Can Conor McGregor live up to the hype? | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
Any ardent follower of mixed martial arts saw it coming months ago.
Prior to its much ballyhooed debut on Fox Sports 1 in August, the Ultimate Fighting Championship held an individual media day and open workout for a cocksure featherweight with exactly one promotional appearance to his credit. Although the event featured such luminaries as Mauricio Rua, Chael Sonnen, Alistair Overeem and Urijah Faber, for a few hours the spotlight shone directly on a fighter whose bout did not even occupy the show’s featured preliminary spot.
Conor McGregor had center stage all to himself that afternoon in Boston, and he was a huge hit. When the Dublin native made his way to the cage at the TD Garden four days later, the atmosphere was electric.
“I really can’t remember the last time a guy with one UFC fight [got this kind of reception]. This place is on its feet,” UFC commentator Joe Rogan said. “This is something unusual. This kid’s got something.”
If McGregor’s performance against Max Holloway failed to match the pre-fight hype -- although he was never in danger in capturing a unanimous verdict -- the Irishman can be forgiven. It was later revealed that McGregor suffered a torn ACL during the bout, something not known to enhance a fighter’s finishing rate.
After some time on the sidelines, McGregor is recovered and ready to make an impact in the featherweight division, or at least, more than he has already. Not surprisingly, the “Notorious” one will not be allowed to ease his way back into the fray. Instead, McGregor will headline the Las Vegas-based promotion’s first card in Ireland since 2009, when he squares off with Cole Miller at the O2 in Dublin on July 19.
Of course, that was the plan all along. All McGregor had to do upon signing a UFC contract was build on a sparkling resume crafted primarily under the Cage Warriors Fighting Championship banner. Thus far, he has.
Hailed as “the greatest prospect to come out of Ireland in years” prior to his Octagon debut, McGregor displayed plenty of flair in knocking out “The Ultimate Fighter 14” alum Marcus Brimage in just 67 seconds in April 2013. After shining brightly on a relatively nondescript Fuel TV card, there was already talk of McGregor spearheading the UFC’s return to the Emerald Isle back then.
His reception in Boston -- a city with a large Irish-American population -- only served to further that notion. If it all feels like a serious case of too much, too soon for the soon-to-be 26-year-old, that is because it probably is. However, when the UFC decides to go all-in promoting one of its fighters, the ascent to stardom can be meteoric, provided the athlete does his or her part.
Chael Sonnen became a star on a press conference dais by insulting a champion and the nation that stood behind him. The “Gangster From West Linn” continues to ride the wave of momentum from his initial fight with Anderson Silva to this day. Thanks to his gift of gab, title shots, studio gigs and reality show coaching assignments have all been within his reach.
McGregor seems to have this part down. During his absence, the SBG Ireland representative was far from quiet, engaging in Twitter feuds with prospective opponents both in and out of his division. In a short time, McGregor appears to have become a lighter-weight version of Michael Bisping -- he is the man everyone wants to call out. Suddenly, fighters with far more extensive resumes and accomplishments than McGregor want a piece of someone who has stepped into the Octagon just twice. Miller, with his goofy yet endearing “Colin McGoober” quip, was just one of many.
“He’s slow. He’s scared. I’m fast. I’m fearless. There’s no contest.” McGregor said on “UFC Tonight” last week. “I see it in his voice, his body language. He’s petrified. I’m coming to get him, and not just him. Forget him. I’ve listened to everyone calling me out. Now I’m back and I’m going to rip through them. I’ll smash Chad Mendes, I’ll annihilate Jose Aldo. I’m coming to take over the division. It’s my division.”
That was par for the course for nattily-attired McGregor, who is as flamboyant in front of microphones, cameras and recorders as he is when squaring off with befuddled adversaries in the cage. That part is key. McGregor’s unorthodox striking technique blended with apparent disregard for his opponent’s skills makes for high-quality entertainment come fight night. That same disregard carries over to interviews and social media, keeping McGregor in the headlines even when the time to perform has come and gone.
Count UFC featherweight champion Aldo as one of many not exactly amused by McGregor’s shtick. The Nova Uniao standout has not lost a fight in nearly nine years while often displaying a penchant for the spectacular inside the cage. However, whether it be lack of marketing, the language barrier or any combination of factors, he remains something of a mystery to the average fan.
“I’ve never watched this guy fight, man,” Aldo told MMAFighting.com. “He only fought once, and he thinks he’s the king.”
A little self-promotion can definitely go a long way. Two weeks ago, after UFC President Dana White suggested that Phil Davis was a little too lackadaisical about his status in the light heavyweight division, “Mr. Wonderful” took that to mean he should spend an entire conference call insulting champion Jon Jones. He was then promptly manhandled by Anthony Johnson at UFC 172.
McGregor does not need prodding to provide bulletin-board material. Even if he does tend to go a little overboard, his charisma seems to be natural, not forced. Still, as Davis proved, looking too far ahead can be a dangerous game. If McGregor stumbles against Miller in front of his countrymen, all those Next-Big-Thing accolades move on to the next bright light. For now, however, the Irish featherweight seems to be holding a pretty good hand.
In the UFC’s bizarre star-making world, where a short-notice barista can become a co-headliner in a matter of days, McGregor is the quintessential three-tool talent: He can talk, he can fight and most importantly, he has the UFC’s promotional muscle behind him. Ask Jones how much of a slippery slope the last of those can be.
To say the time for talk is over would be cliché -- and incorrect in the case of McGregor. After all, talking played a big role in getting him to where he is today. Now that he has laid the foundation for stardom, the real work is about to begin.