FanPost

Why Conor McGregor isn't one of the top 30 MMA fighters of all time: The ageing legacy and why we need to re-think some things


READ TIME: 12 minutes

"Conor McGregor is the greatest combat sports athlete to have ever lived."

You'd be surprised at how many fight fans believe this to be the case.

While this claim once might have held some promising weight (perhaps in the immediate aftermath of his confident and masterful dismantling of Eddie Alvarez, or even subsequent to his surprising 10-round effort against Floyd Mayweather), I present to you now 6 reasons why such a statement should only ever be met with the greatest suspicion and contempt:

1. Marcus Brimage

2. Diego Brandão

3. Dennis Siver

4. Chad Mendes

5. Nate Diaz

6. Donald Cerrone

Yes, I'm aware that Conor knocked out then-Featherweight King and then-consensus pound-for-pound spot-holder Jose Aldo in a title-fight record 13 seconds. I'm also aware that in recent memory Nate Diaz gave former Lightweight champ Anthony Pettis a tough night in Anaheim. And of course —before you say it— I have intentionally omitted the names of more successful fighters like Eddie Alvarez, Dustin Poirier and Max Holloway from Conor's head count.

Not a top 30 MMA fighter

The point of this article isn't to say that Conor McGregor is not a legendary athlete or that he did not deservingly earn every win and every dollar on his way to global superstardom. I'm not here to talk about whether his straight left should or should not take its own place in the UFC Hall of Fame. I don't even care about what his singular success has meant for the subsequent trajectory of the UFC and Mixed Martial Arts as a global sport in more recent years.

The point of this article is simply to point out that the wins Conor McGregor accumulated throughout his UFC career do not remotely qualify him in consideration for the top 30 MMA fighters of all time. I'll present five fighters who qualify undoubtedly, and perhaps you can fill in the remaining twenty-five:

1. Jon Jones

2. Anderson Silva

3. Georges St. Pierre

4. Demetrious Johnson

5. Amanda Nunes

Yes, Conor is still a competent fighter and on any given night Conor could —in theory— knock out any fighter currently in the Featherweight, Lightweight or Welterweight divisions. But that is only to say that fighter X always has a puncher's chance against fighter Y.

The cold reality is that, as things stand, Conor couldn't make Featherweight again, wouldn't fare well against any top-10 Welterweight and has been finished in 3 of his 4 Lightweight bouts; his first and only win against a bewildered Eddie Alvarez way back during the final months of the Obama administration.

Conor's successes should not be overlooked, obviously. He has produced a handful of spectacular moments in the UFC, for which all fight fans are unquestionably grateful for. However, we don't need to dig too deep into the details of what constitutes the majority of his CV to discover that the perceived greatness of any success is in fact a deftly crafted and heavily marketed illusion, increasingly used now to prop up crumbling perceptions of the fighter once so revered.

Padded head count

The majority of Conor’s UFC victory pile is made up of fighters that no one knows, remembers, cares about or that no longer fight. Let's take a look at the UFC fight résumés (*and résumés after the UFC) of the aforementioned fighters, post-Conor:

1. Marcus Brimage LWLL (*LLL)

2. Diego Brandão WWL (*WWLWLWLWLLLLLL)

3. Dennis Siver LW

4. Chad Mendes LWL

5. Nate Diaz WLL

6. Donald Cerrone L[NC]LL

In this list you’ll immediately notice the heavy presence of the letter L. At the time they fought Conor, these fighters were far beyond any conceivable apex in their careers. For brevity, I present only the essence of these fighters (somewhat in relation to Conor) in the following points:

1. Who is Marcus Brimage? Brimage was once a Featherweight contender, of sorts. By this I mean he featured on season 14 of The Ultimate Fighter, did poorly and then had a losing UFC career. An easy fight for Conor's debut.

2. Diego Brandão actually won season 14 of The Ultimate Fighter at Lightweight. Slightly unhinged and legitimately feared, he notched a middling 6-4 record with the UFC post-TUF. He fought Conor in his hometown of Dublin in July 2014 and simply looked like he didn't want to be there. Another layup for the Irishman.

3. Dennis Siver was once a top Featherweight contender, but at 36 (when he fought Conor) was a little out of real title contention and, subsequent to losing to McGregor, went 1-1 before retiring from MMA a little over 2 years later.

4. Chad Mendes is a two-time Featherweight title contender and should not be overlooked as such. However, the Chad Mendes that Conor defeated at UFC 189 was not the Chad Mendes that twice fought for Aldo's title. He was a last-minute replacement in what ended up becoming an interim title fight, admitting himself that he literally rolled off the sofa to headline the event. He gave Conor his toughest round to that point, before understandably gassing out and getting finished late in the second.

5. While Nate Diaz remains one of the biggest UFC fan favourites to have ever lived, these days he is hardly active or consistent. While as tough as they come, the reason Conor's decision win over Nate gets a mention in this list is because, for many, Nate actually won their second fight in August 2016. Nate's subsequent scarce run over 5 years is hardly glowing, picking up only one win over a much smaller and fading Anthony Pettis, while losing to both surging Jorge Masvidal and Leon Edwards.

6. The win over Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone must be flagged as, at the time of writing, he just has ridden out a 7-fight no-win streak to retirement, with Conor's win coming 3 fights into this. Yes, the first 4 fights Cowboy lost in this run were to former belt holders, but it must be pointed out that Cowboy is now out to pasture and a win over him recently doesn't say as much for one's career as it would have done years back.

