In hindsight, Conor McGregor’s most recent legacy-building moment may have been the worst thing that could have happened for him.
Twelve months ago, McGregor was back. “The Notorious” had been sidelined for 14 months, with a humbling loss to rival Khabib Nurmagomedov followed by a year of McGregor ending up in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Smashing a cell phone in Miami. Punching a man in an Irish pub. And before all that, an accusation of sexual assault in Dublin, which resurfaced this past week in the form of a civil claim, along with new alleged details.
McGregor also teased a retirement in March 2019 (the second such time he’d done so), a stunt that didn’t feel remotely permanent. It was obvious McGregor needed something big to regain the faith of the masses, but what?
A second Nurmagomedov fight wasn’t happening, and a trilogy bout with Nate Diaz was stuck in limbo. Eventually, McGregor was handed a favorable matchup with the popular Donald Cerrone, an all-time great who was also a non-factor in the contenders’ rankings. No matter, McGregor made the most of the opportunity, blowing Cerrone out of the water in 40 seconds at UFC 246 and restarting the “What will Conor do next?” news cycle.
On Saturday at UFC 257, McGregor was back again, this time getting a chance to replay one of his old hits. What better way to show that he was never gone than to once more vanquish Dustin Poirier, a former featherweight rival who now stands as one of the best lightweights in the world? This was McGregor’s chance to say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
That wasn’t the case, however. Poirier completely outclassed McGregor, making brilliant use of his wrestling and low kicks in round one to wear the former two-division champ down before flurrying in round two and leaving McGregor flat on his back in perfect position to become the next big meme. McGregor has lost before, but for the first time in his UFC career, it didn’t just look like he’d ran into a superior opponent or a difficult style matchup; no, it looked like his best days had passed.
How did we get here? Let’s look at the Cerrone matchup again. With respect to “Cowboy,” one of the best to never win a UFC title and someone who could probably compete until he’s 50 if he wanted to, he entered the matchup with McGregor as a potential showcase opponent. Cerrone was coming off of back-to-back lopsided losses to Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje, and while there’s no shame in that, it wasn’t expected he’d last long against McGregor either.
The booking was considered such a layup for McGregor that Cerrone had to suffer the indignity of actually having to respond to critics suggesting that he was going to take a dive for McGregor and the UFC. Cerrone’s ensuing loss only opened the door for more criticism, much of it coming from talking head pundits that are barely qualified to analyze rec league soccer, much less the highest level of combat sports. But I digress.
It was everything McGregor wanted. A highlight-reel win over a known property. The chance to rehabilitate his image with a respectful buildup and an appreciative opponent. He even hugged Cerrone’s grandmother afterward.
It was too perfect, and exactly the sort of thing that could make one overlook the fact that McGregor’s game wasn’t any different and that Cerrone was his first win since November 2016. Nothing had changed for McGregor other than the fact that he bit the bullet and signed on for another UFC fight.
He was still a multi-millionaire, still beloved by countless fans, still a shining star in Dana White’s eye even as their public confrontations became more frequent. If this was supposed to be the turning of a page for McGregor, the words sounded too familiar.
If Cerrone was the right man to welcome McGregor back last year, then Poirier was exactly the wrong man to welcome him back this year. “The Diamond” did nothing but sharpen his edges since first fighting McGregor in 2014, moving up to the loaded lightweight division and dominating the competition outside of a blip against Michael Johnson. McGregor was a former lightweight titleholder, but his actual achievements at 155 pounds paled in comparison to Poirier’s.
So when Poirier had his chance for revenge, he put on one of the best performances of his career while McGregor wilted. It looked exactly like what it was on paper, one fighter who had scraped his way to an interim title one win at a time versus a fighter who had done a brilliant job of maneuvering himself into position to win a second undisputed title. There’s a difference.
White wasn’t wrong when he said at Saturday’s post-fight press conference that McGregor has grown complacent. He’s the highest-paid athlete in MMA. He was chilling on a yacht in Abu Dhabi while the rest of the fighters were whittling away their time at a hotel. He was able to bring his family with him to Fight Island while a fighter like Dan Hooker wouldn’t see his for another few weeks due to strict COVID-19 safety measures in his native New Zealand.
In the grand scheme of things, there is simply no consequence to McGregor losing anymore outside of a little public humiliation. And that’s nothing that a few seven-figure checks can’t fix. How can one maintain the edge they once had when they were literally fighting to put food on their table and now have reached the level of success and comfort that McGregor has? We can’t blame McGregor’s shortcomings completely on his affluence, as there are plenty of other athletes and fighters (including Poirier) who have only elevated their games as their bank accounts have increased. It’s not an excuse. It’s a weakness, and it’s costing him in the cage.
They say that good living is the best revenge. It certainly isn’t the best motivation. So while McGregor can be content with the incredible financial security he’s created for himself and his family for generations, he may also have to accept that his days as a legitimate UFC contender are behind him.