Can UFC Star Conor McGregor Survive Another Embarrassing Loss?

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterAugust 20, 2016

LAS VEGAS, NV - AUGUST 19:  Conor McGregor of Ireland steps onto the scale during the UFC 202 - Weigh-in in the Marquee Ballroom  in the MGM Grand Hotel/Casino on August 19, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Conor McGregor, a voluble Irishman with the swagger of a god and a left hand from heaven, talked his way into the spotlight, injecting the UFC right in the heart with a syringe of pure bravado.

He was the cure for what was ailing MMA at the time.

Before McGregor arrived as a savior, outside the cage the UFC was lacking the crackling energy so often found inside it. Though the sport was built on ultra-violence, it was also built on mutual respect and a certain conservatism. Though the typical cage fighter is tattooed from head to toe, muscles bulging and eyes aflame, most are lions with the voice of a mouse.

MMA is a millennial sport with an old man's ethos.

It attracts sanctimonious and serious competitors with old-fashioned values. Don't let the ink and muscles fool you—the unmitigated violence is just part of the job. Put your head down and work. MMA is about the wrestler's grind and the martial artist's show of respect; it was missing the trash talk—that so many in mixed martial arts (and other sports) consider unsportsmanlike—that has come to define today's culture.

That left a void, one so deep and profound that it sucked the Irish fighter in completely. The more he talked, the more he gained, no matter how ridiculous that talk might be.

McGregor said, in an interview with Chris Jones of Esquire: "Trash talk? Smack talk? This is an American term that makes me laugh. I simply speak the truth."

Fans ate it up. He called Nate Diaz a "Cholo Gangsta" and suggested Jose Aldo was on his period to rousing applause.

Everything he did worked—to the point, in public at least, Conor McGregor all but disappeared, replaced by his personas: "The Notorious" and "Mystic Mac." There had been great talkers in the sport before, fighters like Ken Shamrock and Chael Sonnen who were able to construct a solid fanbase on a foundation of questionable performances. McGregor was different.

Unlike Sonnen, whose athletic career faded just as his character blossomed, McGregor backed up everything he said. His mouth may have earned him his main event shot—but his fighting is what sold him to fans.

McGregor changed everything. This wasn't a man looking for camaraderie or to advance the cause of the arts, martial. He was a throwback, a fighter who remembered what the old men mumbling to themselves in every boxing gym knew and preached to deaf ears: It's called prizefighting for a reason.

And so McGregor pushed. He pushed opponents, looking for an edge and an angle, a way to sell an otherwise-forgettable foe as a rival for the ages. He pushed promoters, too, money always on his mind.

"The only weight I give a f--k about is the weight of them checks," McGregor told the media at a wild UFC 196 press conference. "And my checks are always super heavy."

You can make a good living as an exciting fighter whom fans love. But you don't become a pay-per-view star that way. Arturo Gatti was a regular on HBO despite being a B-fighter because his name was synonymous with drama. That, however, wasn't good enough to draw huge money. Gatti appeared in pay-per-view main events, both times as a B-side to an established superstar.

Without exception, every top draw in combat sports history combined superhuman charisma with superhuman, world-class fight skills. From Mike Tyson to Oscar De La Hoya to Floyd Mayweather Jr., the top stars at the box office first proved themselves to be the top fighters in the ring.

American fans, despite occasional cries to "think of the children" or the sanctity of the martial arts, love earned arrogance. There's a fine line between confidence and cockiness, and it's the same line that divides winning and losing. So long as McGregor wins, he can pull off his uncanny combination of Muhammad Ali and Ric Flair.

But losing, at least losing regularly, is not an option. Mayweather's "Money" character was a success because he backed up everything he said in the ring. That's the difference between Floyd and his one-time protege Adrien Broner. The younger boxer had the act down pat—everywhere but in the ring. That's the difference between compelling free television and a fight you can sell millions at $60 a pop.

And it's what makes this rematch with Diaz so important to McGregor's short-term future. Fairly or not, there are lingering doubts about McGregor's place in the fighting pantheon. You can make the case that his greatest wins, against Chad Mendes and Jose Aldo, were products of short notice and lucky punch, respectively. Being choked out by Diaz just confirmed for some the pre-existing doubts that lurked in the community.

Eric Jamison/Associated Press

McGregor's awful performance couldn't have come at a worse time. He was close enough to see the finish line—the heir to the box-office crown that had always been worn by a boxer. This was MMA's chance to show the world it had surpassed its more established fistic cousin.

But McGregor had to continue his winning ways to grab a stranglehold on the throne Mayweather left open with his retirement last year. Victory was paramount. While failure is part of athletic life, this particular misstep came just as success was required. He needs to win this fight and the inevitable Aldo rematch to maintain steady footing on what is now fairly shaky ground.

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In the last two years, McGregor and Ronda Rousey have taken a leap into the mainstream that's unprecedented in MMA history. They've become stars outside our niche, joining a list of peers from the broader sports world.

That kind of superficial stardom is unlikely to fade. McGregor is a name now, a lesser Kardashian in a reality television world. But that's not enough to sell a fight to the public.

Winning, in short, matters.

Even Tyson's drawing power couldn't survive athletic failure.
Even Tyson's drawing power couldn't survive athletic failure.CHARLES REX ARBOGAST/Associated Press

Mike Tyson remained a star after losses to Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis—yet subsequent fights drew estimations closer to 200,000 buys than the nearly 2 million souls willing to pay to see him before he faded into athletic oblivion. Manny Pacquiao's pay-per-view star has also dimmed since bad losses to Juan Manuel Marquez and Mayweather. Even Brock Lesnar, king of the UFC draws before McGregor, struggled at the box office after an embarrassing performance against Cain Velasquez, according to the Wrestling Observer Newsletter's Dave Meltzer (via Bloody Elbow).

MMA fans and pundits had only just begun to believe in McGregor's fighting prowess. It was too soon to throw doubt into that equation.

In some ways, these two Diaz fights are like a step off a carefully constructed road to stardom. McGregor took a risk in stepping up a weight class. He attempted to launch himself into the next stratosphere, to become a singular legend in a sport that's just found its way. He fell desperately, disastrously short.

Combat sports is still a pay-per-view business—and with Rousey's slow fade toward the movies and no other stars in sight, McGregor's success has become paramount, not just to him personally, but to the sport generally.

When he was pulled from UFC 200, there was no obvious replacement. The UFC, instead, has looked to the past to fill its superstar void, bringing Lesnar back into the fold and entering serious discussions with former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre.

But past is merely prologue, and nostalgia can only work for so long. The UFC needs a contemporary superstar, and McGregor has positioned himself perfectly to lead the company and its new owners into a glorious tomorrow, to make sure they didn't just light $4 billion on fire. But that tomorrow can turn dystopian in an instant.

Superstars in combat sports win. It's part of the duty description, a requirement to hold the job. Love him or hate him, MMA needs Conor McGregor—it needs someone in that position. This time, McGregor has to triumph—for the good of the sport.