Conor McGregor celebrates after his TKO victory over Diego Brandao in their featherweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at The O2 Dublin on July 19, 2014, in Dublin, Ireland. (Getty Images)
After his knockout victory over Diego Brandao in his third fight that 2014 night in Dublin, McGregor's boast of, "We're not just here to take part, we're here to take over," sounded less like blind hope and more like a promise. He embarrassed opponents, both verbally before the bout and physically in the cage, where his left hand soon became one of the most feared weapons in the sport. It was preceded, more often than not, by egregious taunting and talk. McGregor didn't just win fights; he told opponents all about it while the bout was still in progress.
"Any top-level athlete, it's always the same. There's always that hint of arrogance there. ... It's hard to be humble when you're the best," McGregor told Bleacher Report last year. "It's as simple as that. If you are surrounded by your competition and you are outworking these people, outmaneuvering these people, it's hard not to let your confidence take over. It just builds and builds and builds."
As great as he has been under the bright lights, McGregor's press appearances have been equally memorable. He has a gift, not just of making fans and haters alike laugh, but of spitting brutal truths that seem to give opponents pause. Fighting, Fox's Stann says, is a surprisingly mental occupation. The slightest doubt can have an inordinate impact when the bell rings. McGregor, he says, is especially good at finding his foes' secret fears and triggers, grabbing with both hands and squeezing.
"He's a guy who comes with the bravado to sell tickets and make people love him or hate him. There's no in-between with Conor."
— BRIAN STANN, UFC ANALYST
Anger is anathema to effective fighting. It breeds sloppiness and mistakes. Many a fighter has been skewered on the sword of his own anger. And no one makes opponents angrier than McGregor, the reigning featherweight champion. Even lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez—the calm veteran of dozens of fights around the globe, the man many thought would be immune to McGregor's mind games—was muttering to himself after a recent conference call to promote their lightweight title fight Saturday at Madison Square Garden.
"I'm the reason we're even here in the first place. If I wasn't here, this whole ship goes down. And that's the truth," McGregor says. "Numero uno. I am the all-time great. That's it. I will raise two belts. Show me who else has done it. I don't see him."
And yet, if you ask around the fighting world about who's the greatest, you get broad agreement that McGregor was made for this era. He's a perfect product for the age of social media. He's a commodity who knows how to sell himself as well as anyone who's ever stepped into a ring to fight. Hell, even the most hallowed name in history—Ali—gets quietly whispered in conjunction with that of the bold Irishman.
"He is every bit as big as anyone who has come before him," says Chael Sonnen, a fighter from UFC rival Bellator who blazed a trail for McGregor's aggressive brand of trash talk. "His name belongs with all those greats. Get on the bandwagon, because it's real."
Which begs the question: Really? Does Conor McGregor really, kind of, sorta, deserve a place in the discussion? Could he really be the greatest of all time?
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Success has bred skepticism, especially as McGregor faced a succession of fighters well suited for his style and skill set—fellow strikers unlikely to expose his ground game—traditionally the aspect of mixed martial arts most likely to trip up a European fighter without access to top-level international grapplers. Every McGregor fight was preceded by a string of columns, tweets and comments about how this would be the moment he finally met his match.
"A lot of people early on didn't give him credit because he had such a big mouth," says Din Thomas, the former UFC title contender, who now coaches welterweight champion Tyron Woodley. "He talked so much so early in his career that a lot of fighters didn't want to give him credit. But he was a good fighter, even from the beginning."
Even as McGregor decimated the best the featherweight division had to offer, culminating with a 13-second knockout of longtime champion Jose Aldo in 2015, doubt lingered. Each opponent was sure he was the man to expose what many considered an artificial construct of the UFC machine. Over and over again he was labeled a fraud, his detractors convinced his facade would finally crumble.
Conor McGregor raises a fist during the UFC 205 press conference at Madison Square Garden on September 27, 2016, in New York City. (Getty Images)
"When you see someone who makes all the money and is winning the big fights, someone who really thrives under the bright lights, it's easy to get jealous," Stann says. "It's natural. And it's not just jealousy. With fighters, it's out of competitiveness. This is a sport where a little bit of crazy is a good thing. If you can believe something like 'Conor is not a great fighter,' even if it's not true, that's a huge advantage."
Every MMA fighter suddenly seemed to have McGregor on their mind, some envious of his success, others looking to insert themselves in what would surely be the biggest fight of their careers.
"There's been a lot of talk," McGregor told Bleacher Report last year. "'Hate' is the term I've heard a lot. But I don't really care. The whole division can hate me, the whole roster can hate me. The whole of America can hate me. I only need one American to love me—and that's Mr. Benjamin Franklin. As long as he loves me, I am good."
Like McGregor, his true believers have never doubted. Before each bout thousands of his supporters have made the long flight to the United States to witness a truly rare sight—an Irishman who conquers all comers. The streets of Las Vegas have filled with the chants of Irish fans whenever he fights, the trips treated almost as a pilgrimage, a chance to pay respects to the new king of combat sports.
"I am the all-time great. That's it. I will raise two belts. Show me who else has done it. I don't see him."
— CONOR McGREGOR
The Irish diaspora embraced him as well, coming out in force to see McGregor in Boston and buying his pay-per-view fights in numbers the UFC had never seen. Leaked investor documents reveal that McGregor isn't just one of several top UFC drawing cards over the decades; his box-office power is singular, with each of his last three fights drawing more than a million buys on pay television.
