A rematch with Khabib Nurmagomedov looms large as Irish star makes grand arrival at UFC 257
Every year seemingly brings a new version of Conor McGregor, and ‘the Notorious One’ Mark 3, on display this week at Fight Island, Abu Dhabi, brings a new measure of the man.
More urbane, more mature, more aware of his power and worth within the UFC – and not flaunting it with some of the crassness of the past. There was some PR flair, of course, arriving at the island on a billionaire’s yacht, doing his stretching and workouts on deck for the cameras, before a ‘presidential’ arrival down the plank for all to see.
The top four pay per views of all time for the UFC, a huge yet still fledgling fight league 28 years old this year, have McGregor’s name embossed on them. His fights with Khabib Nurmagomedov, Donald Cerrone, Jose Aldo, Eddie Alvarez and the two fights with Nate Diaz are six of the top eight UFC pay per views, not to mention the mega-event with Floyd Mayweather which grossed over half a billion pounds.
It is a measure of Conor McGregor’s value to the UFC that it was the Irishman who announced that his next fight would be a rematch with Dustin Poirier, an opponent whom he bamboozled on his Las Vegas debut seven years ago, beginning a climb to sporting superstardom that was unimaginable to us at the time, but deep and alive in the psyche of one of the great masters of showmanship in sport.
We have seen McGregor go from that shooting star in 2014, to the wrecking ball madman who rose and rose, to the powerbroker he has now become. As many hate him as love him, his social media presence is enormous and from that power base, every fight, every event he takes part in, is a new McGregor Show.
He changes, and he has changed: from the irascible, public troublemaker who threw a metal dolly at a bus, the vicious put-down merchant, playing to the gallery, the ostentatious suited motormouth, the killer in the cage, they are all alter-egos of a fighting athlete capable – close to 90% of the time – to pull off what he promises. And that is what speaks to the hardcore fans of mixed martial arts, and intrigues those on the margins wondering what all the fuss is about. The UFC has always been founded on market forces.
The bigger you are, the bigger your can become with them. And McGregor has become part of the UFC empire. Right now, even though they are always developing stars, McGregor is the easiest star to market. That is why UFC President Dana White was at pains this week to point out that it is possible to see on the fight itself this weekend, there is also more intrigue than the first time the two men met, when Poirier was stopped in 106 seconds of brilliance from ‘Mystic Mac’.
Poirier, since then, has significant victories over major names – Max Holloway, Eddie Alvarez, Justin Gaethje, Anthony Pettis – while McGregor has fought four times since becoming a two weight belt holder in the UFC, though also amassing huge wealth and notoriety. The UFC needs him, and needs him to win, because a rematch with Khabib is on the cards this year, though perhaps the bitterness of their build up in 2018 will have evaporated this time. McGregor was beaten by Nurmagomedov in Las Vegas, but the second fight still intrigues the fans.
There is a road map and a narrative for the second fight, and McGregor will no doubt lay down the gauntlet against Poirier and show he is as hungry, athletically, as he ever was. He has made extraordinary money, and now it is the legacy of his fighting deeds, aged 32, that needs one final polish. A few years back, when McGregor was in his pomp, I made a documentary in Ireland for BT Sport, about McGregor, and his popularity made one senior media figure tell me that if he ran for President, he would probably have a chance.
It was arguably far fetched, and those days are gone, however imaginary, but having met all of his family, and made a study of where he was born and grew up, it is truly one of sport’s remarkable narratives. As McGregor’s agent Audie Attar told me about the change in McGregor, particularly as it relates to the feud with lightweight champion Nurmagomedov.
“There were a lot of bad things said and bad things done from both sides,” he said.
“From our side, I know him intimately and he wasn’t happy with a lot of things he said. You can make apologies but you have to correct them with your actions going forward. I know who he is, I know what he’s all about and represents. I also know how he’s such a polarising figure that whatever he says people will react.
“So things get blown way out of proportion. Conor McGregor has always represented something we can relate to. That’s what has made his story so compelling. Going from nothing to something. And believing in it and saying it and achieving it. We all have that in us.”