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The Great Divide: Is Conor McGregor’s superstardom at stake at UFC 246?

The Great Divide is a recurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which two of our staff debate a topic in the world of MMA — whether it’s news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments below.

As Conor McGregor prepares to return to the Octagon against Donald Cerrone at UFC 246, he is seeking his first win in more than three years. Mike Chiappetta and Alexander K. Lee take a look at whether his popularity can withstand another setback.

A LOSS WOULD BE DEVASTATING TO HIS FIGHTING FUTURE

Chiappetta: It’s been a long time since Conor McGregor won a fight in the Octagon. To put it into perspective, the last time he had his arms raised in victory, Donald Trump was just four days removed from winning the U.S. presidential election and had yet to be inaugurated into office.

In the time since, the world has changed economically, geopolitically, and culturally. The business of sports has also changed, along with our definition of stardom. The streaming wars and the explosion of content platforms has changed everything, and McGregor has mostly been sitting on the sidelines during much of it. Yes, he still carries cachet, and he is bound to capture the attention of the sports world when he arrives in the cage across from Donald Cerrone. But at this point, all of that is in danger of evaporating with a loss.

We live in a world of immediacy and results. With his long MMA absences, McGregor has provided neither. He may still hold his bond with certain fans through social media – he has nearly 50 million combined followers on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook – but his success is far enough in the rearview mirror that it may seem to many like nostalgia.

There is already a significant backlash against him. Casual sports fans who caught on to McGregor-mania late and tuned in to see what the noise was about may have only experienced his high-profile losses to Khabib Nurmagomedov in 2018 and Floyd Mayweather in 2017. In those instances, viewers may have left wondering if he was more hype than substance, unaware of the significant and well-earned accomplishments that came before.

Furthermore, his recent past is littered with a series of troubling events. He’s had numerous outside-the-cage issues, including multiple arrests and two concurrent, ongoing sexual assault investigations against him. To be blunt, his likability factor has no doubt been diminished, and there is still the potential that charges may be filed against him, putting the future into even greater doubt.

McGregor has work to do to try to win over those who left him behind, a task that is particularly fraught with danger because this time, he is supposed to win. Against Nurmagomedov, he was a moderate underdog; against Mayweather, he was a sizable underdog. Anyone could at least rationalize those defeats due to style and experience, respectively. But not this one. This one, he has to win. On just about every sports book, McGregor is a 3-to-1 favorite to beat Cerrone.

McGregor has already talked himself into a corner. He is on record describing Cerrone as “slow” and “stiff,” and those comments were made more than four years ago. Cerrone is now nearly 37 years old, has won just four of his last 10 fights, and has been stopped in each of his previous two bouts.

If anything, the pairing seems like a setup for McGregor, the kind of matchmaking designed to put him in the most winnable fight the promotion could make against a well-known star.

The scouting report on Cerrone has always been that he struggles against pressure fighters, and McGregor loves forward but deliberate pressure. Given that dynamic, the style matchup is tailor-made for him, so MMA fans’ expectations are built accordingly.

McGregor has no room for error, even though most will acknowledge Cerrone will likely have a sizable advantage if he drags the fight to the ground. He is not only a jiu-jitsu black belt, but actually has more of his 36 career wins by submission (17) than by knockout (10).

If Cowboy fights strategically, he will greatly increase his odds of victory. And if he pulls off the upset, then what?

What exactly is McGregor’s path forward from a loss? Sure, he always has the trilogy fight with Nate Diaz in his back pocket. But that matchup loses a lot of luster if he can’t get there on a win. No one would expect it to challenge the MMA record 2.4 million pay-per-view buys his bout with Nurmagomedov did, and even the 1.6 million the second Diaz fight did may seem out of reach.

A Nurmagomedov rematch – or a title fight with Tony Ferguson, should he win – would be out of the question, and it really wouldn’t make sense to put him in a bout with a top contender like Justin Gaethje, either. So then what? A move back down to featherweight? Another long hiatus? Frankly, the demand to see his next fight would unquestionably diminish, and that is a real threat to all he has built.

We have already seen in the Cerrone fight cycle that McGregor is not generating the attention we’re used to. Star power is fickle like that, and when it starts to fade, there is usually no going back. If anyone could reverse that trend, it’s McGregor, the biggest star the sport has ever seen. But all of that hinges on the thing that was once so easy for him, the thing on which he built his identity: victory.

