Mixed martial arts can be a very cruel sport – the fall from grace can be just as dramatic as the grueling climb to the top of the mountain. For a sport that has been in the mainstream for less than three decades, MMA continues to mix the game up in search of the greatest mixed martial artist of all time.
Just when we think sport has found the best of the best, that person is knocked off the throne, falling out of sight. Just as quickly as Ronda Rousey was recognized as the best fighter on the planet, Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes came in and asked everyone if Rousey was that good to begin with. The same goes for Fabricio Werdum, Fedor Emelianenko, Tyron Woodley, Jose Aldo, Anthony Pettis, Chris Weidman, Anderson Silva, Demetrious Johnson and others who have had their greatness ripped off.
This brings us to Conor McGregor.
The UFC’s biggest star and the first fighter to hold world titles in two divisions simultaneously was KO by Dustin Poirier in the main event of UFC 257. The loss was his second in his last three fights, as he went 3-3 since his stunning first round knockout at Aldo in 2015.
This begs the question: to what extent East Conor McGregor? As revolutionary as the Irishman has been throughout his career, how much of his success has to do with a perfect storm of timing and the right opponents at the right time?
It’s not to take away what McGregor has accomplished. Aldo’s one-shot knockout at a time when Aldo was leading a 17-game winning streak cannot be underestimated. However, a sport as volatile as MMA often leads to these quick and shocking finishes.
Georges St-Pierre was surprisingly upset by Matt Serra, but Serra was never the same again after St-Pierre did a bit of work in the rematch a year later. St-Pierre has never lost another fight. Aldo never had a chance to redeem himself, freely falling to a 4-5 record after the loss to McGregor. He’s also stepped out of the all-time pound-for-pound conversation.
McGregor could follow suit soon.
MMA is cruel to fighters because there is no focus fighting in the sport. Unlike boxing, which allows a fighter to move up the ladder with relatively soft touches, MMA returns a loser in the lion’s den against another ranked opponent.
Aldo followed his loss to McGregor with fights against Frankie Edgar, Max Holloway (twice), Jeremy Stephens, Renato Moicano and Alexander Volkanovski. Silva was widely recognized as the greatest fighter to ever compete until his KO loss to Weidman in 2013. His next five opponents were Weidman, Nick Diaz, Michael Bisping and Daniel Cormier.
McGregor finds himself in a unique place. Being 3-3 in your last six fights certainly doesn’t seem like a greatness, especially when those three losses were inside the distance. The glaring flaw is his loss to Nate Diaz, who was a fan favorite but had never won a world title and has been slightly above average throughout his career. While the first fight can be attributed to short notice and weight class, the rematch was a hotly contested battle. McGregor narrowly escaped with a win this time around.
Losing to Khabib Nurmagomedov is forgivable as the retired lightweight champion has beaten everyone who has been put in front of him. However, the second round knockout loss to Poirier prompted more questions than answers.
While Poirier has been amazing in his current run, no one is calling him an all-time great just yet. Add that to the fact that there were no mind games before the fight played by the Irish brawler, unlike their first fight six years ago when McGregor got into Poirier’s head with his trash-talking and turned his opponent’s aggression against him.
You know, kinda like he did with Aldo and Eddie Alvarez.
Could it be that McGregor’s mind games have now been neutralized by challengers who have adapted to his antics? And with that element gone, could he just be another fighter who is definitely above average but not the greatest of all time?
Of course, McGregor is only 32 and could still have a formidable race to solidify his status. This is by no means a blow to him. But the margin of error between the greatest and the very good is slim. And that’s when you start to think of Jon Jones, GSP, Nurmagomedov, Nunes, Emelianenko and Silva.
Jones has yet to be defeated inside the Octagon apart from a questionable disqualification loss in 2009. It’s almost 13 years of domination with victories against legendary names along the way. Nurmagomedov barely lost a lap in his brutal run on the lightweight division. Silva and Emelianenko were deemed untouchable at the height of their careers. Silva spent six years turning fights into glorified fight sessions while Fedor walked through the heavyweight row of a murderer for nine years. GSP avenged his two losses and never looked back. Nunes has defeated everyone who has ever been considered greats in women’s MMA and has not finished writing her story.
McGregor hasn’t had such lasting success.
His ability to self-market has allowed him to reach remarkable financial heights and unmatched fame. But there are questions around his greatness that will need to be answered as he prepares for his next steps in MMA. He might walk away with his riches and know he made a significant impact on the sport – just like Rousey – but leaving now will certainly push him out of the conversation.
If McGregor cares about his legacy, he still has a chance to prove himself as one of the greatest. But he has a lot of work to do if he wants to be mentioned alongside the best who have ever entered a cage.
Was he overrated? Maybe, but only because the sport was looking for a superstar, and what McGregor accomplished was unprecedented both in and out of the Octagon. It also speaks to the volatile nature of mixed martial arts. Only the best of the best can continue to dominate.
For now, the shooting star known as McGregor has been brought back to Earth where he will have to compete with the rest of the mortals.
And maybe it’s not such a bad place after all.