Even if you have no interest in UFC, chances are you know a little about Conor McGregor - two-weight champion and hard-hitting motormouth; a man with his surname, a tiger, and a gorilla wearing a crown eating a heart all tattooed across his ripped torso.
Largely maligned as a sport for no-neck Trump fans, red-faced men from Red states, blood-thirsty bear-baiters, and teens with personality disorders, mixed-martial arts - of which UFC is the biggest federation - needs people like McGregor. The man is a talker. A chin-out, shit-slinging smart-arse in the mould of pro-wrestling over the vacuous personalities that have dominated the fight game over its twenty-five-year existence.
“Conor McGregor can go out there and do what he do, but never compare Conor McGregor to me, it's a total disrespect,” said Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather, retired, undefeated welterweight champion and widely considered one of the best boxers of all time. Since May they’ve been at each other’s throats (well, on the internet anyway) and what started as fluffy rumour in the tabloids has morphed into something almost believable.
Ensconced in the safe space money and retirement as has afforded him, money is still Money’s main barometer of worthiness. But there remains the fact that if McGregor had stormed boxing the same way he has MMA, the gulf in net worth would be a whole lot smaller… Especially if Mac ever got the $100million dollar boxing match against Mayweather of his own.
Pundits and Team Mayweather agree that Mayweather-McGregor will never happen - and besides, boxing and MMA are two totally different sports and success in one does not predicate success in another - but as the State of California announce they have granted McGregor a boxing license, it does bring into focus the fighter’s still growing influence.
“I'm an elephant,” Mayweather told reporters. “Elephants don't beef with ants. An elephant is so large it doesn't even see ants.”
While his estimated net worth - currently at around $400m - is some $378m more than his Irish rival, the boxer’s selective opponent choosing and an ultra-effective, ultra-defensive (look, it was quite boring really) style did more to hinder the sport than help it. His superfight with Manny Pacquiao (a much better comparison with McGregor in terms of niche impact and style) was doomed to boredom as Money’s guard kept the past-it Manny frustrated before finally stuffing a pillow over his tired opponent’s face unmarked face. It was billed as the fight we’d all been waiting for, the one to remember, the one to bring casual fans back into the frame, but after the final bell, when Mayweather’s hand was raised, everyone was left with a bitter taste in their mouth.
An unblemished record is not McGregor’s MO, and the great thing about MMA is that everyone loses. “McGregor’s losses are almost like badges of honor in some ways,” wrote Forbes’ Brian Mazique last week. “When you fight against tough opponents, you’re bound to come out with a few scars.” Losses all serve a higher narrative.
Mazique also makes a comparison many before have whispered: wildly popular motormouth changing the demographic of a sport with excitement on and off the mat? The brave among you might call him Muhammad Ali for the Lad Bible generation, and - albeit without quite possessing the late Greatest’s supreme skill (or position as civil rights monolith...) - you wouldn’t be a million miles off. When Ali first opened his gob, boxing was a rotting sport, with corruption and sleaze as apparent as the ring, the ref, and the belts. McGregor is at least attempting to do the same.
In his own way, anyway. Like a knee to the nose, his humour is crude but by fuck is it watchable. Sadly for Mayweather, he has the opposite problem.
Although his team’s registering of telltale trademarks hint that a Mayweather comeback could always be on the cards, the sport won’t thank him for it. In the gap left by Mayweather, the Welterweight divisions have done just fine: exciting fighters such as Keith Thurman and Errol Spence, Terence Crawford, Lucas Matthysse and Ruslan Provodnikov, Erislandy Lara, Sheffield’s Kell Brook, and current pound-for-pound king Canelo Alvarez have all had big years. Progress remains slow but there are bright spots everywhere; the last thing boxing needs is an old blimp superstar blocking the sun and letting everyone else suffer.
For McGregor, it’s a different story. He’s the guy selling shows, putting backsides on seats, putting UFC into the wider consciousness. Instead of blocking new talents, he’s helping put more eyes on them as huge audiences enjoy live events packed with fights. A big bonus for UFC is its unpredictability: anyone can beat anyone at any moment. Fights usually start slow as the person who makes the first mistake usually loses, and often in spectacular fashion. McGregor is a striker, an exciting, front-foot fighter that people want to watch. Flurries of fists and flying knees regularly finish opponents on their feet and if they fall, well, it’s either a “ground and pound” (exactly what it sounds like) or any number of pretzel-y Judo holds which’ll shut off your lights and lock the door behind you. With MMA fights capped at twenty-five minutes, if boxing matches can be great cinema - slow, worthy - then MMA is great television, and McGregor is the undisputed star of the show.
And while conservator commentators might write it all off as just a blood sport, studies have shown it’s safer than boxing. Last month, Glen Sather Sports Medicine Clinic reviewed data spanning a decade from post-fight medical examinations in both sports, and showed that while MMA has a slightly higher risk of minor injuries (cuts, bruises) there is a greater risk for serious injuries in boxing (especially with regards to head and brain traumas and concussion) owing to the fact that those heavy-padded red gloves lend themselves pretty damn well to repeated punches to the face…
McGregor’s skill for brutality in the Octagon - the massive, wire-fence walled structure that holds two blokes in until one of them cannot stand - is unquestioned and now his draw as a main event fighter who transcends the sports much-maligned demographic is too.