Does Conor McGregor Need MMA? Does MMA Need Conor McGregor?

'Notorious' is talking up a fight with Charles Oliveira that his recent form doesn't warrant, and he might not need
10:35, 07 Jan 2022

Conor McGregor has targeted an Octagon return, as he looks to fight for the first time since breaking his leg last summer. ‘Notorious’ returns to a strange, unfamiliar landscape in the world of combat sports. Having lost his last two fights, the Irishman is no longer considered one of the world’s best. The rise of Jake Paul and the celebrity boxing phenomenon has also altered McGregor’s reality, as the influencer has usurped his position as the most controversial fighter on the planet. There was a time when this was Conor McGregor’s world, but now the 33-year-old is just living in it.

Never one to do things by halves, the proprietor of Proper No.12 whiskey has called out UFC Lightweight Champion Charles Oliveira. The fight would make financial sense, with McGregor being the biggest pay-per-view draw in UFC history. Understandably Oliveira is keen. But MMA differs from boxing in how it chooses its title fights, and McGregor is only ranked ninth in the UFC lightweight rankings. The former two-weight world champion has also won just one fight since 2016. While a McGregor vs Oliveira showdown would do monster business at the box office, it would undermine the company’s ranking system to allow it to happen.

This has not deterred McGregor from trying to will the match-up into existence. When Oliveira posted a picture of himself posing alongside footballer Neymar, McGregor took it with his usual grace and humility. Just kidding, the Irishman called out Neymar too, threatening to “smoke” the Paris Saint-Germain forward. While this was no doubt just for show, a classic McGregor PR move, it does hint towards a gravy train the ‘Notorious’ one has missed in recent years.

Conor’s 2017 cross-codes clash with boxer Floyd Mayweather was a PPV juggernaut, and dominated fight discussions for almost an entire year. McGregor put up a creditable effort in the showpiece but the sporting merits were almost secondary. What that bout proved was that people were happy to pay to watch non-boxers compete in the squared circle, as long as the hype was strong. McGregor teased that there would be more for him in the wider world of combat entertainment. He teased a fight with Manny Pacquiao that ultimately never took place. There were also persistent rumours of a turn in WWE, which also never came to fruition.

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Instead, McGregor was usurped on both counts. Heavyweight champion Tyson Fury got to a WWE ring before him, filling the quota for controversial athletes from legitimate sports in that arena. The YouTube community descended upon the celebrity boxing idea McGregor popularised with Mayweather, as Logan Paul, brother Jake and KSI began settling social media disputes in the ring. 

That cottage industry has now grown to the point that some casual observers actually think of Jake Paul as a legitimate boxer, despite his 5-0 record coming against YouTubers, basketball players and retired UFC fighters. The competition element isn’t important, the money and the clout are king. These are two things Conor McGregor holds dear, but he seems to have missed the boat. While his old rival Mayweather saw the lay of the land, and ended up earning millions for a gentle spar with Logan Paul, Conor has been slower on the uptake.

It is strange to see a lukewarm McGregor sat behind the curve, watching idle as a generation he influenced with his cocksure charisma and wealth-obsessed character steals his old spotlight. There are ways back for the 22-6 star. The road towards UFC legitimacy might be the hardest. McGregor has lost three of his last four fights, and it feels like the sport is moving on without him at least inside the Octagon, though his name will always carry considerable financial success.

Joining the celebrity boxing circus might actually be the way back. When McGregor is in the news these days, it is rarely for challenging his fellow fighters. ‘Notorious’ makes headlines when he calls out Neymar, brawls with Machine Gun Kelly or comments on the activities of a Paul brother. Ripping a page out of Jake’s playbook and contesting a series of wisely-chosen, carefully-marketed clashes with social media stars, celebrities or out-of-their-depth athletes could see McGregor breaking PPV records well into his forties. 

How McGregor approaches this crossroads will say a lot about the man who became the first fighter to hold UFC titles in two separate divisions simultaneously. Should he choose to forge ahead in the Octagon, his skills will be tested like never before, particularly against Oliveira. If McGregor really is on the wane as a fighter, he risks being brutally exposed. If he’s victorious, he joins the conversation as one of MMA’s modern greats. The road paved by Jake Paul brings no such legitimacy, but will ensure McGregor’s name is never out of the headlines, and his bank balance is never less than astronomical. For a certain set of enthusiasts, McGregor vs either Jake or Logan is their dream fight. Catering to this subset could be the wisest course of action. Fighter or superstar? It’s time for Conor McGregor to make a big decision.

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