The last time Dominick Cruz fought, Demetrious Johnson was still an undersized bantamweight while B.J. Penn, who at one time was the biggest star below 170 pounds, had decided to balloon up a division and flounder among the welterweight fishes. It was largely a different world, and aside from Urijah Faber, the lighter weight classes had no major draw to call their own.
Though in truth, that reality hasn't changed much. Today, Johnson, Anthony Pettis, Gilbert Melendez, Renan Barao and Jose Aldo are all marketable fighters in their own right, but due to circumstances, a lack of activity or an inability to speak English, none have really broken through and cemented themselves as must-see television for the casual audience.
The dearth of stars has created an opening that Conor McGregor has been all too happy to jump through. Already, just two fights into his UFC career, the Irishman has cemented himself as one of the most compelling figures to watch under-170 pounds, at least in terms of sheer interest (and traffic) generated any time he opens his mouth.
Now, despite his relative youth, McGregor is spearheading a venture into his native Ireland for his third UFC appearance, and already has a slew of top-5 contenders mentioning his name to the media. Or as Cruz puts it, he's aware of the game, and he's playing it incredibly well.
"Really, it's just like anything else," Cruz said. "You hear what other people say and you take other people's constructive criticism, and add it to what you do until people like hearing what you have to say. And they either like it or they don't. Everybody likes hearing what Conor McGregor has to say. It's funny, he's clever, he's got a nice accent and he comes in and he always dresses sharp. All that together creates something that people want to watch on TV. It's entertainment.
"Fighters need to remember that we're in the entertainment business. And that comes from giving an interview, all the way to the end of the fight. The more entertaining you are through and through, from beginning to end, however you choose to do it, the more people are going to want to tune in, and the more butts you're going to put in the seats. That's something that all of us can take from a guy like Conor McGregor."
For his part, Cruz has always shied towards the ‘keep your head down and work' side of the spectrum rather than the chatty side that McGregor favors, especially since he's been sidelined for nearly three years with injuries. But with that being said, he freely acknowledges that McGregor's style is a far more effective tool in the UFC's nonstop, week-in, week-out world, where effective promotion is hard to come by unless you do it yourself.
And for McGregor, there's no doubting that it's worked. Top-ranked featherweights from Chad Mendes to Cub Swanson have already called him out in a sense, and if "Notorious" can get past Cole Miller at UFC Fight Night 46, it's not outside the realm of popularity that he could be one or two fights away from a UFC title shot, given his mounting popularity.
"He just doesn't care," Cruz explained. "Conor just doesn't care. You kinda gotta have that. That's what makes this sport fun.
"Conor McGregor has his own of doing things and it's made him extremely well-liked. Everybody wants to see what he's going to do from there. And more power to him, because he's doing exactly what he needs to be doing to get these fights that he wants."