned -- three of the absolute best on planet Earth, or as it will be known in several years: "Trump Hotel: Earth (permanently closed)" -- are merely the tip of an iceberg sticking out of an ocean of grievances against McGregor. With his history-making win on Saturday, however, McGregor just ascended to a whole new plane of bargaining power. Forget elephant trunk suits; soon he'll be showing up to press conferences clad in suits made of ethereal light and Dana White's foreskin. The UFC really, really wants to strip him of his 66kg belt and straighten all of this out, but... well, I wouldn't count on it actually happening. Heck, if he gets his way, he might try jumping back up to 77kg to nab a third belt.

MMA fans like to talk about "eras". Usually, it's in reference to fighters with pioneering styles dominating their weight classes. At 93kg, for example, it was the Jon Jones era until he drove himself into a metaphorical and literal ditch. Before that, it was the Machida era (lol), which was brought to an early halt by the heartbreakingly brief Shogun era.

Right now, though, the entire UFC is living in the McGregor era. It's not just the (three, I guess?) divisions he's a part of. Other fighters and divisions are changing to fit McGregor's mould, because after the UFC struck a deal with Reebok and kept fighters in the ghettos of contractor-dom, they want some damn money. Folks like improbable middleweight champion/soon-to-be murder victim of a monster truck crammed inside the skin of a Cuban man Michael Bisping are eschewing rankings in favour of "money fights". They want big names and big paydays, and the UFC's been happy to oblige... to a degree.

Bisping's first title defence came against Dan Henderson, an actual human corpse, because of a beef the two had when dinosaurs still roamed the planet. At bantamweight, champ Dominick Cruz will be taking on Cody Garbrandt because they have got some beef stew brewing, even though Garbrandt isn't ready and TJ Dillashaw, obnoxiously whiny though he might be, deserves a rematch. Meanwhile, 77kg champion Tyron Woodley unabashedly campaigned for big names over deserving challengers despite not having a single title defence to his (not very big) name. His wish was not granted, so at least there's that.

It's quite apparent, however, that new UFC owners WME-IMG are keen on drinking, bottling and selling the McGregor Kool-Aid. They want the UFC to start earning more money, and they want to do it ASAP due to contract stipulations that will net them hundreds of millions of dollars if they can seriously up earnings by the end of June 2017. They plan to do this with a mix of tent-pole events a la UFC 205 (next up: The return of Ronda Rousey at UFC 207) and cost-cutting that, in some places, seems awfully shortsighted. Expect a big roster cull in the coming months, too.

Don't get me wrong: I, of all people, certainly can't say crazy circus fights are intrinsically bad. Many fighters, despite choosing one of the most insane career paths possible, are dull-arse people, and I love a good trash-talk laden storyline as much as the next guy. And there's no denying we've gotten some phenomenal fight cards this year. But when the organisation that touts itself as the NFL of MMA begins routinely shafting top tier talent -- its biggest asset -- in favour of eyeball-drawing absurdity or Once-In-A-Life-Time sensation, I can't help but feel that things are out of whack. This stuff wears thin after a while, and if the UFC puts all its efforts behind pre-existing stars at the expense of new talent, eventually the stars are gonna burn out, with nobody to take their place. On top of that, it's a slippery slope. Right now, the UFC is a place where the best fighters usually end up fighting the best. Meanwhile, in boxing the best fighters call their own shots and often avoid the hell out of each other. I don't want MMA to transform into that kind of shitshow.

I am getting sick of obviously contrived beefs.

I am also getting sick of obviously contrived beefs. Again, the occasional nasty war of words is fun. I don't doubt that what McGregor and Aldo had, or what Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier still have (assuming Jones can stop sabotaging his career) is real. Real rivalries and stories are the lifeblood of fight sports. They draw people in. You don't have to be an obsessive diehard to appreciate them. But when other fighters try to imitate those rivalries to drum up interest, it's often cringe-inducing. More and more, that's becoming the general tenor of the UFC: "Rawr, grrrr, I don't like you for reasons!" "Bark, moo, meow, woof! I dislike you as well. Let us trade pithy insults." Once upon a time, I loved guys like Gegard Mousasi because they were silent killers. These days? Not so much.

