A lightning left hand made Conor McGregor a champion. But it was his persona that drew the world's attention.
Other UFC fighters have attempted to cross over. But progress in that direction has been incremental, from Tank Abbott's appearance on Friends to Ken Shamrock and Ronda Rousey invading the world of the WWE to Randy Couture's various B-movie adventures.
None of them have managed to reach McGregor's level in terms of star power.
Chuck Liddell appeared in commercials. McGregor makes them for his own brand of Irish whiskey. There are, as the saying goes, levels to this.
"There was no strategy per se," McGregor told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview via email. "I love the fight game and love the fans. I give it my all every day. I have battled inside the Octagon and have overcome great adversities in my life.
" … I think people appreciate my story, and many relate to me. I know I relate to many of them. Just a small number of years ago I was an apprentice plumber on social welfare, and today I am known all over the world and am able to help many vs. being helped. That is a great feeling."
There have been a lot of MMA stars who were big in the Octagon but who could walk around practically unnoticed in the real world because no one outside of the industry knew who they were. McGregor has been one of the first with a name that transcends the UFC.
But his name has also become familiar to those inside and outside of the UFC world for what many consider to be bigoted language, for various assault charges and for recent allegations of sexual assault. McGregor is currently under investigation in Ireland for two separate sexual assault allegations made by women in Dublin. His name remains in the news for reasons that are much more serious than his actual fighting career.
Writing about McGregor in 2020 is difficult. The recent allegations are so heinous that going about business as usual seems wrong. But, because of Ireland's legal restrictions, it's impossible to get a clear picture of what exactly is going on. And, alongside that uncertainty, the business-as-usual manner continues.
He's not talking about it. And he's still headlining UFC events, still appearing in commercials for Proper No. Twelve. For the most part, he's publicly proceeding with his life as if nothing else is happening. If he's worried about his legal future, contrite about past actions or making wholesale changes in the way he lives his life, it's hard to tell from interviews like this one.
"It is not easy being in the public eye, but I love being around people as it gives me great energy," he said. "I plan on being around for a long time inside the Octagon, boxing ring, and well beyond my fighting career."
For a time, fans began thinking of McGregor the Fighter in the past tense. Still just 31, his reign as the first "champ, champ"—when he was simultaneously on top of both the featherweight and lightweight classes—seems like a lifetime ago. He's fought just twice in the Octagon since 2016—a mixed bag for certain, as he decimated Donald Cerrone in seconds but was on the receiving end of an extended drubbing at the hands of lightweight kingpin Nurmagomedov.
A fighter who has already made his millions can be a conundrum. What motivates a man who has already reaped all the awards and basked in a lifetime's worth of glory? McGregor says that motivation became a struggle, but he also says he's committed to regaining his position at the top of the mixed martial arts pyramid.
"I will admit that the fight before UFC 246, I did not train properly and was not in perfect condition," he said. "Call it what you want. I am hungry today. Hungry like a man who has not eaten for weeks. ... When I set my mind to something, there is nothing I can not accomplish. It is that power of belief that makes up the winners."
McGregor has always been very introspective after fights, and he's now had almost two years to think about the Khabib bout. It actually worked out well in some ways. He survived the grappler's early blitz and was on his feet for an extended period with the chance to damage his foe. So, was the result—just his second loss in 12 UFC bouts—a failure of game plan or a failure of execution?
"That is a very good question, and I will simply say I was not fully prepared," McGregor said. "It proves that anything can happen in the fight game. You can trust that I will not make the same mistakes next time. I came out well, and in an instant, things changed. It's as simple as that."
No one fights forever, and transitions back to the regular world can be hard. It seems nothing can replace the thrill of the fight. But McGregor's involvement in Proper No. Twelve, an attempt to carve out space in the ultra-competitive whiskey market, appears to provide the same kind of engagement.
Perhaps, conceptually, it's the same, with Jameson and Tullamore replacing Jose Aldo or Khabib Nurmagomedov across the proverbial cage?
"People know that I am involved in every aspect, from production to sales and connecting with consumers, especially on my social media directly," McGregor said. "I run my Instagram and Twitter alone and love responding and seeing how people love my proper liquid gold. I also love to connect with our customers. I have met many, and several have become friends already.
"I reach out to many often, which is great fun. Hearing their Proper stories and showing appreciation for how my Proper team and I care and work so hard, I didn’t expect to love that part of the business as much as I do now. I plan on being very loyal to the people who are loyal to me and support my brand. This is a rule I have lived by and always will.
" ... Dublin 12 is a place very dear to my heart," McGregor said about the area where he grew up, "Dublin 12" being a postal district of the Irish capital. "It’s where I learned how to fight, where I learned to do everything. Growing up there taught me the values of loyalty and brotherhood—that 'One For All' life. It made me who I am. It's a place I am still very much a part of every single day of my life.
"I love Ireland, its land and its people. I was born here, I will raise my children here, and I will die here. I wanted to make an Irish whiskey brand emblematic of our culture as a whole—something that would make my people proud."
Until recently, the most prominent placement of his whiskey was as an adornment of the UFC Octagon. But the brand expanded to sponsor big-time boxing during the Tyson Fury/Deontay Wilder mega-fight on pay-per-view. McGregor believes it's a brand that can transcend UFC—just like he has—to reach out to the broader public
"Fury vs. Wilder II was my kind of fight," McGregor said. "A proper fight between two beasts who talk a good game and throw heavy punches, so I was proud to have Proper No. Twelve front and center during that bout as the title brand.
" ... If you want to take part, you shy away from big thinking—if you want to take over you make calculated decisions, and in this case, the fight was a blockbuster, and Proper was clearly one of the winners that night right next to Tyson.
"Tyson Fury is special. He’s got Irish in his blood. I sent both fighters a bottle of my Proper whiskey and they both deserved a Proper shot or two after that bout. I deeply respect these fighters! What a show!"
The advertisements, together with the fact that Manny Pacquiao recently signed with the team managing McGregor, have many speculating that the Irishman will return to the boxing ring for his next fight.
"What the fans, and frankly the fighters, don’t want is a dull fight or a dull lead up to a fight," he said. "I enjoy every aspect, and the fans deserve to see and hear the real me. I am very passionate and eager to please the fans and win for them and my family. I am willing to fight anyone and have proved that time and time again. I look for a good scrap, and if it isn't going to be that, I have no interest.
" ... The money is not why I do this. I am a very rich man, and my children and those that come after them will be just fine. I love the fight game. I learned many things boxing in Crumlin where I grew up, and my deep love is why I do this today. I will be in the Octagon again soon and fully expect to box again. You will need to stay tuned, but trust me—the fans will enjoy. Giving them what they want and entertaining them is important to me."
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.