“We’re just going to take it one game at a time.”
If you’ve watched sports, any sport, you’ve heard that tired cliche thousands of times. It’s the next game, the next fight, the next race that consumes an athlete in the moment. Anything less than total concentration is akin to courting disaster.
In fighting, that maxim is especially true. Failing to focus on the opponent right in front of you can lead to extreme embarrassment or, worse, irreparable harm.
Ask Mike Tyson.
Ask Georges St-Pierre.
The margin for error in fighting is so small, each opponent deserves a fighter’s ultimate respect. Looking ahead is a fool’s game.
In the case of Conor McGregor, however, it’s awfully hard not to throw caution to the wind.
Sure, the UFC’s featherweight champion is moving to lightweight in order to challenge that division’s best. But what is he doing after that? McGregor is so compelling, both in and out of the cage, that it’s nearly impossible not to fantasy-book his career fight after glorious fight.
Assuming McGregor beats Rafael dos Anjos at UFC 196, will the limits we’ve established for every other fighter apply to him? Talk is flying around the sport that McGregor already has 170-pound champion Robbie Lawler in his sights.
If he can move up 10 pounds in order to claim a second UFC title, why stop there? Could welterweight be next? Or is McGregor potentially biting off more than he can chew?
Lead writers Jonathan Snowden and Jeremy Botter, Bleacher Report’s version of Kirk and Spock, discuss.
Jeremy Botter: When I was first told about this idea of McGregor, provided he beats Rafael dos Anjos in a few weeks, moving up to 170 pounds to challenge Robbie Lawler at UFC 200, I laughed. And I guess, if you really think about it, that’s the logical reaction to such a thing, because it is at once silly and absurd. It is ludicrous.
But then I started thinking about it, this time doing my level best to avoid laughing. And I came to a point where I realized: If this dude is able to beat the RDA monster and capture the lightweight belt, and he wants to go after another belt? It’s like...why not?
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We’ve seen McGregor say a lot of things that seemed crazy-dumb before, and then he goes out and does the thing he predicted like some kind of Gaelic soothsayer. If he becomes lightweight champion and believes he can turn around and win a third UFC title, well, I say go for it. I don’t know how successful he’ll be, but it’s actually a better matchup than it would seem on the surface.
Jonathan Snowden: The MMA community seems to consider things impossible simply because they’ve never been done before. But there is plenty of precedent in the broader world of combat sports for exactly this kind of leap.
Take, for example, Roy Jones Jr. Before he was challenging fans off the street, Jones was considered the best boxer in the world. He beat the great Bernard Hopkins for the middleweight championship of the world and, nearly 10 years later, beat John Ruiz for the heavyweight title at 193 pounds.
For those bad at math, that’s a 33-pound swing with championship gold on each end. And that’s hardly extraordinary. It’s fairly routine for boxers to jump several weight classes during the course of their careers.
While MMA is not boxing, it remains to be seen whether fighters can follow a similar career arc. B.J. Penn might have done it if there had been a 145-pound weight class in any of the major promotions in his prime. Who’s to say McGregor won’t show similar skill?
Is it crazy to consider McGregor as a singular, first-of-his-kind fighter? Maybe. But beating Dos Anjos automatically propels him into a class that includes just two fighters—Penn and Randy Couture.
When those are your peers, suddenly almost anything seems possible, doesn’t it?
Jeremy: When I actually stopped to think about how McGregor the fighter matches up with Lawler the fighter, it’s more favorable than it initially appears. Lawler has historically been a dude who starts off slowly and really only gets his engine firing in the final two rounds of a fight, when his back is against the wall and he has to turn things up a few notches to win.
That’s a problem against McGregor, a pressure fighter from the outset. Sure, he’ll be giving up some size to Lawler. But I’ve spent plenty of time around both men, and I can tell you that it’s not that dramatic a difference. McGregor is actually a large lightweight and was a massive featherweight. When he bulks up (which he’s currently in the process of doing, eating all the steaks Ireland can produce), he’s physically bigger than former champion Johny Hendricks.
And so the more you think about all of this, the less crazy it seems. Yeah, this dude is crazy for going from division to division to division, looking to fight the absolute best each has to offer. But isn’t that what this whole sport is all about? Does this thing McGregor is doing feel so weird just because it’s so rare, because we are so used to seeing dudes like Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva who would rather dominate where they are more comfortable than challenge themselves?
Jonathan: It’s actually an interesting battle of styles. Lawler is one of the best pocket boxers in MMA history. In phone-booth range he’s a devastating puncher and has the chin to win almost any battle of wills.
It’s at distance, however, that McGregor could make his mark. Few fighters in MMA have cleaner, more precise punches from range. He rarely over commits and mixes in just enough esoteric stuff to keep opponents guessing.
It’s those instants, when opponents are still busy processing the swirling data and McGregor is already in motion, that have made him the most feared striker in years.
Lawler is there to be hit. Every opponent gets a chance to land his best shots, testing the champion’s outrageous fortitude and now-legendary iron chin. It’s why every fight seems to come down to the wire.
The question, then, becomes whether McGregor’s power migrates with him as he eats his way to welterweight. As fighters move up in weight, their punching prowess tends to decline in equal measure. It’s the difference between a Floyd Mayweather who finishes opponents at lightweight and a Floyd Mayweather who grinds out excruciating decisions at 154 pounds.
McGregor, however, is no Mayweather. He’s a legitimate knockout artist. If anyone proves to be the exception, it will be him. Is it likely he’ll pack the same punch at 170 pounds? Not at all. But it exists in the realm of possibility. And with possibility comes hope.
Right now it’s easy to dismiss the idea as the lunatic ravings of a fighter who hasn’t tasted a draft of humility in quite some time. But, should he beat Dos Anjos, this madcap matchup is going to happen—and you’d have to be a very brave individual indeed to bet against Conor McGregor.
Jonathan Snowden and Jeremy Botter cover combat sports for Bleacher Report.