AS AT THE TIME of writing this piece, the whole MMA world is abuzz with the anticipation over who is going to step into the shoes of the reigning UFC Lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos, who has had to pull out of his highly-anticipated bout against the UFC’s box-office juggernaut, following a broken foot suffered in training. (Nate Diaz turned out to be the replacement).
While fighters get hurt all the time -- this is THE contact sport after all -- and match-ups are subject to constant change, what has drawn the attention to this particular incident has been the missed opportunity to witness something historic to happen in the sport of MMA, which has only been around for just over two decades.
Make no mistake about it, in the fastest growing sport in the world -- MMA -- there is nobody as big or as legitimate a star as the Dublin-born Conor McGregor. He was set out to accomplish what nobody else in the UFC had ever done before -- hold 2 championship belts simultaneously across 2 different weight divisions. A feat which would have made him a running candidate for the ubiquitous ‘Greatest of all Time’ discussion.
However, with the number of times that a fight has fallen out in the UFC due to injuries, it shouldn’t come as a major shock that another one failed to get going. But, this isn’t just any fight. This is a Conor McGregor fight – an event bigger than anything in today’s MMA landscape. How is it that a non-American Superstar has gone on to become the biggest and the most prominent face of the UFC, a quintessential American promotion?
The answer lies in the fact that Conor McGregor is unlike anything anyone has ever seen in the world of combat sports, let alone MMA, since the glory days of Ali. A brash, extroverted, media-savvy persona complementing a skillful and a highly intelligent martial artist, McGregor is the perfect representative for UFC that the promotions could have asked for. Highly polarizing for most of the initial part of his time in the UFC, ‘C-Mac’ has turned the corner with most of the skeptics in the last 6 months, following his dominant victories over the likes of long time Featherweight contender Chad Mendes and pound-for-pound kingpin Jose Aldo.
While a victory in the sport of MMA is not a surefire reflection of talent, given the little give of 4-oz gloves in use, Conor has been finishing his opponents with little or no trouble, for the most part. So, while you have a marketing goldmine in the fast-talking Irishman throwing verbal jabs at every one of his colleagues in the fight promotion, he is letting the company stock up as the watching audience increasingly await the time the braggadocios Irishman meets his maker.
However, while it is a fact that in combat sports, it is rare to go undefeated, Conor’s ability to stay ahead of his opponents, both in and out of the cage, makes me wonder if there will be a time when we see Conor defeated.
For years, the striking in MMA was all about the Thai kickboxing style, with the chopping leg kicks and the straight right hands making up for the chunk of the stand-up offense. With the success of Machida and to a lesser extent Pettis, we did see the focus shift to cutting angles and incorporating the wide stance deployed in traditional martial arts such as Karate and Taekwondo. However, it was Conor who was the most successful, employing the said stance and complementing it with his rangy and effective boxing technique to keep his opponents at range while he unleashed his fearsome kicks and punches.
Also key in his success has been his mindset towards the sport.
One can’t help but believe him when he says that he is obsessed with the fight game, as he is able to out-think, out-prepare and outwork his opponents in the cage. For a guy who cuts a tremendous amount of weight to make the 145 lbs limit, he sure has the conditioning to go toe-to-toe with featherweight mainstays such as Chad Mendes, Max Holloway and others.
For someone who is perceived to be brash and egotistical, it was he who identified the value-add of a ‘Movement Coach’ in the prep for an MMA fight, and now that is the rage amongst fighters. But the most impressive of them all, he debunked the myth of ‘never kicking a wrestler’, in the fear of being taken down, by constant front snap kicks aimed at Mendes’s midsection, winding the title challenger in exhaustion before knocking him out.
It is this unprecedented fight IQ in the brash Irishman that makes him a really unique commodity on the UFC roster, full of cookie cutter fighters trying to make it to the next level in the game. On closer look, though, one can see that McGregor sees the fight game different than others too. While at the forefront in posturing and instigating emotions out of his opponents prior to the fight, Conor is all about respect for his fellow fighters when the business is done and the dust is settled following his fight.
In an era of short attention spans and easily available information online, it is to the credit of the UFC and Conor McGregor himself that the MMA fans can’t get enough of him, despite being on the verge of being overexposed in the media. He may be polarizing to many, but it is undeniably true when the Irish Phenom proclaims that we are all living in the ‘Conor McGregor era’….. And what an era it is to be a fan!