I’m a casual UFC fan at best. I mostly watch boxing now. This is probably due to the fact that I saw my UFC hero Anderson Silva shatter his leg against the shin of Chris Weidman in UFC 168. I watched a living legend turn his leg into a snap bracelet, so you’ll forgive me if my appetite for that shade of combat sports is diminished. I popped back in when McGregor and Rousey were in their heyday (I even watched the Ultimate Fighter 17), and that’s why I couldn’t ignore the allure of the Notorious One returning. I’ve even followed his Instagram in the past few weeks to watch his training sessions (while enduring his incessant whiskey ads). I was excited for his comeback and I figured that this was as good a time as any to get back into it.
This Saturday night, I watched the bulk of UFC 246 on my phone via sketchy streaming sites where the video would pause and restart every half minute or so. Fights played on while I went through my nightly chores: wash the dishes, sterilize the baby bottles, refill the formula maker and bottle warmer, top off the water boiler and coffee maker. Around the time I finished up, the main promos were starting. I sat down, pulled up the bootleg feed on my laptop and got ready to watch McGregor return to the Octagon after 15 long months.
Then, as McGregor strut out to the ring, my feed died. My internet was fine, but someone told the pirate-fighting powers-that-be and my feed when kaput. A minute later, I was able to refresh and video finally came back. Except now, Conor McGregor was sitting on top of the Octagon with the flag of Ireland draped across his shoulders. The fight was over.
I just missed the details of it. A couple of seconds later, I watched it on the replays and the details began to emerge. Conor McGregor broke Cowboy’s nose and cut him above the eye with his shoulder. You read that right, his shoulder. In an early clinch, McGregor whipped his shoulder around so fast and so hard that he broke the UFC legend’s nose and opened up his eye. Then McGregor quickly finished off the fight with a leg kick to the head and a flurry of punches on a dazed Cerrone. What a way to win a fight. What a way to make a comeback.
I could only laugh. It was Jose Aldo all over again. Two years ago, Conor McGregor caught lightning in a bottle and won a fight in speedy spectacular fashion. Then on Saturday night, he did it again. Admittedly, “Cowboy” Cerrone isn’t on the same level of competition as Jose Aldo, but you can argue that the stakes were just as high, even without a belt on the line. McGregor has a lot to prove if he wants to stay on top of the UFC and potentially tens of millions of dollars in career earnings hinged upon this fight.
My thoughts after the bout were the same after the Jose Aldo fight. “That was very impressive, but I don’t know what it means.” The unusual nature of the fight leaves my questions about McGregor unanswered. Is his conditioning enough to go the distance? Can he hold his own if he has to grapple at an elite level? Can he beat Khabib?
As I started to run through the scenarios in my head, I realized that this is the appeal of McGregor. I remembered why I loved watching him fight. First, he is an incredible fighter. His striking is elite and thrilling to watch. Every now and then, you can see flashes of Jeet Kune Do and the Karate stance is a nice break from the Muay Thai/MMA style.
His skill isn’t unusual, lots of fighters are great. What sets McGregor apart is the feeling that he’s getting so big, he’ll pop. His hubris sets him up for a mighty fall and everyone in their schadenfreude wants to witness a mighty fall. McGregor takes a page out of the Floyd Mayweather Jr. playbook and builds up a persona that you either want to cheer for, or jeer against. Either way, no one is ambivalent about him. Mayweather Jr. built a career around building haters, but never losing. He made over a billion dollars in his career by walking the tight-rope of an ego-maniac that backed it up.
The difference here is that McGregor has some losses on his record but you somehow don’t care. You’re just glad he’s back in the mix. McGregor has accomplished much of what Mayweather Jr. has for marketability and he’s done it without the perfect record. But I suspect that in order to continue generating interest, he can’t rack up losses against sub-elite opponents. Two things sell an MMA Pay-Per-View: A loaded card, and a big star. This card was anything but loaded (although Maycee Barber showed an insane amount of heart against Roxanne Modafferi in the prelims by fighting on a torn ACL). The draw here was the star: Conor, the Notorious One.
Saturday was just a reminder of the power of a star. It’s rare that a non-title fight gets the Pay-Per-View treatment, and McGregor already has been the headliner for 5 out of the top 6 Pay-Per-View UFC fights of all time. Time will tell for the numbers on this past fight, but I suspect it was no slouch either. Dana White estimates over a million (which would make it top 15 all time)
Personally, I like seeing McGregor succeed. “A rising tide lifts all boats,” is an adage that I think can be applied here for all of combat sports (yes, including boxing). I want to see him fight Khabib again. I want to see him fight Masvidal as a welterweight. I want to see a McGregor v. Diaz 10. Conor, he’s not a perfect fighter. He’s not like Floyd. But this weekend should be proof that he doesn’t need to be. He’s thrilling to watch, win, lose or draw.