Why The UFC’s Most Popular Fighter Is Not The Best

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Written by Randolph Trow 
Art by Lucas Eglin 

Of the top 10 most sold UFC pay-per-views, 8 of them featured a Conor McGregor Main Event. After all, he’s easily the most popular Mixed Martial Artist in the entire history of the sport, as well as being present in the top five for most popular combat sports athletes. One thing that stands out about Conor’s career, especially in the UFC, is how sparse it is. The only tough opponents for him to face were Max Holloway back in 2013 when Max was only 21 years old and four fights deep in the UFC, and Khabib Nurmagomenov, who submitted him in his title defense in the most watched Pay-Per-View in UFC history, including today. Every other fight under his belt was a fight against a striker, someone who favored McGregor’s style of hard fighting that made him push to stop his opponents before the fight went to a decision. 

It does make sense that McGregor would favor this kind of style. It’s fan-friendly, it’s riskier with the potential performance bonuses as a reward, and it boosts his ego. He would fight all out at the start of the first round, giving his opponents no time to feel him out, very much unlike the most dominant featherweight of all time, Jose Aldo, who nobody outside of the MMA world knows or cares about. They remember Conor because he had something that many other fighters did not at the time, before the Colby Covingtons and Jorge Masvidals and Chael Sonnens and the Diaz brothers. Trash talk had been done before by people like Matt Serra and Ken Shamrock, but it was a lost art. It was a tool for boosting ego, not for rattling an opponent for the use of psychological warfare. It was sloppy, unrefined, and violent. Conor revolutionized the practice. 

His media tour across the world for 12 whole days to promote this one fight was unprecedented in UFC history, no one had ever garnered that amount of support from UFC president Dana White ever before. But Conor did it, and he used the entire tour to demonize the greatest featherweight of all time, Jose Aldo, making his entire life hell. Conor had a way about his trash talk that was different from those before him. Instead of pure insults, he would provoke the man in front of him, and once he found a nerve, he would strike, yelling at the top of his lungs some of the most outlandish shit the sports world had ever seen. 

He would begin by saying, “I don’t want to scare him anymore, look at ‘im. He’s runnin’, he’s petrified. So I’m gonna take the opposite approach. Cuddle ‘im, look after ‘im, whisper sweet nothings, tell ‘im it’s gonna be all right. It will be over quick,” then amp it all the way up to arguably his most famous line of all time, “I own Rio de Janeiro, I’m sitting up here with my feet on the desk. What’s anyone up there going to do about it? Not one of yous are going to do anything about it. My name, the McGregor name, my family’s motto … means royal is in me blood. That goes way back. So for [Aldo] to say he is the king and I am the joker, if this was a different time, I would invade his favela on horseback and kill anyone that was not fit to work! But we are in a new time. So I’ll whoop his ass in July!” 

Conor McGregor’s skill was excellent inside the cage, but it was not champion-level. He would rattle every single one of his opponents that forces them to enter the cage at less than 80%. He was a champion of psychological striking, but as a real fighter of the game would prove, Khabib, could not compete. Even when he fought Dustin Porier, a guy with a boxer’s base, he has lost twice now. He also lost to Nate Diaz, his first loss in the UFC, getting rocked multiple times on the feet by a Brazilian-Jiu-Jitsu practitioner. Conor’s skill was championship level and certainly unique, but only outside the cage. Once he lost his momentum and fought a Russian who could handle any amount of trash talk no matter how scathing, it was all over. Unfortunately, most star contenders do not have the skillset of a truly dominant champion. A fighter like Max Holloway, the Featherweight champion who came after Conor moved up to lightweight, is a great example, as well as Jose Aldo before him. He holds the record for the most significant strikes landed in his career, with a 1,000-strike lead in second place. But not as many people care about him. He’s not as marketable as McGregor, even if he would smash him in the octagon. It’s a sad reality: Mainstream viewers of the sport, and the viewers that Dana White wants to attract, want a personality to entertain them, not a fighter who is technically skilled. Conor exhibits that truth very clearly throughout his career. Despite this, a new prospect has made moves in the Men’s Bantamweight division. Keep a lookout for Suga Sean O’Malley, the social media king of the UFC and the new Bantamweight Champion of the World. He has got the swagger and the skill, so maybe he will finally be the one to appeal to mainstream audiences while also having the skills to absolutely snipe people. Here’s hoping.

, Randolph Trow Lucas Eglin

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