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Things sure can change a lot in 18 minutes. That’s how long it took for Conor McGregor’s image to undergo a significant transformation, from that of a murderous puncher, capable of decapitating any man in four-ounce gloves put in front of him, to just another fighter who couldn’t defend one of Khabib Nurmagomedov’s takedowns.
McGregor told us that if Khabib had gotten off the bus back in April, “The Notorious” would be serving time for murder. But it was the Irishman who needed Herb Dean to intervene and stop him from being strangled to death. The chaos that ensued after the UFC 229 headliner ended may have directed our attention away from the hellacious beating the Dagestani put on the Dubliner, but two weeks removed, there’s simply no escaping the one-sidedness of the contest. McGregor is capable of striking like a cobra, but Khabib showed that counts for little when you have a python wrapped around your neck.
How does McGregor rebound from this? It’s a question we’ve asked of the Irishman before. When a late-replacement Nate Diaz withstood the storm long enough to score a come-from-behind submission victory back at UFC 196, we thought that McGregor might have met his ceiling; that the man who kept telling us he’d be a two-weight world champion might just be full of hot air.
Diaz had exposed two fatal weaknesses in the arsenal of “Mystic Mac”: a deficient ground game and a perilous lack of cardio. But an embittered dispute with UFC management and the fact that his scrap with Diaz was a barnburner gave us plenty of reasons to buy the rematch. McGregor was a risk-taker and a line-crosser, fighting up a weight class against a foe he’d vastly underestimated. The narrative the UFC pushed relentlessly in the build up to UFC 202 was that he was a different species of fighter entirely -- that rare breed didn’t just pay lip service to the “anyone, anywhere, anytime” ethos but who lived and died by it. Diaz’s size advantage was greatly embellished; the success McGregor had in that first eight minutes wildly exaggerated.
The mulligan with Diaz sold 1.6M buys -- a company record until UFC 229 -- and McGregor recaptured his momentum and (momentarily) silenced the doubters with his performance. He went 25 minutes with Stockton’s finest and won a nail-biting majority decision, demonstrating a temperament and resolve that had been absent in their first act. Surprise surprise, the king was back.
After that, “The Notorious” had just two fights in over two years. But his performances both in and outside of competition catapulted his star power even further into the heavens. His title-clinching performance opposite “The Underground King” Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 resembled a video game where all the cheat-codes were in play. His stoppage loss to one of boxing’s greats in Floyd Mayweather was more gracious than any serious pundit had predicted. Memory-searing sound bytes and endorsement deals punctuated every month of Mac’s life. Our mortification at his self-destructive antics post-Mayweather was matched only by our enthusiasm to see him back in his native habitat.
But that was the past, and in his present, there is a very real argument that McGregor isn’t a top five fighter in today’s lightweight division. Even if he stole a round from “The Eagle” at UFC 229, a sober appraisal of the fight shows that its conclusion was never really in doubt. McGregor wasn’t just mauled on the ground but was on the wrong end of the only knockdown of the contest. His promises to “bully” Khabib, to “bounce his head off the canvas” rang hollow; it took only seconds for him to tap to the neck crank.
Khabib outdid McGregor almost everywhere that the fight took place, and in sparking the post-fight melee did much to usurp his status as the UFC’s most volatile heel. He too can start fights outside the cage and threaten the nuclear option when UFC discipline beckons. He too can attach himself to Floyd Mayweather and flirt with other promotions. His English might be “not so good” but his words still have a way of imprinting themselves in the popular consciousness. The stoic Russian out to make men humble and smash faces; always on the look out for the next location.
If Nurmagomedov’s lack of interest in a rematch proves sincere -- and to be fair “The Eagle” has never been one to mince words -- then things really get interesting for McGregor. He talked a lot about his inextinguishable love for the sport in the build up to his bout with Khabib, and vigilantly defended himself against the criticism he fought for money. But if he’s not fighting to be the best in the world, if he’s essentially another contender fighting for the champion’s attention, can he really find the motivation to get back in there and trade leather with the likes of Kevin Lee and Dustin Poirier? When he’s out there rubbing shoulders with plutocrats and breaking records in the whiskey trade, is the trade-off -- the head trauma, the media, the scrutiny -- worth it? If ring rust really was the deciding factor in his underwhelming performance on Oct. 6, does he possess the fortitude to go back to the drawing board, put together a couple of wins and take a second shot at redemption?
That’s a decision that McGregor doesn’t have to make just yet. A looming showdown with the Nevada State Athletic Commission could put ample distance between him and an Octagon return, and he has plenty of matters to keep him occupied in the meantime. If and when he does get cleared to make the walk again, a rubber match with Diaz would still do big numbers, as would showcase fights against anyone else in the top 10 of the division.
But McGregor’s time as a champion may be well and truly behind him, and it’s not at all clear just yet what that looks like. We’ve seen who he is reaching for the stars; who is he when his back is up against the wall?