Saturday night, in the infamous desert playground of Las Vegas, Conor McGregor earned redemption.
The UFC featherweight champion stepped up and avenged his shock February loss to Nate Diaz.
As the man himself proclaimed after the judges’ scorecards had confirmed his victory: “The f**king king is back!”
And for fight fans everywhere – and the UFC in particular – it feels good to have the outspoken Irishman back on top.
The UFC is an interesting beast. It’s the pinnacle of mixed martial arts competition (MMA), but positions itself somewhere between boxing and WWE wrestling, in its promotion. It’s a violent and bloody competitive sport (like the sweet science), but it takes its inspiration from wrestling in its WWE-style pay-per-view format and promotions. Its aim has always been to appeal to fans of both, and where it can, pull in crossover stars with massive appeal (Brock Lesnar, CM Punk from the WWE). It’s a model that has worked well – the company has just been sold for an estimated $4 billion dollars.
However, while boxing boasts legends like Muhammed Ali, Roy Jones Jr, Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis, and, in its heyday, the WWE could count on household names such as The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin and the Undertaker, what it has lacked is true superstar. Until now.
Enter: Conor McGregor.
McGregor is a gifted fighter. But where he really excels, where his true talent lies, is on the microphone. His is an unrivalled ability to provoke and promote. His rise to the top of the fight game is as much to do with his cocktail of charisma and confidence as it is to do with his craft. His spiel on the microphone rivals the very best, a throwback to halcyon days of Muhammed Ali and The Rock. His aggression and all-action style in the octagon reminiscent of Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran and Manny Pacquiao.
After signing a deal with the UFC, he went on an unprecedented seven-fight undefeated streak, defeating the likes of Max Holloway, Diego Brandao and Dennis Siver. His vertiginous climb to the top of the UFC culminating with a stunning knockout of pound-for-pound great and then UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo – 13 seconds into Round 1.
And then came the fall.
McGregor has been scheduled to move up to lightweight and fight the Brazilian Rafael dos Anjos, but the bout has cancelled, leaving McGregor without a fight. In a hurry, the UFC offered him a fight with Nate Diaz. The catch: he’d have to move up to 170lbs. A full 25lbs heavier than his fighting weight in the featherweight division, and 15lbs more than what he’d already put on to make the move to lightweight.
He took it.
In February, McGregor lost. He started the fight well, landing those brutal strikes for which he’d become famous. But in the second he tired, and after being taken to the ground, he submitted to a rear naked choke.
There were those that celebrated the Irishman’s defeat. But not the fans. Not the sport. And definitely not the UFC.
For the rematch, McGregor asked that everything be kept the same. There would be no compromise on the weight. The bout would once again take place once again at 170lbs. The man was written off.
On Saturday, McGregor knocked Diaz down three times inside the first two rounds. He landed 140+ significant strikes over five rounds, leaving Diaz wearing a mask of claret for much of the fight. He weathered a second wind from his opponent, Diaz is nothing if not tremendously durable. The Stockton-native can take punishment like few others, he has a talent for it. In the fifth, he survived a takedown in a similar situation to the way he’d been beaten before.
After he’d been declared victorious, it was hard not to feel that both the man himself, and the UFC in general, would breathe a sigh of relief.
There are many talented fighters in the UFC, as there is in boxing, but only the very special are able to transcend their sport. And that applies to any sport.
McGregor is a marketing genius. He PR’s himself in such a way, that even those who follow the UFC (and it's worth keeping in mind that it’s a promotion still in its infancy – whatever the price tag) know who he is. You’ve heard of him. He’s studied and learnt from the best, and he’s intelligent enough to understand what made them so great. It’s not just about the talent – it’s about how you promote it. Here’s to Conor McGregor: the best PR-ize fighter in the game!