Even McGregor's own "feud" with ex-lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez came off as petty rather than momentous. I mean, come on, the thing with the chair? What breathtaking silliness. For everything else they said to each other, you could've swapped out any other fighter and had basically the same scenario. It wasn't unique or special. For me personally, the bickering kinda sucked the wind out of the fight. I remember being beyond stoked for McGregor vs Aldo -- literally shaking with anticipation before the fight started -- but I didn't even feel compelled to watch McGregor vs Alvarez live, despite the fact that it was the more historically significant fight.

Still, this is McGregor's shtick, and there's no denying it works. I've read spicy takes lamenting that this isn't "the real Conor McGregor", which I think is patently inaccurate. Diehard fight fans might love the soothsaying, fight poet version of McGregor -- the one who compares himself to ancient Irish warriors and makes the whole sport feel a thousand times grander than it really is -- but he's always had a temperamental, petulant side. He's always been happy to yell incoherent threats and say his opponents are "like women". It's just easier to ignore when he follows it up with some lofty metaphor about lions and gazelles. He did not do that this time. He didn't need to. In the end, UFC 205 still broke "every record", and Alvarez admitted that he fought a stupid fight because McGregor got in his head.

He’s always been happy to yell incoherent threats and say his opponents are “like women”. It’s just easier to ignore when he follows it up with some lofty metaphor about lions and gazelles.

Despite all that, I have to admit that when I finally got around to watching McGregor fight Alvarez, I still got chills. McGregor's striking was smooth and powerful as ever, and his timing was beautiful. And holy shit, that moment when he put his hands behind his back in the second round. He risked history against a dude with bricks for fists to showboat like an arsehole, but it totally summed up what makes McGregor special: He's not afraid to look like an idiot.

Despite that, he went on to make history, and he made it look effortless. Sure, McGregor's received special treatment from the UFC in recent times, but there's no denying he earned most of this. And so, the moment when he floored Alvarez, and it set in that he'd once again achieved everything he said he would, pretty much in the exact fashion he claimed he would, it was hard not to be amazed.

Then McGregor spent his post-fight interview throwing a fit about only being handed one belt to hoist in victory, and things stopped feeling larger than life. For better or worse, that's pretty much the McGregor era in a nutshell: Amazing moments we'll never forget surrounded by a bunch of dumb bullshit we wish we could.


    I don't watch UFC but this article was so well written I couldn't help but finish it. Props Nathan.

    McGregor holds two championships in two different weight classes, but he's never actually defended his Featherweight championship that he won last year on Dec 12.

    No doubt that he's backed up his smack talk, and he's a great self-promoter. But to me, if you're not defending championships, you're not really a champion.

    Thanks for the article Nathan. Always enjoy your take on the UFC latest. Its too early to call yet but I don't like where this is heading. Many fighters have already called it and the UFC is following boxing to becoming more and more show and less and less sport. It is frustrating to see so many amazing fighters getting passed over to cater for McGregors needs. Ill admit I love to watch the guy fight and he is an amazing talent but if he keeps two belts hostage without defending either of them i'd rather he just go away. Can you believe that there is actually a possibility he could do this and challenge for the welterweight belt if he feels like it? Or the fact that because he is going to be a father he wants to take some time off and may even not fight until this time next year therefore holding up the featherweight division for two years at that point without a title fight of any kind? What will the UFC look like when McGregor eventually decides to pack it all in? The McGregor era will be transformative and it may not be for the best. Bring on the fighters union!

    Mcgregor is by far the best thing to happen to the UFC.

    I watched this at Event Cinema in a VMAX, there were several hundred people in there and they cheered every time McGregor appeared.

    It's lightning in a bottle, It's Chael Sonnen's Schtick mixed with the martial artistry of Anderson Silva.

    I've been loving McGregor since he first appeared and the absolutely crazy thing is that he's lived up to the hype.. which was immense.

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