Going the Distance: The Businessman vs. The Fighter

By Ian Wind, Fight Night Picks Contributor

Mixed martial arts is exciting, especially when contested at the highest level. With some exceptions, the UFC puts these types of fights on — week in and week out — and we as fans still can’t get enough of that fix. But when “The Notorious” Conor McGregor fights, the energy surrounding the event, whether experienced at home or in the arena, transforms into something even more powerful: an environment in which we expect the unexpected, and are still shocked when it happens. 

When McGregor wins, we are impressed by how he did it. When he loses, we are shocked that the other guy was able to do it at all. We’ve seen this dynamic over and over and over again, and — in tandem with his unique ability as a promoter and businessman — McGregor’s ability to perform in a win, or even spin a narrative in a loss, is what really shines when the lights are brightest. 

But when a fighter comes from nothing and wins a belt, then another belt, then a $130 million check for fighting one of the best boxers of all time in a different sport, is branded an icon of his athletically underachieving home country Ireland and the most famous MMA athlete of all time, all the while enjoying the luxurious fruits of his labor and sipping on Proper No. 12, what does he stand to lose when he steps back into the Octagon? This is the problem that McGregor now faces. The fear is gone. Win or lose, his brand continues to grow. McGregor the businessman is thriving and paradoxically, he has put McGregor the fighter in a position where he may no longer be able to win at the sport’s highest level. 

Against this backdrop, in which McGregor has spent more time in recent years focused on his business ventures and boxing than he has on MMA, it was still shocking to see him knocked out by Dustin “The Diamond” Poirier at UFC 257 in January. And somehow, the surprise of that result seems to have paled in comparison to that of the trilogy fight this past weekend at UFC 264, where McGregor fractured his left leg with just seconds remaining in the first round. We know to expect the unexpected with him, but surely nobody could’ve expected that. It’s fair to say that he shocked us again, but in a completely different way. 

As far as the fight itself, the injury should not serve as an asterisk on the outcome. McGregor is known to fade as the fight goes on and was already behind on the judges’ scorecards after the first round (10-8, 10-8, 10-9), so it’s unlikely he would have won the fight regardless of the injury, especially facing an uber-durable Dustin Poirier who gets better as the fight progresses. I saw enough to believe Poirier was and is the better fighter, and it’s not particularly close. Additionally, video replay from the fight shows McGregor fractured his leg on a kick before taking the step back that finished the break, a fact that is of course contrary to McGregor’s assertion that the fracture had nothing to do with kicking Dustin at any time during the fight. 

But with McGregor, reality tends to be less important than perception. Before he was stretchered off the canvas he was already cutting a promo for McGregor vs. Poirier 4, screaming to Dustin,  “This is not over!” And while it’s a bit of a reach from a fighting perspective, it’s most certainly not from a business one. McGregor’s large and loyal fanbase will be chomping at the bit for another rematch, and while he heals, Poirier will challenge for lightweight gold later this year and is favored to win against Charles “Do Bronx” Oliveira

Speaking of gold, there are not many fighters who deserve it more than Poirier. In the last four years, he has put together a stunning resumé, with wins over McGregor (twice), Max Holloway, Justin Gaethje, Eddie Alvarez, Dan Hooker, and Anthony Pettis. All that remains is the undisputed belt, which Poirier failed to earn in his loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov in 2019. Now, it’s not impossible that he could be wearing it around his waist before the end of the year. If he does become the champ, it would be disappointing but unsurprising if his first title defense comes in the form of Poirier vs. McGregor IV. 

And so, this weekend has left us in a similar situation as Poirier v. McGregor II. McGregor the businessman has emerged a big winner, but McGregor the fighter has not. McGregor was already facing an uphill battle to beat elite competition and now he will have to deal with the injury on top of it.

But at the end of the day, does it really matter? Truthers will point out that he has never defended a UFC title and has a mediocre record of 3-4 in non-featherweight bouts. These valid criticisms make it difficult to argue that he’s anywhere close to being the MMA G.O.A.T. Yet after all that, McGregor’s legacy is still set in stone. He’s made hundreds of millions of dollars, transcending what was thought to be possible for an MMA athlete in the greater business world. More importantly, he made the sport as big as it is today. He’ll always have a group of people that love him, and a group of people that hate him. But no matter who you ask, they’ll all remember him with one word in mind: notorious. 

Note: For the rest of my top-10 lightweight matchups, tune in next week for the recap of Makhachev vs. Moises.

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