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The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 246 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.
The story of the athlete—particularly the individual sport athlete—who rises to the top only to succumb to hubris and self-destructive behavior is older than any of us. It’s not simply that these athletes lose the motivation to train at the highest level and fall to younger, hungrier opponents. Rather, all too often, these athletic greats engage in risky behavior that causes enormous personal turmoil when seemingly life ought to be easy. Mike Tyson is often used as the template, but it has been the case for so many others, from Diego Maradona and Lance Armstrong to Tiger Woods and Lawrence Taylor.
Many Conor McGregor supporters have worried in recent years that he could end up being another cautionary tale. Since beating Eddie Alvarez to become a two-division world champion in November 2016, McGregor’s outside-the-Octagon controversies have far outnumbered his inside-the-Octagon accomplishments. It became an open question around the sport why McGregor was acting the way he was. Why would someone so successful and beloved risk all that he had accomplished for no good reason? The UFC 246 main event on Saturday offered key insight into that question.
In contrast to most of his major career fights, the odds were not stacked against McGregor. With his name already long ago made, he didn’t have to worry about putting his energies into doing a late hard sell for his fight. Instead, he was able to focus on simply being amiable and good-natured, clearly cognizant of the need to rehabilitate his reputation. After years of taking on the toughest possible opponents, he elected to take on a fading 36-year-old opponent coming off consecutive TKO defeats. He was a significant favorite for only the second time since he first fought for a world title.
McGregor proceeded to take care of business, both outside the Octagon and inside of it. He came across as charming in the press he did for the fight. He gave the impression that he has learned from his mistakes. We will learn whether that’s the case with time. The personal magnetism that drew fans to him was still there. Even for those who view McGregor negatively, it’s hard to argue that the sport isn’t more exciting and fun with him as a prominent part of it.
In the fight, he was impressive. His shoulder strikes were an interesting new wrinkle, his other strikes were precise and he capitalized on every opening. For all the talk of Donald Cerrone being a slow starter, no opponent in his storied career ever put him away quicker than McGregor did. It was exactly the sort of performance for which McGregor’s supporters were hoping. He looked as dominant as ever.
Even more noteworthy than McGregor’s performance was the reaction to it. Media that had been ambivalent or negative towards him was overwhelmingly positive coming out of the Cerrone bout. If anything, he probably got more credit than he deserved as far as what the bout told us about where he stands in the sport today. McGregor was warmly embraced by the fans and celebrated for his performance. Inside the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, the atmosphere was festive and celebratory. Discussion decisively turned away from all the controversy and towards the upcoming matchups that await McGregor.
The reason for all this was straightforward: Fans wanted to reembrace McGregor. Charismatic star athletes drive interest in sports. We don’t want to see them fall; we want to see them thrive. It’s why star athletes are forgiven and embraced by home team fans after pretty much any indiscretion, so long as they keep performing at a high level. That’s the only requirement: They have to keep winning, and star athletes are confident in their ability to continue winning in their athletic prime. That’s even more the case in MMA because you can always find a softer-touch individual opponent as you get older and pass your athletic prime—something that is not true of team sports.
Ultimately, that’s why so many elite athletes end up getting into trouble outside of competition. They know, like McGregor has to know after UFC 246, that all it takes to make any problem go away is to do what he does best: win. It’s unfortunate that this is the case, but the biggest thing working against McGregor’s status to the public since the Alvarez fight was not the dolly attack, the arrests or even the sexual assault investigations. It was the fact that he hadn’t won. When you’re that big of a star, winning cures everything. McGregor won big at UFC 246, and everything else faded into the background. If that is indeed the case, why not follow your id at any given moment? Redemption is always right around the corner.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.