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UFC 194 Aftermath: On Conor McGregor and the powers of self-belief

LAS VEGAS -- If Conor McGregor wanted it, he could launch a second career as a motivational speaker.

Mixed martial arts is filled with colorful characters and larger-than-life loudmouths. McGregor is far from the first fighter to talk big.

But never in the history of this rambunctious traveling carnival have we ever had someone start making bold proclamations while at the bottom and have nearly everything he's predicted, every step along the way, come true in the manner of this brash Irish featherweight.

There's something to be said for the power of visualization and belief in one's self.

"When you see it, and you have the courage enough to speak it, it will happen," the new UFC featherweight champion said, as he stood at UFC president Dana White's usual spot at the podium for the UFC 194 post-fight press conference at the MGM Grand.

Never was this more apparent than Saturday night, under the brightest lights, in the highest-pressure moments. McGregor capped his three-year run of smack talk and smackdowns with a knockout for the ages, a featherweight championship, and Nevada's first $10 million MMA gate.

"A lot of times, people believe certain things, but they keep to themselves," McGregor said of his 13-second finish of Jose Aldo. "They don't put it out there and truly believe it and become vocal with it. You're creating that law of attraction and it will become reality."

It boggles the mind to think we're scarcely a year-and-a-half removed from a time when the Cole Millers and Nik Lentzes lobbied to be the one to end the McGregor hype train before it ever really got started. The lower-tier guys mocked McGregor when he burst on to the scene and he tore through them. Dustin Poirier, McGregor's first real challenge, was dismissive, but McGregor finished him fast. Critics questioned the hype behind his Dennis Siver fight on NFL conference championship Sunday, but McGregor delivered an FS1 record rating. Nearly everyone said the UFC was hiding him from wrestlers, and he accepted Chad Mendes on two weeks' notice even though McGregor had an injured knee.

Then he capped the job in spectacular fashion against Aldo. McGregor is unquestionably fighter of the year after going 3-0, all via finish in under two rounds, in three of the biggest events of the year. Holly Holm gets knockout and upset of the year, but no one performed quite like the new featherweight king in the highest-pressure situations.

And he did it while spending ostentatiously on clothing, housing, and fancy cars in a sport which pays lip service to the notion of staying humble.

Maybe Conor McGregor broke all the rules. Maybe he is MMA's answer to Tony Robbins. Maybe he simply believes in himself.

But one thing's for certain: With one mountain scaled, he's going to scope out higher peaks.

"There are weight divisions above, waiting for me to go at. Super fights left and right," McGregor said. "Tell me one other champion that has been like that. Every other champion gets a belt and doesn't want to go up or they don't want to go down. I'm going straight up, bringing these big numbers, and the sky's the limit."

UFC 194 quotes

"I'll tell you one thing that won't be happening. If I go up to that lightweight division, there's no way in hell that I'm vacating my belt. That's not happening. There will be a belt on one shoulder, and a belt on the other." -- Conor McGregor, responding to the notion he would vacate his 145-pound title if he met the winner of next week's Donald Cerrone-Rafael dos Anjos fight.

"Fighting for the title is what my goal is, and I took myself off the market for a while. It's kind of a weird thing when you've been at the top of a division you've been in your entire career to kind of take a backseat because of friendship. That's off the table now." -- Urjiah Faber, leaving no doubt he wants a fight with T.J. Dillashaw.

"I've been saying it for a long time. I believe I'm the best. I believe I've been the best in this sport for a long time. People want to beat down my Strikeforce accomplishments. I've taken my game to a newer level. I new I'd come in and I'd outperform them and I'd get the job done." -- Luke Rockhold with a message to Strikeforce haters.

"I think I'm his worst match-up. I know it, and I think a lot of people know it. And I think he's got to fight that fight before he makes that move." -- Frankie Edgar on a potential fight with McGregor.

Stock report

Up: Luke Rockhold. What's not to love about Rockhold's performance? Against a fighter who had never been in real trouble in his career in Chris Weidman, Rockhold put in a magnificent performance. He peppered Weidman with brutal body shots, was opportune with submission attempts, and used Weidman's own energy against him to gain positional advantages in the clinch and in scrambles. When Rockhold appeared to be tiring in the third, he took advantage of a major Weidman mistake in throwing a wheel kick and took advantage for all it was worth and left no doubt. Smart, opportunistic, and with a wide skill set, the new UFC middleweight champion is deserving of every plaudit which comes his way.

