In the beginning there was only Chael Sonnen.
It was inevitable others would follow.
A middleweight firebrand whose gift for talking the talk superseded his (admittedly formidable) ability to walk the walk, Sonnen went from journeyman to headliner virtually overnight, riding an over-the-top pro wrestling persona to three title shots and a prime spot on Fox television. Sonnen was brash in a sport where most men did their talking in the ring. He was confrontational in a sport where most fighters made a show of outward respect.
Most of all, he was genuinely different. Sonnen's tongue was always clearly in cheek. Much of his best material was lifted wholly from the wrestlers he enjoyed as a kid. He wasn't reinventing the wheel. He was appropriating it, taking something that demonstrably worked into a brand-new context.
Sure, Tito Ortiz was a colorful personality, and Don Frye flirted with a "Cowboy" character after wetting his mustachioed beak on the Japanese pro wrestling scene. But there was no one like Sonnen.
While some bristled at this infusion of goofiness and the occasional questionable comment into their oh-so-serious sport, the general consensus was that Sonnen had tapped into something at the heart of any great fight promotion: This was supposed to be fun. He was a man who discovered the secret to success and played his winning hand over and over again—until he tried to play it one too many times.
That's a story for another day. Sonnen is gone, hoisted by his own petard and two failed drug tests. But into the void he left behind, something must seep. And that something is named Conor McGregor, who main-events the UFC's return to Dublin, Ireland, on Saturday on Fight Pass (subscription required). You may have heard of him.
If you have, it's likely not because of his fights in the cage. In truth, he's competed in the UFC just twice, both times deep on the undercard, once so early in the night his bout was only available to the hardcores streaming on Facebook.
McGregor is a solid prospect, a 26-year-old Irish banger with a stiff left straight and the kind of fluid movement and footwork that makes longtime fans stand up and take notice. He might be something special one day. He might not. Like most on the Emerald Isle, his amateur wrestling pedigree is nonexistent. If it turns out he can't defend a takedown or defend himself off his back, he's destined for a frustrating career full of ups and downs.
Despite all this promise, unless you're the type of fan who streams international fight cards like Cage Warriors in the middle of a random Saturday afternoon, he likely slipped your notice—until, that is, he wowed the fight world on Ariel Helwani's The MMA Hour last March. McGregor made Helwani a fan, telling the sport's most prominent reporter right off the bat that he likes to "look the way I feel. And I feel f-----g amazing."
From there it was on. "They love me because I love myself," McGregor said, insisting he was already an Irish legend, even though he had yet to make his UFC debut. That would come later, a 67-second shellacking of Marcus Brimage that proved, to some extent, McGregor could back up the hype.
His insouciance was almost contagious. Watching him talk, mostly about himself, brought back the same feelings Sonnen evoked. This guy was fun. UFC President Dana White took McGregor under his wing from there. He was everything White loves in a fighter—a scrappy stand-up artist with a mouth that never stops moving.
White was beside himself in the build-up to McGregor's second UFC bout against Max Holloway, equating his early hype with Brock Lesnar's, a comparison so ludicrous it was almost laughable. Lesnar, famously, became the UFC's leading drawing card from his very first appearance, dominating the box office and established veteran opponents alike.
McGregor, on the preliminary card in Boston, seemed rather shabby by way of comparison—until his amazing entrance, when he was greeted like a true star by fans who are normally inclined to sit on their hands until the main attractions make their way to the cage.
Of course, that was in Boston. What better place for a promising Irish fighter to make his mark? But there was no way around it: Conor McGregor had the makings of something pretty special.
"I love that attitude," White told MMA Junkie after the fight. "He's pissed off he didn’t finish. Some guys will sit up here and go, 'Eh, well, I won.' No. He's pissed at himself that he didn't finish. Are you kidding me? Why am I promoting this kid? Why am I getting behind him? Because I love what he's about."
McGregor's cocky attitude, the one White fell in love with, is straight out of the Sonnen school of fight promotion. It's not the straight wrestling rip-off Sonnen so blatantly pulled off. McGregor's approach is somewhat more subtle. He isn't playing a character exactly. In the tradition of all great pro wrestlers, he's taking natural elements of his personality and turning them up to a This Is Spinal Tap 11.
As he told Bleacher Report's Duane Finley:
I'm not sure where it comes from really, it just seems like the right way to be. I'm in it to win it and I don't think a lot these other fighters are. It may seem like they are, but a lot of them aren't. It just feels right to be like this. I don't actually know where it came from...it's just the way I feel.
I suppose this competitive drive has always been in me, but I just don't see anything that impresses me around here with any of these people. I don't know when this attitude started, but none of these guys are on my level. That's just me commenting on what I see. None of these guys have what I have. None of these guys move like I move.
Irish MMA reporter Andrew McGahon from Severe MMA has been interviewing McGregor for years and said his cocky demeanor was obvious, if less overt, since Day 1.
"The biggest thing I've noticed in Conor is his awareness of what he is saying," McGahon told Bleacher Report in an email interview. "When he was younger and before the UFC, he would fly off with curses and having a laugh when someone was interviewing him. Now he's a little more cautious."
While caution isn't the first word that comes to mind when considering McGregor, his budding stardom has forced him to think about the consequences of his every word and deed. While American fans are knee deep in a debate about oversaturation and too much MMA, in many respects Ireland and other foreign locales are still very much in the introductory phase.
There has been unprecedented media coverage in the wake of McGregor's UFC debut in Ireland, including a feature on the BBC that dragged out the now ancient "human cockfighting" critique made famous by John McCain. In Ireland, McGregor isn't just a fighter—he's an ambassador for an entire sport.
The weight of that, some fans fear, may crush him where he stands.
"People worry he won't be putting in the training hours," McGahon said. "But I know he wakes guys up during the night and gets them to go down to the gym to roll or spar at 1 or 2 a.m. He is putting in a lot of work because he knows how much of a platform he is being put on, and that a loss could potentially bring him hurtling down to Earth.
"Conor knows that this event on Saturday will be broadcast into almost every home in Ireland. We only have a certain number of channels the whole country gets for free and 3E is in 98 percent of all homes in Ireland. He knows the nation will be watching on Saturday."
McGregor, for his part, shows no signs of being even the slightest bit nervous:
Pressure creates diamonds, my friend. This is a historic moment for my nation and I'm looking to grab it with both hands.
This means everything to me. No matter what goes on and what happens; nobody can take this away from me. Nobody can deny what I've done in the time that I've done it. I'm only warming up here, and I'm just getting started. This definitely means everything to me. This is what I set out to do. I set out to bring the UFC back to Ireland. I set out to headline. I set out to get my teammates on. I set out to show the Irish public what true martial arts were all about. And here we are just a few days out.
There's a lot riding on this bout—both for McGregor and the UFC. His opponent, former The Ultimate Fighter winner Diego Brandao, is his toughest challenge to date. But he's also an opponent McGregor was tailor-made to beat. An undisciplined striker without a stellar takedown game, Brandao should be there for McGregor to hit. And hitting is what he does best.
Win or lose, McGregor's story is far from over. But how he does against Brandao is a clear barometer for his potential in the Octagon. The furor surrounding McGregor is almost beyond rational.
What's most crazy about his ascension to the top of the sport is how little we know about McGregor as a fighter. It's rare that the UFC takes this much time and expends this much effort to bolster a fighter of unknown quality. Normally, a rising star must pass a series of challenges before getting the promotion's full efforts.
McGregor, it seems, is being taken at face value. He carries himself like a star and demolishes middling fighters like a star. Ipso facto, for now, he's a star.
Does he warrant the hype? We're about to find out. And that's something worth getting excited about.