March 5, 2016: a date that will live in lightweight history.
That's right: At UFC 197, the biggest non-Ronda Rousey star in MMA history will descend in a ring of light upon the lightweight division. The lightweights should be on all fours in gratitude. As the shimmering man himself said, "the lightweight division needs him" even more than he needs it.
"The division is struggling big time," McGregor said last month after winning the featherweight belt at UFC 194. "The division needs me—I don't need the division. So I'll play it by ear and see."
The stance seems even more justified now than it did then; the 155ers are on a cold streak. Anthony Pettis and Khabib Nurmagomedov can't stay healthy. Donald Cerrone is a welterweight now. Tony Ferguson is great but unknown. Nate Diaz and Dustin Poirier need more wins.
When the Irishman comes charging in on his white steed, he'll do so at the top of the division, as he's receiving an immediate shot at champion Rafael dos Anjos.
Not long after the big news broke, oddsmakers installed McGregor as the underdog to dos Anjos, via MMAjunkie.
Wait a second. Isn't that kind of strange?
Unfamiliar, yes. Strange, no sir or ma'am. Dos Anjos is more than an equation-balancing belt warmer. He's the best lightweight on the planet right now. He might be the most well-rounded fighter, at any weight class, in the UFC today.
If he can defeat the burning-hot star that is McGregor, as the early odds indicate he will do, he could establish himself alongside luminaries like BJ Penn and Frankie Edgar as one of the best 155-pounders ever.
It's not his fault you don't agree with that or, worse, have never watched him fight. The mild-mannered Brazilian prefers to keep a low profile. That's fine, to each his own and so forth, but it's not helping his fight career.
A win over McGregor would give him more than a resume line item. The resulting energy transfusion would, more than any other possible win, vault him out of his status as MMA's most anonymous champion and on to the level his talent suggests he deserves.
The UFC shared the "first look" at the fight poster before dos Anjos' rematch Cerrone. Can you guess which one is the champ and which one is the challenger?
Dos Anjos has earned a higher status than this, and not just because he has the strap. It's how he did it and who he did it to.
In an interview with Damon Martin of Fox Sports, the champ summarized his recent success thusly:
More important is to fight against the best. You do it the hard way, you can't do it the easy way. That's what's most important for me. I go back home, before I go to sleep, I put my head on my pillow, I know I fought against the best, that's the most important thing to me.
Oh no, did I doze off? Sorry. What I was going to say was that this quote is classic RDA: You nod your head in agreement, then you nod right off to sleep.
But it illustrates why dos Anjos didn't receive any shortcuts for box-office appeal. He took the scenic route to the top, winning eight of nine contests in two years to reach his title shot with then-champ Pettis. (His only loss came to Nurmagomedov, the undefeated and oft-injured phenom who hopefully heals up soon and gets back to action.) Along the way, dos Anjos became a polished and fearless fighter, with powerful punches and kicks on his feet, solid takedowns, sound defense, a deep gas tank and grappling like molten sentient lead.
Cerrone has fallen twice to dos Anjos—most recently in a 66-second knockout that chased Cowboy from the division. Pettis lost hard, too. So did Diaz and Benson Henderson. In his current five-fight win streak, three came by knockout and four came against guys in the official UFC rankings.
After a good-but-not-great 15-6 start to his career, something clearly changed for dos Anjos, who is now 31. Since 2011, dos Anjos is 10-1, all in the UFC.
That leads us to another aspect of the dos Anjos legacy that could potentially rectify itself at UFC 197: performance-enhancing drugs.
Before going any farther, let's be absolutely clear: dos Anjos has never failed any drug test for anything. He's not the first 31-year-old to look insanely ripped. He's not the first athlete to experience a mid-career resurgence.
Dos Anjos has denied each claim, but they're still there, hanging like a haze around him. As it happens, UFC 197 takes place in Las Vegas. As you know, Nevada is the new no-fly zone for performance enhancers, with probably the stiffest standards and penalties anywhere in the world. So a good potential fringe benefit of this fight for dos Anjos is the chance to pass those tests and clear the air.
This Conor RDA fight is in Vegas. RDA will be drug tested relentlessly. No one improves like he has without help. Highly suspicious.— FrontRowBrian® (@FrontRowBrian) January 9, 2016
That's a side mission, though. The main objective is McGregor. The fast-talking Dubliner has already drawn the champ farther out of his shell than anybody else. McGregor's famous "red panties" line, for example, came into being during an exchange with dos Anjos.
The champ, for his part, seems to understand McGregor presents a special opportunity and has done his level best to rise to the verbal challenge, as illustrated in his post-fight comments at UFC on Fox 17:
All those that say people will destroy me, I'm here with my belt. Hey, Mr. McGregor, if you want to come to lightweight division, this is my division, man. It's better to stay in featherweight division. I will fight you in Brazil. I will go to Ireland to fight you there. Whatever one, man. I'm here to stay.
We'll see at UFC 197. If he can dispatch the hottest fighter on Earth, it's hard to see anyone else with a stronger ownership claim on the lightweight division—now or at any other time.
Scott Harris writes about MMA for Bleacher Report. For more, follow Scott on Twitter.
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