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Amidst a maelstrom of controversy, the conclusion of UFC 229 has been arguably the biggest story in sports over the past few days. There have been countless takes about the chaos that followed Khabib Nurmagomedov’s victory over Conor McGregor, but little of the discussion has centered on what the fight means for the Irish superstar’s career.
This is the biggest star in MMA, and he was decisively beaten and forced to submit. McGregor only lost once before in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, but back then, he still possessed a championship that provided him with relevance. Now, his path is much less clear. He could rematch Nurmagomedov, although the first fight provided far less reason for optimism about a rematch than the Nate Diaz fight did; and for what it’s worth, McGregor doesn’t much deserve the rematch. McGregor’s loss to Nurmagomedov is the most substantial of his career, and yet, that hasn’t really been a focal point of conversation.
To some degree, it’s understandable that the wild brawl after the fight would command the most attention. It was a shocking scene regardless of which specific fighters were involved. However, the fight itself fading into the background is also a reflection of a new phase of McGregor’s career. It might seem as if that’s a bad thing for McGregor, but in fact it’s more positive than negative.
As McGregor rose through the ranks, the big question was whether he could fight at the level he could talk. McGregor had all the star potential in the world, but fighters with big personalities can only get so far if they can’t compete at the highest level. Phil Baroni had the personality to be the biggest star of his era, but he wasn’t able to beat fighters past a certain level, and so, over time his star faded. McGregor needed to back up his bluster.
The quest to prove he was the elite fighter he proclaimed himself to be infused stakes into all of McGregor’s fights. It was clear McGregor could be a transcendent star, but he needed to be able to beat the likes of Chad Mendes, Jose Aldo and Eddie Alvarez in order to attain that status. When McGregor proved his merit with explosive knockout victories, he became the biggest star in the sport. When he raised two championship belts in the air in Madison Square Garden after besting Alvarez, there was no denying McGregor’s ability. MMA fans knew he was really good, and, if anything, casual fans were even more taken in by the myth because casual sports fans tend to assume the best-known athletes from a given sport are also the best even when they no longer are.
That is when the second phase of McGregor’s career began. McGregor no longer needed to prove himself every time out. Even if he lost the competitive fire over time, he could continue to trade in on his previous accomplishments and his omnipresent promotional ability. The boxing bout with Floyd Mayweather Jr. made perfect sense in this context. It didn’t matter if McGregor lost; nobody proclaimed him a fraud, and he left that loss an even bigger star than he went in.
This was the exact situation again on Saturday in Las Vegas. Fans came to see the Conor McGregor Show. He was his boisterous self at all the pre-fight events. He strutted around with his arms at his sides like Vince McMahon to loud cheers. There was a smoke show. Of course, he provided controversy, as he so often does these days. The fans came for the big-fight experience that is a McGregor fight, and they got exactly that. They didn’t go home disappointed -- a little scared if they attended live, perhaps, but not disappointed.
There was a time in McGregor’s career when a big loss would pose existential questions about his fighting future. That time is over. The fact that McGregor lost at UFC 229 was almost incidental to the whole experience of the event. He’ll come back next time and be just as big a star, if not an even bigger one. McGregor has reached a point, as Mike Tyson once did, where the spectacle of him competing is enough. McGregor isn’t as famous as Tyson was, but he has more of an emotional connection with fans rooting for him to succeed than did Tyson, who played the role of villain for much of his active career. That emotional connection, when combined with the spectacle of it all, will keep this train rolling for quite some time, provided McGregor is willing.
There is of course a downside to all of this. For fans invested in the sport of MMA heavily, it can be sad when wins and losses take a backseat to bravado and star power. McGregor will likely have many fights in the future bigger on pay-per-view than his showdown with Jose Aldo, but it’s unlikely he’ll ever have another fight with stakes so high from a legacy standpoint. McGregor has made it to a higher level; a little thing like a tapout loss isn’t going to stop him now.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.