Fall From Grace

By Josh Gross Jul 13, 2021


Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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The contentious buildup and noise. A massive gate. Celebrity cameos. Flammable post-fight reaction. Social media traction. All hallmarks of Conor McGregor, biggest A-Side in mixed martial arts history, were on display at UFC 264.

Leading into Saturday night much of the promotion and media attention focused on McGregor’s greatest hits because for him and his supporters anything else might have turned their gaze toward a distressing direction.

So we got a lot of marketable truths: He’s rich and famous; makes his own rules; he’s the brightest name MMA has seen in lights; the Notorious Mystic Mac, conjurer of some of the most memorable moments that have ever happened inside the Octagon.

It is true that no one else in the history of MMA has come close to morphing into the rarest form a fighter can take.

This is why there are millions of reasons he continues to carry himself like Floyd Mayweather Jr. … the forever A-Side … which is also why a crowd cobbled together $16 million to watch a night of cage fighting in Las Vegas over the weekend.

Pulling it off requires fighting with the longevity of a dominant champion and the ability to impersonate a living, breathing money machine.

For this to hold up against time and glaring light of reality, the strength of a fighter’s résumé and drawing power -- combat sports yin and yang -- have to flow in a constantly-elevated state.

A gravitational fact about A-Sides, though, is their magnetism only works in conjunction with a partner.

There are moments when “B-Side” simply means “body” because the person on the opposite side doesn’t matter beyond their ability to stand. Take Peter McNeeley from Boston, who merely had to offer Mike Tyson something to hit to fulfill his duties in 1995 during one of boxing’s biggest events.

There are times when the B-Side boosts the strength of the pull, like when McGregor met his North Star and boxed Mayweather in that hyped exhibition five years ago that delivered a financial windfall for all involved.

And then there are the nights when B-Sides like Dustin Poirier represent the “balance” that can come when the competitively relevant yin overcomes the business-focused yang.

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For all his bravado, hype and brashness, there were inescapable facts that led to McGregor’s elevation into a household name. First, he won. That he did so dramatically and in the highest-profile moments were his magic sauce.

McGregor’s money and fame materialized because he found ways to dominate the mind, spirit and physical being of the opposition. Yet in the years that have passed since he finished Jose Ado in 13 seconds, McGregor is a paltry 3-5 (including the Mayweather boxing exhibition) and has been finished four times.

This regression is why many of us felt that Poirier was the better fighter when he walked into the Octagon to face McGregor for the second time in 2021. And in January, “The Diamond” proved the point. But that did little to alter the framing of an A-Side moneymaker versus the Lafayette, Louisiana, B-Sider ahead of their third fight.

Poirier will never generate the attention that McGregor can. However by imposing himself on Mystic Mac, the B-Side showed that McGregor may finally have to cope with a dip in his A-Side status. A dip that could keep some of the celebrities away next time. Make the noisiness of the buildup harder to digest. Make the words feel like an impression of better days.

Celebrity is powerful and often provides protections that others do not get. When talk of a fourth fight started immediately after both bones in McGregor’s lower left leg snapped, it showed how hard it can be to let go of this allure, most certainly so for anyone with a financial stake in what happens next.

This brings us back to the balance point. The yin and yang of the game. You can be a celebrity who fights or a fighter who finds celebrity. The mix and reactivity of the elements at play determines everything. For MMA purposes, one would rather be explosive than inert in the minds of audiences. Getting people to care about you, whichever way that happens, is a critical hurdle to clear for any professional.

McGregor undoubtedly did this. He did the work. He won when he had to and it paid off in ways that the vast majority of his peers will never know.

But how about now that he no longer qualifies as an ascendant sports superstar?

Poirier and the great Khabib Nurmagomedov proved that McGregor is an A-Sider on the strength of his name and likeness, not his current ability to compete at the highest level. And for any top professional athlete this imbalance represents an almost impossible hill to reclimb. Advertisement
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