Conor McGregor's True Greatness Is Understanding History Even as He Makes It

Chad Dundas@@chaddundasMMA Lead WriterNovember 13, 2016

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 12:  UFC featherweight and lightweight champion Conor McGregor of Ireland speaks to the media during the UFC 205 post fight press conference at Madison Square Garden on November 12, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Conor McGregor ended 2016 the same way he started it: by asking someone to bring him his damn belt.

McGregor had just dispatched Eddie Alvarez with shocking ease in the main event of Saturday's UFC 205. The four-punch combination he landed to knock out the dazed and demoralized lightweight champion three minutes into the second round was as historic as it was chillingly effective.

Yet in the immediate aftermath, McGregor wasn't happy.

He was annoyed.

The stoppage victory made him the first fighter to simultaneously hold UFC titles in two different weight classes. He was already the company's featherweight champion after KO'ing Jose Aldo in 13 seconds in December 2015. Now, he'd added Alvarez's 155-pound hardware to his collection.

McGregor had the upper hand from the start against Alvarez.
McGregor had the upper hand from the start against Alvarez.Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Somehow, however, no one at the UFC had thought to bring both belts into the cage to present to McGregor as referee John McCarthy raised his hand and the particulars of his win were announced to a crowd of more than 20,000 at Madison Square Garden.

This, admittedly, was a gaffe.

It showed that the fight company—either willfully or subconsciously—hadn't prepared for the magnitude of the event. More importantly, it disrupted McGregor's own mental image of what the moment was supposed to look like.

"They should have had them two belts ready, spit-shined for me," he crowed to UFC color commentator Joe Rogan as part of a profanity-laced post-fight interview. "They [should have] both in the Octagon. It's never been done before."

As usual, the bombastic Irishman had a point.

McGregor's win couldn't have come at a more important place. His knockout of Alvarez was the featured attraction in the UFC's star-studded maiden voyage at Madison Square Garden and the fight company's first event in New York since 1995. It had already brought in $17 million at the gate, setting records both for the UFC and one of the most hallowed arenas in all of sports.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 12:  Conor McGregor of Ireland celebrates his KO victory over Eddie Alvarez of the United States in their lightweight championship bout during the UFC 205 event at Madison Square Garden on November 12, 2016 in New York City.  (Phot
Al Bello/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

According to Fox Sports' Damon Martin, UFC President Dana White said the event would also break McGregor's own company record for pay-per-view buys, making it the most lucrative single night in UFC history.

Yet the only person who seemed to really grasp the scale of what was happening was McGregor.

Oddly enough, this wasn't the first time the UFC had failed to live up to his standards for presentation.

Actually, it was nearly an exact repeat of the pre-fight press conference for UFC 197 in January.

Back then, McGregor was set for a champion vs. champion bout against Rafael dos Anjos. When the 28-year-old Dublin native showed up on the dais for the media event, he found that dos Anjos' 155-pound title was in position on the table, but McGregor's featherweight belt was nowhere to be found.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 12:  Eddie Alvarez of the United States (left) fights against Conor McGregor of Ireland in their lightweight championship bout during the UFC 205 event at Madison Square Garden on November 12, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Jeff
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Obviously, this sent McGregor into a lather.

"This is a superfight," he declared at the press conference, while also lambasting the somewhat lackluster posters the UFC had printed up for the bout. "Where are all these historic images?"

At the time, White, who was also at the presser, and the UFC didn't seem to have a great answer to that question.

Fast-forward nearly 10 months to UFC 205, and it appeared as though they hadn't learned much from it.

McGregor didn't get the chance to fight Dos Anjos for the lightweight title. The Brazilian champion pulled out of the event, which had had been rebranded as UFC 196, with an injury. The UFC tabbed Nate Diaz as a late replacement, and then he and McGregor embarked on the high-profile blood feud that defined most of this year.

While McGregor and Diaz were off settling that score, Dos Anjos lost the 155-pound championship to Alvarez, and McGregor's date with destiny got put off until this weekend. When he captured the title and put Alvarez in his rearview mirror, he did it with an effortlessness that undeniably ensconced him among the UFC's all-time greats.

Even if the UFC momentarily seemed oblivious to that fact.

As the cage filled up with officials following the fight, McGregor could be heard exchanging terse words with White. The fighter demanded to know where his second belt was, and the executive who has ruled the UFC with an iron fist since 2001 could only shrug and send someone to try to find it.

Thus, McGregor had put all three facets of his greatness on display.

First, there was his slick and powerful straight left hand. That punch has been McGregor's calling card since he arrived in the Octagon in 2013, and with the notable exception of his lone loss to Diaz at UFC 196, it has defined his career on the big stage.

It was the same punch McGregor used at UFC 194 to unceremoniously end Aldo's six-year reign at 145 pounds. When he dropped Alvarez with it during the first significant exchange of strikes during this weekend's superfight, the outcome became just as obvious.

It took McGregor another handful of minutes to pound the final nail into the lightweight champ's coffin, but this was McGregor's fight from the opening salvo.

The second part of McGregor's greatness was underscored after the fight, when he once again showed a unique ability to understand history even as he made it.

McGregor knew he needed that second belt in the Octagon during UFC 205's final minutes. Long a proponent of visualization, he has talked at length about his devotion to positive thinking and the best-selling self-help book The Secret.

Clearly, when he imagined his victory over Alvarez, he envisioned himself holding up those two belts.

But it was more than that. McGregor understood the optics of the moment. In the world of MMA, he has flashed an unprecedented command of shaping and controlling a story.

When White finally brought him his second title belt, McGregor was acutely aware it was important for the UFC's cameras to get a long look at him with both of them draped over his shoulders. He knew photographs of him straddling the top of the Octagon fence with those two belts might define his stellar career. So he jumped up there and stayed until the camera people got their shots.

To McGregor, that part was nearly as important as winning the fight in the first place.

McGregor finally got his two belts.
McGregor finally got his two belts.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Oh, and the third part of the new lightweight and featherweight champion's greatness?

Once he noticed the second belt's absence, he sent White off to fetch it.

Perhaps never before in MMA history has a fighter so effectively recognized the moments in which the UFC needs him more than he needs it.

He has consistently kept the upper hand during his public negotiations with the promotion. On this night, he took that understanding to the next level.

The UFC's highest-paid athlete, McGregor came to the post-fight press conference (warning: NSFW language) talking not just about his next mega-payday, but also about obtaining an ownership stake in the company.

"People have shares in the company. Celebrities. Conan O'Brien owns the UFC nowadays. Where's my share? Where's my equity?" McGregor said. "If I'm the one that's bringing this—they've got to come talk to me now, that's all I know. I've got both belts, a chunk of money, a little family on the way. You want me to stick around? Do you want me to keep doing what I'm doing? Let's talk, but I want the ownership now. I want the equal share. I want what I deserve. What I've earned."

So, even as he exalted in historic victory, McGregor was setting the stage for his next negotiation with the UFC. This is a man who never takes his eyes off the prize.

McGregor and longtime girlfriend Dee Devlin are expecting a child in May 2017. He indicated he'd take some time off to ease into fatherhood and plan his next move.

He's beefed with lightweight contender Khabib Nurmagomedov and welterweight champion Tyron Woodley. A trilogy fight against Diaz with the title on the line would undoubtedly do big business for all involved. If McGregor's intent on keeping his featherweight title, a unification bout with interim champ Aldo is also there for the taking.

If history is any indication, McGregor will make the smart move.

He'll do it with a clear understanding of what it means and how best to go about it.

For now, he'll also do it with a UFC title hanging from each fist.

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