A win over Mayweather would only advance McGregor’s meteoric rise

Stephen Brunt and Eric Thomas react to a wild press conference that had Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather continue their war of words.

Among the many things that make Conor McGregor one-of-a-kind, an anomaly, a phenomenon, is the fact that just five years ago no one knew who he was. Outside Crumlin, the suburb of Dublin where he grew up, McGregor’s name meant nothing. A struggling plumber’s apprentice who cashed welfare cheques and trained in mixed martial arts during his spare time, there was little reason to believe McGregor would ever see even the preliminary card of the UFC’s most inconsequential event. Maybe he could see it from the stands in a seat he paid for. That was 2012.

Today, midway through 2017, McGregor is the biggest name in the UFC, and arguably all of combat sports. He’s won UFC championships in two weight classes, briefly holding the lightweight and featherweight titles simultaneously. He’s repeatedly predicted the round and fashion in which he will defeat his opponents and then brought those premonitions to life in the octagon. Last month, Forbes ranked him as the 24th-highest paid athlete in the world, with an estimated $34 million in earnings over the past year. Once he cashes the cheque from his August 26 bout with Floyd Mayweather — a fight that could earn him a nine-figure payday depending on pay-per-view sales — he’ll likely be in the top five.

Again, he’s a plumber. Some kid from outside Dublin. He fought for the first time professionally in 2008. He made his UFC debut in 2013, fighting in Sweden on the preliminary card of one of those inconsequential UFC events. It was broadcast on something called Fuel TV. McGregor was guaranteed only $8,000 for the fight. He showed up, collected his eight grand, and took home an additional $8,000 win bonus and $60,000 knockout of the night bonus for bouncing Marcus Brimage’s head off the canvas repeatedly a little more than a minute into the fight. That was only four years ago.

That McGregor has come this far, this quickly, is nothing short of remarkable. There is no comparable for it. The UFC has never featured a star of this magnitude — one who has transcended from the octagon to the boxing ring to whatever awaits him next. One whose superstardom has exploded so rapidly that he’s completely out-scaled the UFC, which now needs him far more than he needs it. It’s easy to get lost in the bravado, and the mystique, and the aura of McGregor, who can’t find a room big enough to contain him. But that only serves to distract from the unimaginable run he’s on, and the sheer speed of his ascent.

Today, McGregor doesn’t have to get out of bed for $8,000, let alone go to Sweden to fight on an undercard. That’s because after the Brimage fight he blitzkrieged the UFC in just a little over three years, running through current UFC featherweight champion Max Halloway while fighting on a torn ACL, then stringing together three consecutive emphatic knockouts over Diego Brandao, Dustin Poirier, and Dennis Siver, before he met Chad Mendes at UFC 189 and knocked him out, too, in the fight that truly elevated McGregor from exciting newcomer to UFC megastar.

Of course, McGregor was never supposed to fight Mendes at 189, with his original opponent, the legendary Jose Aldo who is regarded with no hyperbole as the greatest featherweight in UFC history, pulling out due to injury. But after overwhelming Mendes, McGregor got his crack at Aldo five months later. Aldo came into the night on a nine-year, 18-fight win streak and had defended his UFC/WEC featherweight championship nine consecutive times. McGregor knocked him out in 13 seconds.

In McGregor’s unprecedented rise there has been only one hiccup: his lone UFC loss at the hands of Nate Diaz, a welterweight who rocked McGregor, mounted him, flattened him out, and submitted him with a rear naked choke. McGregor’s response to that was to immediately fight Diaz again, only five months later, and win decisively in a five-round war that went down as one of 2016’s best fights.

In spite of the significant damage he sustained that night, McGregor fought again only three months later, taking the UFC lightweight belt from Eddie Alvarez — who has wins over some of the best lightweights of all time on his resume — with a second-round knockout in one of the most clinical, precise deconstructions of an opponent that you’ll see in a championship fight.

And that’s the thing about McGregor. While you know him for his unmatched bombast, for his flawless bespoke suits, for his cutting trash talk and the charisma he radiates, his in-fight performances have been just as spectacular. Diaz is the only UFCer who’s threatened him, and McGregor immediately exacted his vengeance, dropping the much larger Diaz to the mat three times in the rematch.

Mayweather will of course present a much different challenge, one that should test McGregor like he’s never been tested before. The argument for a McGregor loss is fairly simple to make. Mayweather’s never been defeated, he’s a defensive savant, an expert at judging timing and distance, a tireless worker from round one through 12, and he’s facing an opponent from a related yet different sport who will be fighting under unfamiliar circumstances. The longer the fight carries on, the higher the likelihood of Mayweather claiming a decision.

The argument for a McGregor victory is a bit more nuanced. He’s bigger, younger, stronger, and presumably faster. Plus, McGregor is no slouch when it comes to timing and movement himself. He can switch stances, strike from unorthodox angles, and do damage in the clinch. He also carries the great equalizer of a devastating left hand, which is by far the most potent weapon either fighter possesses. If the fight ends early, it will all but certainly be with McGregor’s hand raised. Mayweather hasn’t knocked an opponent out in six years. Since joining the UFC four years ago, McGregor’s knocked out seven of the 10 fighters he’s faced.

Which brings us back to the pure improbability of McGregor finding himself here in this ripped-out-of-fiction matchup. Four years, 10 opponents, and now he’s fighting the best boxer of this era for a massive payout. Just how high can his star rise? He’s already accomplished an unbelievable amount in a remarkably brief period of time. A victory over Mayweather — maybe even just a competitive performance — will lift McGregor into a pantheon of the greatest combat sports athletes of all time. It’s hard to imagine what the next level would be.

Is this fight a launching pad for McGregor, to movies, more lucrative endorsements, and the world of entertainment he already flirts with now? Can he pivot from this fight into an occupation that still pays him millions, but with the added bonus of not getting punched in the face? Or does he have to continue fighting beyond the Mayweather bout, regardless of result, because how does one market a fighter who doesn’t fight? And would McGregor even want to leave fighting? Or is it so ingrained in his DNA, so crucial to his identity, that he continues fighting as long as his body lets him?

Time will tell. One thing that’s hard to imagine is McGregor returning to the UFC if this fight ends in anything but his own embarrassment. After earning at least in the high eight figures — and very likely in the low nine — to fight Mayweather, what would be the appeal for McGregor to return to the UFC and earn a low seven-figure payday to take on the stylistically problematic and far less renowned Tony Ferguson or Khabib Nurmagomedov? A trilogy fight with Diaz is the one bout that could make some sense to McGregor, both in terms of prominence and his own legacy. But he earned only $3 million for his last Diaz fight. How much would it take now to convince him to return?

We’ll see. The result of Aug. 26 will go a long way to determining what’s next. And whether McGregor can beat Mayweather without the ability to kick, elbow, knee or wrestle remains a massive, unanswerable question. But you can’t deny there has yet to be a challenge McGregor hasn’t risen to. And above.

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