At UFC 202 on Saturday night, Conor McGregor risked it all to a degree most human beings would never consider. He risked his career, his reputation, his swaggering, over-the-top, best-in-all-the-land persona, and he did it when he didn't have to.
Life is hard sometimes. That's a fact and also probably a bad way to start a story, but here we are. Life is difficult for everyone and even someone who chooses to live their life carefully—never daring to take a risk—will experience pain, sadness, humiliation and defeats too numerous to count.
Understandably, people tend to avoid those scenarios. They stick to the good moments: sunshine, swimming pools and movies on demand. Those little yogurt cups with the fruit in the separate chamber. I understand petting dogs is a popular activity. And whatever Snapchat is, people seem to enjoy it.
They don't enjoy risks. They don't enjoy putting themselves in a situation where losing everything they have is not only possible but likely. They don't ask for gut checks or to be held accountable or to be judged by the world. The human brain just isn't wired that way. McGregor asked for exactly that.
McGregor lost to Nate Diaz by submission at UFC 196 and then walked to the press conference and immediately asked for another fight with the guy who'd just beaten him.
He'd lost to a bigger opponent, at a higher weight class, on short notice and then asked for a rematch at that same weight. A weight where he had a distinct disadvantage. He asked for it in front of the whole world. A different breed of fighter may taken some time off to regroup. Or requested an easier fight. Or taken the rematch but insisted it be contested closer to their own weight class of 155 pounds, rather than 170.
But he waded right back into the fray, against a man all wrong for him, in a move that seemed brash bordering on incredibly stupid.
He's one of the biggest stars in a sport with few of them, and he didn't have to do that. He had every option available to a top fighter. But he had something to prove, he needed people to know. That wasn't him. So he took a huge risk.
He's been taking them for a while. When Jose Aldo, then featherweight champion got hurt and withdrew from their fight at the 11th hour, McGregor took on a dangerous—and very different—Chad Mendes. He was a wrestler, which was supposedly McGregor's kryptonite. McGregor knocked him out in Round 2.
When then lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos suffered an injured and pulled out of their fight at UFC 196, McGregor agreed to take a fight against Nate Diaz on 10 days' notice. That time, he lost. His first loss inside the Octagon.
It's news to absolutely no one that the world demands a winner. The UFC, the fans, sponsors, all value winning above everything else, and that value has shaped many fighter's careers. Most play it safe. McGregor dared to be great.
Two losses in a row would have been devastating to him and his mystique. When you claim you're the best and you've built yourself up with a series of charismatic promos and by dominating press conferences and stealing thunder at every opportunity, you can't afford to lose two in a row. It's hard to be a star in the fight world, and it's even harder when you've painted an orange and green target on your back.
He gambled huge and risked it all, and he almost lost.
He starts out the first round looking sharp, deploying leg kicks and unloading with his big left hand. He's fast and technical and firing on all cylinders. Diaz seems surprised by the tactic but in typical Diaz fashion, appears uninterested in making adjustments. McGregor is outstriking Diaz and pacing himself. When he drops Diaz, he doesn't waste energy trying to get the finish. He stops, waits for Diaz to get up and then goes back to work.
In the second, it's more of the same, with McGregor throwing and Diaz's leg and face receiving. Diaz, bruised and battered, comes forward but pays the price for it. But then McGregor seems to tire, just a bit. Diaz senses it immediately, like a shark smelling blood or a writer an opportunity for a cliche. Diaz comes to life, smiling, looking like a guy who's just learned your secret. He pushes McGregor against the fence and unloads with a barrage of head shots.
In the third, Diaz seems rejuvenated, and McGregor seems like the undersized and overtaxed guy from the first fight. At one point, Diaz remembers he's a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and tries to get it to the mat, but McGregor successfully defends the takedown. The round is all Diaz.
McGregor rallies to take the fourth. Both men are tired—although Diaz does a better job disguising it—and the pace slows considerably. The fifth goes to Diaz who uses pressure, mixed with takedown attempts. He mauls McGregor against the cage, but McGregor lands the cleaner blows from the outside. With 10 seconds left, Diaz gets a takedown. The fight ends, and he helps McGregor up…
It's a very close fight. McGregor waits, pacing. Enduring the no man's land of uncertainty that is the period of time before the judge's scores are read.
Was he right to lay it all on the line? Is he back on top, better than ever and ready for what's next? Or is he a cautionary tale, a warning to other fighters and a reminder to always take the safe bet?
Ideally, he'd have gotten credit either way, for even attempting such a feat. Even if he'd lost, there's a scenario where he'd be commended for trying, for biting off more than he could chew, for going for it. But that's not how it works in the world, especially in the fight game. He'd have been mocked by the people who risk nothing, lectured by safety-first types swaddled in figurative bubble wrap. He'd have lost his entire identity as a fighter.
He'd have been forced to reinvent himself, to humble himself, to pose for photos gazing contemplatively off at the sunset, scratching at his chin, “What now…”
The ring announcer takes the mic. Has the gamble paid off, or has his hubris written a check the left hand couldn't cash?
The judges have it 48-47, 47-47, 48-47 a majority decision for Conor McGregor. And he wins.