How an Irish ex-plumber became the biggest star in mixed martial arts
When Conor McGregor knocked out Jose Aldo in thirteen seconds there was chaos. The cheers of the estimated 4000 Irish fans, who had needed no prior encouragement for their revelry, were deafening, the smaller cohort of Brazilians sat in silence. Standing in the middle of the ring was Conor McGregor, now a veritable Celtic Tiger, the undisputed Featherweight Champion of the world and the biggest star in MMA- the man whose career trajectory sees him destined to become the first nine figure athlete in the history of the sport. Yet though he is far more interesting than that, McGregor’s life reads like the cliched rags-to-riches sporting narrative – the date that he stood triumphant in the MGM Arena less than three years removed from a semi-professional career in Dublin, whilst also working as a plumber.
Following a steady rise through the doldrums of the MMA world, in tournaments such as Cage Warriors, in 2013 McGregor signed a multi-fight contract with UFC. His opponent was an American, Marcus Brimage. This was an opportunity for him to announce himself to the MMA world at large, and he did so emphatically. After causing his opponent to chase shadows in the early stages of the fightMcGregor caught Brimage with a looping uppercut as he charged in which finished the fight. While the performance was certainly impressive, what really made him memorable was the post-fight press conference, where he revealed that he had been living on social welfare until the week prior, and displayed a level of showmanship and humour which caught the interest of potential fans just as much as the fight itself. Not only had McGregor announced himself as a fighter, but a commercially viable one at that.
Following his victorious debut McGregor rose through the ranks at a meteoric pace, combining a series of spectacular wins with a brash and entertaining brand of trash talk and strong marketing by the UFC. Over the next two years he beat the up and coming Max Holloway despite tearing his ACL in the second round, knocked out Diego Brandao upon his return from injury in his hometown of Dublin, scored a first round knockout over Dustin Poirier, his first top five ranked opponent, and then broke the viewership record on Fox Sports 1 when he beat Dennis Siver. It was safe to say that at this point McGregor was on the precipice of becoming one of the biggest superstars in the sport. Following the Siver fight the UFC announced what McGregor and his growing legion of fans had been demanding for months: a fight with Jose Aldo for the Featherweight Title.
Jose Aldo was not regarded as a fighter, he was seen as almost a trascendent warrior, an amalgam of technical brilliance and calculating ruthlessness. Having grown up in the favelas of Brazil and beaten practically every world class fighter in the division, he emanated an aura of invincibility. His record was astonishing; he was the only champion in the history of the UFC featherweight division and undefeated for the last decade. The consensus amongst many fans seemed to be that McGregor had bitten off more than he could chew.
Moreover, McGregor faced a tidal wave of criticism from fans who suggested that he had benefitted from favourable match-making as he had fought no notable grapplers on route to his title shot, due to his status as commercial golddust for the profit-chasing UFC franchise. Prevailing knowledge for the lack of European success in MMA when compared to North and South America suggests that European fighters lack a solid base in a grappling discipline such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (for winning fights on the ground) or American Shoot-Wrestling (for getting them to ground in the first place). As such, many European prospects have been beaten on the ground as soon as they face a high-level grappler. Accordingly, the dearth of European success at the elite levels thus resulted in the failure of UFC to gain the same level of marketisation as it did across the pond and in the Americas. In the eyes of many fans, the fact that McGregor had been given a title shot without first facing a grappler in a division so saturated with them reeked of the UFC trying to protect McGregor’s record.
After the Aldo fight was postponed due to the Brazilian breaking a rib in training , Chad Mendes, an arguably the best grappler in the division, filled in for Aldo and, despite the short notice, McGregor accepted the fight. This was it: the grappler. The strong, athletic wrestler who was supposed to be McGregor’s kryptonite. The moment the bell rang McGregor sprinted across the cage met Mendes seemingly without fear, and for the first few minutes was winning on the feet. Then Mendes took him down. After passing his guard with ease, Mendes pummeled him with elbows, opening a huge cut above McGregor’s right eye. When the round ended McGregor sat up and laughed – but had the facade of invincibility been exposed?
The second round looked much like the first, with Mendes taking McGregor down almost immediately and raining down on him with a barrage of elbows. However, towards the end of the round Mendes failed a choke attempt, allowing McGregor to get back to his feet, and with seconds left in the round McGregor knocked out Mendes in one of the best comebacks in recent years. After the fight it was revealed that McGregor had re-tore 80% of his ACL a few weeks prior, yet had fought despite being severely injured: the heart of a fighter was revealed to exist under the veneer of braggado.
Finally, with the grappler question answered, the Aldo fight happened on the 12th of December 2015, billed as the biggest pay-per-view event in UFC history. The MGM arena was transformed into a cacophony of sound, the Irish contigent as vociferous and inebriated as ever. Thirteen seconds later Mcgregor stood towering over Aldo’s unconscious body. It was over. For the first ten seconds the two had attempted to gauge each other’s rhythm and timing, before Aldo had leapt in with a wide left hook which McGregor countered with a left of his own. Aldo’s brain had shut off before his body hit the floor,
In thirteen seconds Conor McGregor had beaten a man who had won every fight for the last ten years, and had secured his spot as MMA’s biggest superstar. Asked about his rise to the top of the sport in an interview after the Aldo fight, McGregor described it with his characteristic brevity as a journey “from nothing, to something, to everything”, and when you take a step back and look at his career as a whole, it’s hard not to agree with him – maybe McGregor’s story is not quite the Disney archetype, but it is a testament to the power of perseverance.
Despite being fresh off the heels of his last fight, McGregor is taking no time off. His next fight is scheduled for the 5th of March against Rafael Dos Anjos, the Lightweight Champion, and it truly is McGregor’s biggest challenge to date. McGregor is looking to do something unprecedented in moving up a weight class and becoming the first person to hold titles in two divisions simultaneously. However, the man standing in his was is not one to be taken lightly. Dos Anjos is a different category of fighter. An insanely athletic martial artist , relentlessly pressuring his opponent when coming forward and crucially, much more of a physical match for McGregor, who has held a large height (and thus reach) advantage over his last opponents. Perhaps this time Icarus really has flown too close the sun, and will be brought down to earth, a concussion to go with his singed wings. But if there’s one thing that McGregor’s exponential rise to stardom has taught us, it is that he is not to be underestimated.