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If you’ve been a fan of this sport long enough, you’ve no doubt tried to spread the gospel of violence to friends and family. You convince them to watch a fight with you, show them highlight videos on YouTube to get them excited for it and hope for the magic of the sport to reveal itself come fight time. If you can’t make them diehard fans, at least you can turn them into casual appreciators of an otherwise off-putting sport. When it works, it’s great. When it flops, it’s a specific kind of shame, an embarrassment that feels less like bad luck than an indictment of your character.
The worst time that happened to me was when Mirko Filipovic fought Gabriel Gonzaga for the at UFC 70. After hyping “Cro Cop” to my friends for weeks and subjecting them to dozens of head-kick compilation videos, he went out and got demolished in ironic and ignominious fashion, suffering the same fate he had dished out countless times prior. For my friends, that was their introduction to “Cro Cop,” and it stuck. No matter how many old fights I showed them, it couldn’t supplant the experience of watching him become irrelevant in real time.
I’ve thought of that moment a lot lately as I’ve watched Conor McGregor -- the first simultaneous two-division titleholder in Ultimate Fighting Championship history -- gradually devolve into a Twitter troll. There are substantial differences, of course, but there are also some significant similarities. It’s weird that I feel it necessary to clarify this, but here goes: McGregor is a sensational fighter. Although the power in his strikes receives the most attention, being brick-fisted is far from his finest attribute. He manages distance brilliantly; he puts a patient, exhausting pressure on opponents and capitalizes on nanoseconds of vulnerability with a profound killer instinct; his counters are slick and devastatingly accurate; and he doesn’t get enough credit for his extraordinarily intelligent mid-fight adjustments. He has earned and defended the hyperbolic claims that his many breathless supporters make.
Yet McGregor has been simultaneously absent and inescapable since his history-making performance at UFC 205 against Eddie Alvarez. McGregor dominated much of the sports-related news cycle last year in the lead-up and aftermath of his boxing match against Floyd Mayweather Jr., and he has never been shy about trading barbs with fellow fighters and celebrities, either. He has been in countless headlines despite being away from the arena that brought him fame for 16 months and counting. The Burger King commercial was cool, I guess, but only the dorkiest fans are counting a win for McGregor’s wallet as a win for anyone or anything else.
While some may find McGregor’s antics amusing -- he has taken taking shots at Max Holloway, Tony Ferguson and even 50 Cent -- I get the feeling that most casual fans are getting bored with it. What made McGregor so great before was that his verbal punches always translated into real ones in the cage, and both were endlessly entertaining. He’s an undeniably and naturally gifted trash-talker, but it’s empty now. His whole shtick feels hollow. With no apparent plans to actually settle any of his online beefs, McGregor looks desperate. He’s like an only child who upon meeting his cousins for the first time is shocked that he’s no longer the center of attention.
This brings us back to the “Cro Cop” example from earlier. To be clear, we now know via hindsight that the original head-kick king was a faded version of his former glory by UFC 70, and by no means does that apply to McGregor now. However, it’s important to see McGregor through the eyes of casual fans. While most of us can trace his rise through the UFC ranks vividly -- there were, after all, only five fights before he got a crack at a title -- many fans started paying attention to McGregor sometime around the Jose Aldo fight. That means a lot of people were introduced to McGregor via his loss to Nate Diaz, their closely contested rematch, his phenomenal win against Alvarez or the spectacularly weird Money Fight. Since then, it has been radio silence from the Irishman outside of lowbrow scandals and Twitter trolling. Those four fights paint a conflicted picture of one of the most gifted combat sports athletes of this generation. It’s hard to replace that kind of first impression, and no amount of Burger King commercials or sick Internet burns can make up for it. It only takes one dead fly to ruin an entire bottle of perfume.
Luckily, if there has ever been an athlete who can bounce back from teetering irrelevance, it’s McGregor. He says he will fight again, so now all it comes down to is choosing one of the many interesting fights available for him: the Holloway-Brian Ortega winner, the Ferguson-Khabib Nurmagomedov winner, the Diaz rubber match or even Georges St. Pierre. It’s also fair to say he deserved a break. Aside from the birth of his child, the man underwent a grueling pace of fights and media appearances from 2015-16, with a zoo of a world tour in 2017 leading up to his supersized boxing debut. It would be understandable if all he wanted to do was cash in and get out the fight game as quickly as possible, but clearly he still craves the attention he was getting for knocking people out. Now, he just needs to follow through on his keyboard karate and step in the cage. That’s where he’s the best version of himself.
Regardless of the ifs and whens of his return, the fact remains that there’s a McGregor-sized hole in the UFC. Less frequently admitted, though, is that there is also a UFC-sized hole in McGregor.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.