In the turbulent world of professional sport, there is nothing that fixates fans like an athlete's rise or fall. Where the former is thrilling and life-affirming, the latter is morbidly fascinating, leaving analysts to dissect how such a grim fate befell such a talented career.
For "The Notorious" Conor McGregor, there have been many instances in which the public have prematurely claimed that he is on the downward spiral. After Nick Diaz choked him out at UFC 196, it was believed that his unparalleled mystique had been crushed. But soon enough, he returned to reclaim a win against the Stockton icon before making history by clinching the lightweight strap against Eddie Alvarez, and becoming the first UFC fighter to hold two titles simultaneously.
Although he remains one of only two men to ever take a round from the Dagestani phenom, Conor’s emphatic loss to arch nemesis Khabib Nurmagomedov prompted similar cries that the man was now incapable of recapturing the magic that'd made him into the biggest star in MMA history.
Dustin vs Conor at UFC 264 weigh-in - Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesNow, after two consecutive losses to Dustin ‘The Diamond’ Poirier, a man that he'd handily trounced seven years prior, Conor's place in the ever-evolving world of mixed martial arts and combat sports as a whole is as tenuous as it ever has been.
Ever since he dispatched Marcus Brimage with a hail of precise punches at UFC On Fuel TV 9 in 2014, no one has questioned Conor’s position as one of the UFC’s biggest stars. Partly due to his undeniable drawing power as a transcendent figure, but also because, on any given night, Conor’s formidable striking and unorthodox style could put away some of the best that the sport has to offer. And while there are undoubtedly bouts that he could still win, one thing was made abundantly clear on Saturday: for all the intangible energy that once surrounded the Irish fighter, and the flashes of brilliance that allowed him to claim the number one spot on the Forbes list of highest-paid athletes, the Conor McGregor that sat on the floor with a broken tibia and levelled an indigent tirade at his opponent is as mortal as the rest of us.
Rendered a betting underdog as he entered the octagon, Conor’s frenzied display at UFC 264 was a startling reminder that he is no longer as untouchable as he once was. Where he’d previously defeated Poirier and other opponents, such as perennial featherweight great Jose Aldo, with his aura and aptitude for trash talk-- before they even stood across from him-- the Conor of 2021 is now trying to win via guillotine chokes and shooting for takedowns just days after claiming that he only counts knockout losses and illegally holding Poirier’s glove to allow him to land upkicks.
As for his pre- and post-fight comments about Poirier leaving on a stretcher or in a bodybag, these remarks represent a serious departure from the typically pragmatic fighter who’d generally shed the tough talk once the fight concluded, and equally, who once said of Dustin Poirier himself that "I cannot hate the man who has the same dreams as me."
Conor at UFC 264 - Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesHaving previously outlined his philosophy as "cocky in prediction, confident in preparation but always humble in victory or defeat," the Conor of today has turned into a more villainous character, who will berate his opponents and threaten to kill them and their family in their sleep in the wake of a loss. But other than the wounded pride or shattered leg that he suffered this past weekend, what the fight and its fallout has made clear is that neither his physical being nor his public image are as impervious to damage as they once were.
To understand this, we must compare and contrast McGregor at the height of his fame and popularity to the man that we see now. After making upwards of $100 million from his glorified exhibition bout with Floyd Mayweather in August of 2017, Conor would embark on a period of increased estrangement from civilized society and the discipline that’d made him a star.
After he infamously hopped on a private plane to confront the-UFC Lightweight Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and defend the honour of teammate Artem Lobov from the Dagestani’s camp by throwing a dolly at a bus window, the ensuing fallout felt like an unfortunate turning point for Conor. Forced to plead guilty to charges of disorderly conduct and burdened with the knowledge that he’d injured innocent bystanders, UFC President Dana White would go out of his way to inform the world that "this is not the Conor McGregor that I know" but added that "I don’t think anyone is going to be a huge Conor McGregor fan after this."
The UFC ultimately decided not to take any further action, perhaps dissuaded by the dollar signs in reach-- and a title fight between McGregor and Khabib was scheduled for UFC 229. Despite losing in the fourth round via submission, the fact that McGregor’s wayward behaviour had played a role in creating the most purchased pay-per-view card in the company’s history would ensure that he was still given carte blanche to do what he wanted.
Despite abstaining from stepping into the octagon for a further two years after the loss, it wasn’t enough to keep Conor out of trouble. If fans were willing to accept Dana White’s attempt to fan the flames of McGregor’s wrongdoing by insinuating that it was out of character at the time, the maelstrom of sexual assault allegations and violent public incidents that’d follow in the intervening years certainly made it a lot harder for them to accept any explanation going forward. Still, by the time that he was ready to square off against an opponent that wasn’t a 50+ year old man in a Dublin pub, Conor was allowed to do so on his own, typically-exceptional terms.
After winning against an ailing Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, McGregor purported himself to be a much humbler man, and would carry this mentality into his January 2021 contest with Dustin Poirier. With both men older and wiser than they were during their first meeting, the two were cordial throughout the promotional cycle, and after losing in the second round via KO, Conor was decidedly gracious in defeat.
Dustin Poirier wins against Conor McGregor at UFC 257 - Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty ImagesNo matter which of the two personas you believe to be an act, it is evident that this loss changed Conor McGregor and has festered inside him to the point that it has all but revoked the folk hero status he once carried. Where Dana was once happy to make concessions or excuses for his leading export, he’s now quick to condemn Conor’s decision to attack Dustin’s home life and claimed that “family has nothing to do with it” while onlookers both well-known and otherwise deemed the fallout from the main event to be a new “low” for The Notorious.
Rather than just dent his credibility in the MMA realm, it must also be noted that the talk of his next boxing-crossover fight with Manny Pacquiao had already slowed down after his first loss to Poirier. The combination of the public’s revulsion at his behaviour and the fact that he’s won one solitary fight since 2016 means that the idea of him returning to the sweet science could be deaded. Particularly when public goodwill for McGregor is cascading through the floor as he continually labels Dustin’s victory an "illegitimate win."
From coming off as more psychotic and self-parodying than quick-witted in the pre-fight press conferences, to remaining adamant that he’ll "spend six weeks on a crutch" before beginning to gear up for the next fight, the public’s mounting frustration with McGregor’s indignation is best summarized by former UFC Bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz:
"After multiple losses like that, you tend to sit on your hands and shut up. We’re not seeing that. We’re not seeing the silence, we’re not seeing the humility. There’s a position where you get smashed sometimes and you have to accept that as a fighter. That is part of why we do martial arts, is to accept the losses and the wins and grow from them. When you don’t accept these losses, how do you grow? How do you fill the gap?”
With McGregor’s focus deviating from championships in order to center on an obsessive thirst for revenge, Cruz’s comments suggest that if he doesn’t pause to take stock, The Notorious could end up not only chasing the losses on his record, but the loss of himself along the way.
Placed in a truly precarious position for the first time in his career, only time will tell if McGregor will be able to summon that irrepressible spirit that made him a superstar in the first place. While another fight against Poirier has been deemed an inevitability by all parties, Dustin entering talks to fight lightweight champion Charles "Du bronxs'' Olivera in December of this year means that, if conventional matchmaking logic applies, McGregor should have to go through a contender such as Rafael Dos Anjos, Justin Gaethje or Tony Ferguson before he's even considered for a rematch. Whatever way they go, this may be the acid test for how the UFC gauges the audience’s interest in him-- and the prospective fourth fight against Poirier is absolutely a must-win if he still has any hope of being viewed among the elite at 155lbs.
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