We should have seen it coming.
Rewind to this time last year. Of all the fighters coming off superlative years, of all the burgeoning and blazing stars of the sport, only one of them had the clairvoyance to know where he would end up by year’s end: the man they call “Mystic Mac.”
Entering 2015, McGregor was still plagued by questions and doubters. He had run roughshod over inferior foes, they said; the Ultimate Fighting Championship was handpicking opponents for him to look good against; he had yet to face a stud wrestler; his ground game was completely untested and unproven; he was being promoted because of his trash talk, not his skill. Such accusations brought comfort to the high school coach types who hated his cockiness, and they put staunch McGregorites in a defensive uproar. However, the man himself could not seem to be bothered by any of it. As we would all come to learn in due time: Losers focus on winners, and winners focus on winning. McGregor has done nothing but convincingly and devastatingly win.
Yet, for someone as brimming with bravado as McGregor, 2015 did not begin with the foreshocks to greatness that one would expect. The Irishman started the year with a demolition of German journeyman Dennis Siver in a widely panned matchup. It functionally acted as a title eliminator for “Notorious,” and since McGregor was fed a hopelessly overmatched opponent, it all but ensured a highlight-reel finish. That finish came, as they always do with McGregor, but not without its costs: Siver found moments and techniques that momentarily frustrated McGregor, giving detractors new ammo to claim that the Irishman was indeed the division’s joker, not its heir to the throne. If McGregor heard the naysayers, he was too busy cashing his checks to pay them any mind. He knew something they did not.
“It’s not all talk here,” McGregor said in the post-fight interview. “I’m gonna wipe out everyone in this division. I said that, and I will do it.”
The win earned McGregor the title shot against perennial pound-for-pound powerhouse Jose Aldo. Ever since McGregor sprung the cage and screamed in Aldo’s face after his win against Siver, the fate of both men felt cosmically entangled. Sensing the significance of the fight, the UFC launched a worldwide press tour that dominated the first half of the year. Great fights came and went, but they only felt like appetizers at best, distractions at worst. Before any sort of coronation took place, it was already McGregor’s year.
McGregor’s opponent was swapped out weeks before the fight, and the championship belt was asterisked with an “interim” title, but he remained unperturbed. According to McGregor’s head coach John Kavanagh, “Notorious” was sleeping when the news arrived that Aldo pulled out of UFC 189 with a rib injury. When Kavanagh told his pupil that Chad Mendes, not Aldo, would be standing across from him in the cage, McGregor reportedly opened a single eye and said “they’re all the same” before resuming his slumber. It is the stuff of legend.
Against Mendes, McGregor would answer his first stylistic test opposite an All-American wrestler with explosive knockout power. Mendes dubbed himself the “Mike Tyson of the division with a mean blast double-leg.” Mendes had not only defeated but absolutely smashed everyone in the division, except reigning champion Aldo, and many expected him to utilize his wrestling to grind out a decision against the Irishman’s untested grappling chops. For the first round, that looked like a distinct possibility: He completed three of his four takedowns against McGregor en route to securing the round. Though McGregor may have lost that battle, his focus was on the larger picture; he made Mendes pay for the takedowns by constantly targeting the body of the short-notice challenger. In the second round, those body shots paid dividends. McGregor stuffed most of Mendes’ takedowns and avoided any fight-altering damage. By the end of the round, Mendes was sucking wind, and McGregor put him away with a precise straight left, only seconds left on the clock.
“Nobody can take that left hand shot,” an emotional McGregor said, draped in an Irish flag and a UFC belt. “Everyone breaks.” Cocky then, prophetic now.
Like “Mystic Mac” said, they were all the same. It did not matter that Mendes took Aldo closer to the brink than anyone else or that he was supposed to be stylistic kryptonite for McGregor. Mendes was dusted off with the same effortlessness and ease as Siver.
The anticipation for the fight with Aldo was at a fever pitch. The image of a young challenger screaming in the face of a smiling Aldo seemed like a distant memory. McGregor was now officially a champion. Even though Aldo was the most tenured titleholder in the UFC and an all-time pound-for-pound great who had not lost a fight in a decade, he felt like the contender. Such is the gravity of McGregor’s world.
The buildup for the Aldo fight picked up right where it left off, only with the added fervor of being a title unification bout. McGregor-Aldo was the fight of the year, both for the honest and justified anticipation of it and because promotion for it literally lasted the entire calendar year. The five months between McGregor’s victory over Mendes and his showdown with Aldo at UFC 194 seemed like an eternity. It was exhausting to follow. By the time the two of them were walking into the Octagon, it felt like a crescendo of excitement and an unburdening all at once. All of the events and emotions and everything screeched to an instant as the cage door closed and the two men walked toward each other.
And then it was all over, as abruptly and unceremoniously as any champion has ever fallen. One punch, and Aldo was out cold. They are all the same -- even Aldo, who it can be argued is one of the four best fighters of all-time in any weight class. He was effectively no different than “oh yeah, that guy” Marcus Brimage. It was like using a tank to wipe Theodore Roosevelt off of Mt. Rushmore in order to chisel a new face. He could not take that left hand shot. Aldo the unbreakable broke.
It is a rare feat to run through an entire division, especially in this day and age. However, this is not the aging light heavyweight landscape that Jon Jones bulldozed or the barren wasteland of Anderson Silva’s middleweight division. Nor is it the shallow pools of Demetrious Johnson’s flyweights. This featherweight division right now is one of the top two or three toughest, most talented divisions in the sport; and McGregor, Sherdog.com’s 2015 “Fighter of the Year,” has breezed through it like he expected nothing less. Why were we surprised? “I would maul Mendes, and Aldo is another easy win,” McGregor said after his 2014 win over Dustin Poirer. He said it, and then he did it.
With records set in and out of the cage and two championship belts won against the two top fighters in the division, there is no denying that 2015 was the year of the “Notorious,” and we were all lucky to be able to see it play out in real time. If we were listening, we would have never had to see anything to know who already conquered the sport; McGregor has been saying it all along, even before it happened.
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