Love him or hate him, Conor McGregor has changed the game in the UFC. Others are now chasing a similar legacy.
During the broadcast of UFC 250 at the weekend, Conor McGregor announced his retirement from the sport of mixed martial arts. For the third time.
After ripping through Donald Cerrone in January, McGregor had talked of 2020 as a year in which he’d be very active, possibly fighting as many as four times, health permitting.
He had a plan to get to the top of one of the UFC’s weight classes – be that Lightweight or even Welterweight, where a scrap with ‘BMF’ champion Jorge Masvidal was mooted.
But the state of the world and other factors have put pay to that, and McGregor now seems to have hung up the gloves for the third time during his illustrious career.
There aren’t many people out there that believe we’ve genuinely seen the last of the Irishman inside the Octagon, with the ‘Notorious’ being just that when it comes to negotiating for more money from Dana White and co.
However, whether we’ve seen the last of him or not, the legacy the 31-year-old will leave behind him must put him firmly in the history books as one of the best ever to grace the sport.
McGregor is a polarising figure for sure. For every person that loves the swagger, the skills and the trash-talking nature, there’s another that hates the arrogance, the money-flaunting and the extensive legal rap sheet that comes with it.
But one thing simply cannot be ignored. Conor McGregor has taken the sport of MMA and the organisation of the UFC to new heights, and helped every single one of its athletes by doing so. Here’s why…
Think back to November 2016, when McGregor challenged Lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez for the title while still holding the Featherweight strap.
At the time, there had been 66 champions across all eight weight categories in UFC history. There had never been a single fight to crown a double champion.
Why? There was nothing stopping a champion moving up or down to challenge another in a superfight, but none of them had done it. No one had the vision to realise that becoming the first to do something carries huge weight in terms of legacy and how you’re perceived in your career, as well as significant monetary gain.
Georges St Pierre made NINE defences of his Welterweight crown from 2008 to 2013 and was widely regarded as the pound-for-pound king, but never fancied a crack at another title simultaneously (although did win the Middleweight belt four years later during his one-fight comeback). A potential superfight with Anderson Silva, the long-time 185lb king, was never seriously close to coming to fruition.
In the three years since McGregor dusted Alvarez in two rounds of striking dominance, almost every champion in every weight class has had their eyes set on becoming a two-weight king, whether that was from moving up or down a division. That’s the Conor McGregor effect.
Daniel Cormier, the long-time Light Heavyweight champion, moved up to Heavyweight and knocked out Stipe Miocic, becoming a champ-champ in the progress. He even defended both titles simultaneously, which was an incredible achievement. Amanda Nunes became the first woman to repeat the feat, and Henry Cejudo captured the Flyweight and Featherweight titles before retiring. All of them were following in McGregor’s footsteps after seeing what it did for his reputation.
McGregor, after sparking out Featherweight champion Jose Aldo in 13 seconds and then taking on Nate Diaz (twice) two weights above his usual 145lb limit, wasn’t happy with being just another champion, so instead of defending his title, chose to take on Alvarez for double gold.
Many people criticise the Irishman for not defending his titles, but think about it; what makes more money? What does more for your legacy? Sticking around fighting guys that are in your weight category, or moving up for fights where you’re considered the underdog for being too light, too small, or too weak to compete?
After beating Alvarez, McGregor’s expansion wasn’t limited to MMA. He brokered a fight with GOAT boxer Floyd Mayweather in a cross-sport contest never seen before.
Whatever you think of that fight is your business, but there’s something you can’t deny; ever since that fight, there’s been rumours of more MMA vs Boxing bouts in the pipeline. McGregor made approximately £30m from taking Mayweather ten rounds, and more fighters see the dollar signs when they think about their careers.
In recent times, Heavyweight contender Francis Ngannou has been rumoured to be chasing a fight with Deontay Wilder, Anthony Joshua or Dillian Whyte, while Jorge Masvidal was rumoured to be in talks with boxing P4P king Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez.
It shows no signs of stopping. Dereck Chisora has spoken about going into MMA and “knock some dudes out”. Literally everyone wants to be involved in cross-sport fights.
The truth of the fact is this – these rumours weren’t a thing before McGregor fought Mayweather. That’s the Conor McGregor effect.
McGregor has always had the vision to see where his future lies. Before the UFC came calling, he was the first ever Cage Warriors double champion (at Featherweight and Lightweight) before doing the same in the UFC.
Eight years ago, he had nothing. The screenshot below is from a message sent via Facebook to a music DJ about a walkout song that he wanted. The DJ wanted $250 for the song, but McGregor didn’t have that kind of cash, so the deal fell through. Today, Conor is worth $110m and probably has at least $250 down the back of his sofa.
The journey he’s been on is crazy, and to this day it’s having a knock-on effect on the rest of the UFC.
In recent weeks, Jon Jones has threatened to quit the company over a pay row, as has Masvidal. Before McGregor returned to action to face Khabib Nurmagomedov in 2018, one of the mitigating factors around his return to the sport was how much he’s being paid for his services.
McGregor talked openly about how much money HE makes the UFC, compared to what he gets paid for putting on the shows. The Irishman attracts the biggest gates in the sport, and as such he wanted a STAKE in the UFC, rather than a set sum for competing.
It sounded outlandish at the time, but McGregor fighting Diaz made the company $8m in gate receipts alone back in 2016. The Irishman took home under half of that for losing, and that’s without TV revenue thrown into the mix. Why shouldn’t he get a more substantial cut of what he’s helping bring to the table?
Fast forward to Masvidal and Jones threatening to walk away from the company, and what’s the reason behind it? They both want paying more for their worth – where have we seen that before? The Conor McGregor effect.
The UFC might legitimately lose two of it’s premium stars in Jones and Masvidal, and their brand could be severely affected by it. Masvidal is one of the hottest fighters in the world right now and would easily bring more eyes to one of his fights than Welterweight champ Kamaru Usman would, given his personality, fighting style and likeability.
Similarly Jones is the only good thing about the Light Heavyweight division, even given his shocking list of scandals that have plagued his legacy. The UFC have been underpaying their stars for years, and until McGregor started to hold them accountable, no one did anything about it.
Now, fighters are opening their eyes and realising they should be making more money for putting their careers and lives on the line, and following the Irishman’s lead. The Conor McGregor effect.
So, whether you like McGregor or not, the Crumlin-born fighter has transformed the game in his seven years inside the Octagon. Whether he fights again or not is anyone’s guess, but he’s certainly done enough to be considered as one of the GOATs, even if it’s just for his effect on the sport.