Those are numbers that place McGregor in an elite group, alongside Mike Tyson, Floyd Mayweather, Pacquiao ... and even Ali. Not everyone's so happy about those comparisons.
"When you talk about skill set and athleticism, I believe that guys like Ali and Tyson were better fighters than Conor," Thomas, the former UFC title contender, says. "He's a good fighter. Don't get me wrong on that. But his popularity has put him on a pedestal and on a level where he doesn't belong as a fighter."
It's safe to say there will never be another Ali. His legacy, social impact and undeniable charisma reside on a mountaintop all by themselves. In the 40 years since his sudden decline, boxing has been in a desperate search for his successor. Some came close, but none quite measured up.
"Sugar" Ray Leonard had Ali's flash, but not his honesty and desire. Tyson was the most fearsome man on the planet—but he never achieved his own potential athletically. Oscar De La Hoya had the smile and the cojones but never exuded even an iota of danger. Mayweather, the boxer with whom McGregor has had a number of contentious exchanges, had the persona down pat, but not the integrity and courage required to be truly great.
McGregor has it all—the patter, the edge and, most importantly, the will to be great. In just three years he's reinvented the MMA game, won UFC gold and become the first fighter to successfully slug it out against Dana White, the most powerful promoter in combat sports. And he is reinventing a game built for a modern world that only amplifies personalities like that of "The Notorious."
"A lot of it has to do with the time we are in—it's a different world," says Bellator's Sonnen. "You have social media and watch video on your phone. Even in Tyson's era we didn't even have phones. It's a perfect storm. And he has the luxury of being present for all these changes that make it easier to promote fights and connect to fans."
Stann, somewhat reluctantly, agrees. While he would like to see McGregor on top of the sport for a more substantial period of time before rendering a verdict on whether he belongs in the pantheon of the true elites, his popularity is hard to dismiss.
"There's no denying his drawing power and his ability to get eyeballs to his fights," he says. "In terms of the entertainment aspect, Conor belongs with those greats."
That McGregor has established himself as the financial heir to Mayweather isn’t in doubt. While boxer Canelo Alvarez has faltered in a post-Floyd world, McGregor has thrived. Pure numbers drive that discussion and show Conor belongs on the top shelf with the biggest stars to ever step in a boxing ring.
All this brings up another question: Why? Why are we talking about a Dubliner with a motormouth when so many great fighters have come and gone without causing the mainstream sports fan to blink an eye.
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Conor McGregor (left) elbows Nate Diaz in their welterweight bout during the UFC 202 event at T-Mobile Arena on August 20, 2016, in Las Vegas. (Getty Images)
There have been better MMA fighters than Conor McGregor—contemporaries like Jon Jones who have been dominant for years. There have been more exciting fighters—champions like Anderson Silva whose artistry brought madcap-movie martial arts to real life. But neither of those two has come close to delivering the box office McGregor routinely provides.
The history of combat sports demands we take a critical look at the McGregor phenomenon, one Mayweather believes is grounded in racial bias. From James Jeffries in the 1910s all the way to Gerry Cooney's inexplicable popularity in the 1980s, fight fans and promoters have long looked for the "Great White Hope." Fighting is a crude and tribal business, all the flag-waving and passion of a nation state distilled into a single athlete representing his cohort, bleeding, scrapping, sacrificing for the broader cause.
"A lot of people can relate to Conor. So they are going to put him on a pedestal," Thomas, one of UFC's first African-American stars, says. "The majority of MMA fans are white. As people, we take pride in whatever it is we can relate to; whether it's skin color or gender, subconsciously we relate.
"I'm not saying fans are racist for liking Conor or that UFC is racist. For some reason in this country, whenever you talk about race, people think you're about to start protesting and burning flags in their front yard. I'm not saying the UFC hates black people or that fans hate black people. What I'm saying is that people can relate to Conor McGregor much more than they can [black flyweight champion] Demetrious Johnson, who I think is a better fighter."
Sonnen, a Donald Trump supporter and former Republican politician, has a simpler explanation for McGregor's stardom.
"It's because he's awesome," the former UFC middleweight contender says. "He knows he's going to fight just three times a year. At the most, that's 75 minutes in the ring. But he's an entertainer 365 days a year. He understands that."
"I'm not saying the UFC hates black people or that fans hate black people. What I'm saying is that people can relate to Conor McGregor much more than they can [black flyweight champion] Demetrious Johnson, who I think is a better fighter."
— DIN THOMAS, FORMER UFC TITLE CONTENDER
If you were building a fighter with box-office success in mind, he would look an awful lot like Conor McGregor. He has Mayweather's imposing arrogance and love of the almighty dollar, Pacquiao's fearlessness to move into heavier weight classes, wrestler Ric Flair's bombastic presence behind a microphone and Ali's desire to crush opponents physically and mentally.
None of this, Stann believes, is coincidence.
"One of the biggest surprises to me was how intelligent he is," he says. "This kid has done some legitimate research into the most financially successful combat sports athletes of all time."
But focusing solely on financial success discredits McGregor's accomplishments as an athlete. Despite persistent internet clamor to the contrary, his resume is stuffed full with bouts against some of the best fighters the featherweight class has ever seen. Now he's expanded his sights to the lightweight division, attempting to make history as the first fighter ever to hold two UFC titles simultaneously.
"You're always thinking of the next challenge," UFC Hall of Famer Ken Shamrock says. "Who's next? You see that with Conor, moving into new weight classes to find something that engages him. There is no end where he is. Everything is going great, and it doesn't feel like it's going to end. You don't see it. You're in the moment, and it feels like it will never stop."