Down: Weidman. Yeah, we're stating the obvious. Whether it was a bad camp, a bad weight cut, or whether he was over-reliant on the now banned post-weigh in IV rehydration, Weidman looked off all week, and it showed up in the cage on fight night. Given that he's too small to be an effective light heavyweight and that the path back to the top at 185 leads back to Rockhold, this was a back-to-the-drawing-board sort of loss for the former champion.

Up: Urijah Faber. This man has more lives than a cat. It was fitting that the fighter who originally proved that lighter weight classes can draw back when he was WEC king shined on the featherweight division's biggest night. It was a throwback Faber performance against an underrated Frankie Saenz: Fits of aggression, high energy, inventiveness, tenacity, and digging down for that little something extra when it was needed. The 36-year-old Faber is now in the catbird seat for one last big payday in a bantamweight title fight, either a grudge match against T.J. Dillashaw or a trilogy fight with Dominick Cruz. Whether he can win either fight is another matter, but credit to Faber for simply getting himself back into position yet again.

Down: Jose Aldo. What's left to say? The fight business offers the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Imagine getting one-punch KOd in front of your friends in a schoolyard or at a bar. Now magnify that to one of the biggest sporting events of the year, something which has been built up to where you're defending your pride, your honor, and even your nation. The optimistic view is that Aldo simply got caught, his first loss in 10 years after a magnificent title reign, and he'll bounce back stronger than ever. The pessimistic view? He's been injury prone, he hasn't been very active, he was in that war with Chad Mendes, and now McGregor has humiliated him. We'll see which path Aldo goes down.

Up: Warlley Alves: While it might seem like down times are on the horizon for Brazilian MMA, there are at least real prospects in the pipeline. One is bantamweight Thomas Almeida. Another is this X-Gym fighter and former TUF: Brazil winner. Alves once again displayed a slick submission game, knocking Colby Covington from the ranks of the unbeaten in short order last night with a guillotine choke. His game seems solid everywhere else, too. Alves has marked himself as one to watch.

Interesting Calls

Yup, there were a few debatable moments last night, none bigger than Herb Dean allowing the third round between Rockhold and Weidman to go to the horn while Rockhold rained down bomb after bomb. On one hand, Weidman's a tough dude and you can understand a champ wanting to go out on his shield. On the other, Weidman was clearly done. Rockhold's crowning fourth round seemed almost anticlimactic since the crowd knew Weidman was spent and didn't really want to see someone they respect take unnecessary damage.

Referee Marc Goddard, on the other hand, made absolutely the correct call in the second round of the Yoel Romero-Jacare Souza fight when he ordered a restart off a blatant Romero fence grab. Romero gained top position based on fending off a Souza takedown by using the fence for leverage, so good on Goddard for calling it. No matter what you think of the split decision (I had it 29-28 for Souza, but don't consider Romero's win a robbery), at least the fight was fairly called.

Finally, a few words about the UFC's big, three-night stand in Vegas: I dug it. I wouldn't want to see this happen every month, but under the right circumstances, it works. This week's festivities felt like the MMA equivalent of the first two rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament, with stars, action, upsets, the occasional stinker, and fantastic finishes. Was every fight great? No. Were there enough consequential moments in each show to make every night feel special? Hell yeah. The UFC also got it right by building up the three nights in importance, rather than stage the anticlimactic Sunday shows after big Saturday cards they've done on other major fight weekends. As a once a year major event leading to the right main event in the big show, three shows in three nights is a winning promotion.

Fight I'd like to see next: Conor McGregor vs. Dana White and the Fertittas

Okay, not literally. But it appears there's a quite bit of posturing going on between the new champion and his promoters.

Take, for one thing, White no-showing the post-fight press conference after one of his crowning triumphs in fight promotion. Can you imagine Bob Arum no-showing a presser after smashing records?

McGregor is fully aware of his value to the company and isn't afraid to let us know, especially now that the company's other big drawing card, Ronda Rousey, has taken a tumble.

There are several intriguing avenues McGregor could go down next. He could defend his belt against Frankie Edgar. He could wait on the winner of Rafael dos Anjos-Donald Cerrone Saturday and challenge the winner. Cerrone, especially, would be a monster-money fight, given their history. Or it could be an Aldo rematch.

Any of those fights would be among the biggest of 2016. It's just going to be a matter of which is the biggest-money fight, and how big will be McGregor's slice of the pie.

McGregor saying he's not vacating his featherweight belt if he goes after the 155 title might not seem like a huge deal on the surface. But whether he gets his way on this one will be a solid indicator whether McGregor is truly crafty enough to become the first MMA fighter to get paid like a boxing superstar, or whether he'll fall in line like the rest of them.

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