Covered in blood and sucking wind, Conor McGregor found an inflection point for 2016.
It was August 20, the night of his rematch with Nate Diaz at UFC 202, and the featherweight-champion-turned-welterweight-for-another-night McGregor initially corrected the mistakes of his first losing encounter with the fluctu-weight from Stockton: kick the legs, stay outside, and brace for 25 cautious minutes. But after dropping Diaz three times in two rounds, McGregor's lungs started heaving, and he was swallowed up by Diaz’s clinch and pressure in the third frame. McGregor had built a world where he called his shots and talked shit and irritated the UFC brass and made untold millions. But that world had already looked shaky in its orbit when Diaz choked him out five months earlier, when the promotion pulled him from the UFC 200 marquee, and when he threatened early retirement. Losing the Diaz rematch would have been a cataclysm, and the end looked assured.
But in the fourth round, within all that lactic acid, McGregor found the will to win. He slithered off of the fence, snapped Diaz’s head back, and hammered his body. Never mind that McGregor sputtered through the fifth round and lost it convincingly: he'd been backed into a corner, he punched and kicked his way out, and he won a majority decision. For his troubles, he made $3 million—the highest official payday a UFC fighter has ever recorded in history—and he set the promotion's all-time pay-per-view buy record.
2016 was the year of Conor McGregor’s transformation. Granted, he started as a champion, the same Irish dandy with a taste for pocket squares and knockouts who talked about keeping the company of gods. But in the end, after so much doubt and turmoil, he proved himself an all-time great, two belts slung over his shoulders and crowing about an equity stake in the company he’d help turn into a $4 billion enterprise. If he wasn’t quite a god, he was nonetheless sculpting a universe in his image.
It’s hard not to look at 2016 without recalling the final weeks of 2015. McGregor knocked out Jose Aldo in 13 seconds, gave the featherweight champ his first loss in a decade, and anointed himself new king. Just as intriguing, a video emerged of erstwhile UFC owner Frank Fertitta sitting cage-side and slamming the gold belt on the sideline in the moments after McGregor left-hooked Aldo. The official word was that it wasn’t a sign of behind-the-scenes turmoil with the Irishman: it was because Fertitta is the kind of guy who expresses emotions by flipping tables.
But that strain boiled over throughout 2016. Spurred by McGregor's out-of-nowhere retirement tweet, the UFC announced that it had pulled McGregor-Diaz II from its UFC 200 headlining spot because he'd skipped out on a press conference and other media obligations, a decision McGregor justified by way of shitting on the state of Connecticut. To prove a point, the UFC wouldn’t accept his offer to return to the headlining post. Weeks after smashing Eddie Alvarez and becoming the UFC's only dual-division champion, the promotion recast Aldo as the official 145-pound titleholder, claiming McGregor gave up the belt he never defended. McGregor, meanwhile, wasn't having it. "[The UFC] is trying to strip me; well, I ain't stripped," McGregor said. "I still got that belt. That belt's still at my home right now. I'm still the two-weight world champion. Someone's got to come take that off me."
McGregor became the worst kind of antagonist for the UFC: one who knew his own worth, and knew they knew it, too. The status quo was for fighters to let the promotion dictate the terms—"I’ll fight whoever the UFC tells me"—mostly because the UFC had faith in the immutable power of its own brand. But McGregor, just three years into his UFC career, was the clearest evidence that big, bold names sell more fights than three letters. His fights against Diaz, Aldo, and the lightweight-title-winning headliner opposite Alvarez at Madison Square Garden sold twice as many pay-per-views as the promotion sold in 2014. His repeated calls for a boxing match with pound-for-pound great Floyd Mayweather were a ridiculous subplot to the year—one that got slightly more credence after McGregor received a boxing license from California in November—but they sent a message to his employers: you need me, McGregor seemed to say, more than I need you.
But for all the headaches he gave the UFC front office, their tiffs have yet to boil over into all out war, and McGregor delivered when it counted. When then-lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos injured his foot and McGregor’s first crack at the 155-pound title fell apart, he picked up his rhetorical cudgels for Diaz on 11 days notice, and the lead-up to UFC 196 was some of the most entertaining fight marketing you’ll ever see: organic, high-volume, funny without anyone getting too friendly. Diaz benefited hugely from his pugilistic association with McGregor: he'd made just $20,000 for his last non-McGregor bout, but he made $2 million for their August rematch. And while ripping McGregor from the headlining spot on the star-studded UFC 200 and casting him off to UFC 202 was supposed to be a punishment, in reality in just meant the promotion got a pair of million-plus selling pay-per-views instead of one.
Those buy rates matter most of all to WME-IMG, the Hollywood talent agency who purchased the UFC for $4 billion. Besides cutting costs and reducing redundancies in the business, a return on their investment means embracing the new normal that McGregor helped inaugurate, one in which belts and rankings doesn’t mean nearly as much as the names and blood feuds an audience wants to watch. McGregor knows this, and he's publically demanded a share of the company. "I want the ownership now," he said after TKO-ing Alvarez. "If we're going to keep doing this, let's talk, but I want an equal share. I want what I've deserved, what I've earned." (Actor Mark Wahlberg, one of the celebrity investors who helped finance the purchase, offered to sell a piece of his stake to McGregor.)
But the things that make McGregor special are also things that don't scale. Hundreds of fighters getting fades, wearing custom-tailored suits, lobbying for money fights, and trotting out their best (and worst) one-liners gets tiresome. (McGregor embarrassing them, however, doesn't.) The concern remains: how does the UFC groom more stars? Without an answer and with uncertainty surrounding former women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey—the UFC's other box-office draw who's 0-2 in as many fights—the fates of McGregor and the UFC are more tightly bound than ever.
With a child on the way, McGregor is taking time off until a date to be determined. When he returns, he'll be staring down the 155-pound ranks, and it's not assured that he'll triumph. Khabib Nurmagomedov, in particular, is a nightmare for McGregor, a Dagestani sambo master whose takedowns, top control, and submissions embody every nagging question that McGregor has yet to answer. The 190-ish-pound giants at welterweight, where McGregor has fomented a rivalry with champion Tyron Woodley, don't look any more forgiving.
But McGregor will have to do what he did in the fourth round against Diaz: summon the will to win, over and over. The universe can't keep expanding without it.
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