MCGREGOR IS BEYOND WINS AND LOSSES

Lee: Before we begin, let’s just remind people that we live in a world where, for some reason, this exists:

This is the general level of discourse we’re dealing with here.

The second thing we need to get out of the way is the fact that if any of the more heinous accusations levied at Conor McGregor are proven to be true, all of this is a moot point. Because in that case, he should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and the last thing anyone should be concerned about is whether he fights again.

Now then.

I don’t know if the myth of McGregor could have been more definitively dispelled than in his loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229. It was as decisive as it could get, and yet still “The Notorious” and his more sycophantic followers have found ways to rationalize why he is still the true king of MMA. He was the first fighter to win a round against Nurmagomedov! His foot was “a balloon!” Nurmagomedov went buckwild after the fight anyway, so who was the real winner? And so on and so forth.

There will always be an excuse for McGregor’s losses, and there will always be a silver lining. He hasn’t won a fight in over three years. Losing to Cerrone might sting for a minute, and it may even shake his base to the core. But within 48 hours, the support will be back – diminished, possibly – but still stronger than any force in combat sports. The McGregor brand is unassailable.

So no, McGregor’s superstardom is definitely not at risk, because while it was built on an aura of invincibility (few fighters have ever capitalized on massive showcase opportunities as consistently as McGregor did from 2014-2016), it was also built on milestones that can be referred to at the drop of a hat to assert his greatness: The first man to hold two UFC belts simultaneously; the man who worked his way into a once-unfathomable superfight with Floyd Mayweather; and the man whose blood rivalry with Nurmagomedov helped to break UFC pay-per-view records.

These things will never stop being true, and thus, McGregor supporters will never have to deal with the potential reality that his glory days are long behind him.

It’s laughable to think that a loss to Cerrone would knock McGregor down the UFC’s insubstantial rankings. McGregor is always the No. 1 contender at whatever weight class he wants to fight at, and he’s always one win away from another title shot.

It could be a trilogy with Nate Diaz. It could be a battle for the “BMF” belt against Jorge Masvidal. It could be a rematch with Dustin Poirier or Jose Aldo or Nurmagomedov or – heaven help us – Mayweather. There is always a big fight waiting around the corner for McGregor, and all he needs is one strong performance – hell, one perfectly-timed punch – to start this whole crazy ride all over again.

It’s entirely possible that Cerrone beats McGregor. In fact, “Cowboy” being such a sizeable underdog is almost absurd when you consider how active he’s been compared to McGregor, who as far as we know has spent as much time hawking Proper 12 over the last two years as he has hitting pads. But the debate here isn’t whether McGregor will emerge victorious next week. It’s whether that even matters.

Sure, Cerrone could out-brawl and knock McGregor out, but that would just be spun as McGregor going out on his shield. Then there’s the possibility that Cerrone puts his grappling skills to use to hand McGregor another submission loss, an outcome that I can all but guarantee would have a legion of Notorious zealots accusing Cerrone of skirting the unwritten rules of engagement. And we don’t even need to mention how easily his team will be able to dismiss any loss on the scorecards as a “robbery.”

Like Denzel Washington in Training Day, McGregor is winning anyway (though he’ll probably end up better off than Washington’s doomed detective).

Lastly, let’s not forget that one of the main reasons that McGregor can rebound from any setback is that the marketing machine is always firmly behind him. A recent commercial for his return – it’s unclear whether it was produced by the UFC or ESPN – that aired during the NFL playoffs coyly used Eminem’s Without Me to emphasize how significant McGregor’s absence has been; he is also referred to as “the most loved” among other descriptors. And Cerrone is not mentioned...at all. This past year when the UFC promoted Nate Diaz’s comeback, they conveniently left out any footage of Diaz submitting McGregor in their first meeting.

McGregor’s ascent in MMA was controlled chaos, a once-in-a-lifetime rise that was manufactured through careful planning as well as the fighter’s gift for seizing the moment. It created a bankable star who will continue to be perceived and pushed as the biggest name in the game, because that’s what he is now no matter what happens inside the cage.

Even if McGregor is defeated again, it will take more than a few measly losses to truly slay the beast.

Poll

What affect would a loss at UFC 246 have on Conor McGregor’s reputation?

This poll is closed

  • 72%
    His star power would take a major hit.
    (1181 votes)
  • 27%
    None, another big fight is just around the corner.
    (457 votes)
1638 votes total Vote Now