More than a résumé

I will say it now: a fighter's legacy is not simply a fighter's résumé. A résumé can only tell you the details of when, how and between whom a fight played out at any one time. For example, it says that Conor McGregor defeated Marcus Brimage by TKO in the first round of their fight in Stockholm, Sweden in April 2013. It is merely a data series, omitting the most useful and interesting context.

A fighter's legacy also needs to capture their résumé in the context of their opponent's résumé. This is what I mean by a legacy, in purely fighting terms. Considering a fighter's CV in the context of their past opponents' CVs is vital to any process of evaluation we wish to make.

For instance, Brendan Schaub once knocked out Mirko Cro Cop in devastating fashion. Does this mean that Brendan Schaub’s MMA legacy is superior to Cro Cop's?

You shouldn't need to figure this one out. Fortunately for those that know, MMA math is a pointless exercise; a pseudo-science that should be dispensed with immediately for anyone serious enough to deal with these issues sensibly.

Now that both fighters are retired and their histories can be somewhat objectively compared, it would take you little effort to generate the only available answer to this question which is: no, absolutely and unequivocally not.

With their remaining CVs for context, we are able to test the question just posed and reach the (most certainly) only accurate final assessment possible.

Ageing legacy

The idea I present here actually goes one step further than this. The difference between a legacy and an ageing legacy is subtle but important.

A legacy can only be discussed for fighters who themselves have not only retired but also those they fought against: the scoresheets are in for all fighters in question and their respective wins and losses can be tallied, compared and evaluated without the threat of having to be blindsided with any new information.

The ageing legacy, however, considers a particular fighter's résumé not only in the context of their opponent's résumé, but also in the much richer and evolving landscape of their preceding and subsequent career trajectories. It is a shifting overall career retrospective in real time, which by nature is never static and is therefore open to constant reinterpretation.

Simply, ageing legacies can only apply to active fighters or retired fighters whose opponents are still active. Active fighters are always adding to their own legacies, in every case attempting to add more Ws than Ls to their résumé.

However, not only are the fighters themselves adding to their own legacies with every W and L, but their opponents’ own Ws and Ls factor into the totality of information available with which to evaluate the full meaning of every W and L on any one fighter’s scoresheet at any one time.

For instance, Conor shoulder-smashed his way to a decisive first-round TKO over Donald Cerrone at UFC 246 in January 2020. This particular notch on Conor’s bat marked a kind of renaissance for the fighter so soundly crushed at the hands of Khabib at UFC 229. The new Welterweight Conor was refocussed and ruthless, targeting a busy year with the grand aim of securing a title shot against Welterweight title-holder Kamaru Usman and a third division championship belt.

Lofty goals for the Notorious; a win against Cowboy —a former Lightweight title challenger and multi-divisional top-10 fighter— surely meant that Conor was right on track to realise his dream, right?

Further contextualising Conor’s win against Cowboy, however, we find the depth of this particular notch growing shallower over time and, with it, his unrealised Welterweight dream looking increasingly unreasonable.

While Cowboy has proven a tough dance partner for many a top fighter, his prolonged skid and recent retirement shines a dimming light on Conor’s victory. At the time of meeting, no one would've held recent losses against Lightweight belt holders Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson against Cowboy. These two fighters are (were?) no joke and Cowboy should be praised for even stepping into the Octagon with them.

However, Cowboy's more recent losses to Anthony Pettis, Niko Price [overturned], Alex Morono and Jim Miller suggest Conor simply defeated a Cowboy fast approaching his twilight years; an old hand that would struggle against most opponents, let alone a young, hungry Irishman with a lot still to prove. Had Cowboy, post-Conor, recorded a succession of wins of his own, it would demand a entire re-conceptualisation of the kind of animal Conor defeated and, with it, the size of the scalp tossed onto Conor's victory pile.

Demise

As MMA history unfolds, Conor’s ageing legacy must also consider Cowboy’s subsequent demise. It means we cannot take this win solely at face value. The version of Cowboy that Conor defeated was not the 2015 Lightweight title-challenger. It was neither the lion-hearted performance bonus machine nor the career-averaged Donald Cerrone avatar you'd play on UFC 4.

Unfortunately for Conor, at this particular point in Cowboy’s run, we now know that a victory over him in fact meant very little, let alone sufficiently readied him for the path towards the Welterweight throne.

Include this career-end version of Cowboy to the aforementioned list of fighters (Brimage, Brandão, Siver, et al.) and you’ll realise that Conor’s legacy is ageing poorly; so poorly in fact, it’s growing increasingly difficult to understand how anyone could make the serious claim that he ever deserved a top spot in any pound-for-pound rankings.

Conor’s stunning knockout of Aldo in December 2015 is now ageing like Schaub’s knockout of Cro Cop.

Some basic MMA math

To elaborate further, let's take a fighter that —while it may be disputed— provides a more than fitting comparison with which to compare Conor's ageing legacy.

I like the comparison because, at one time, Conor and Rafael dos Anjos (RDA) were once scheduled to fight in 2016 in what may have been Conor's crowning moment in the UFC; moving up a weight class to challenge for the Lightweight title, jumping to the front of the queue of any and all qualified Lightweight contenders to do what had never been done before: to hold belts in two UFC divisions simultaneously.

Talking purely from a Lightweight perspective (and nodding again to the caveat that MMA math is nothing but a fool’s errand), surely we must consider RDA a better Lightweight fighter than Conor in the UFC, historically, in the most basic terms?

Their Lightweight records in the UFC currently stand like this (July 2022):

RDA [16-8] : L L W W W L W L W W W W W L W W W W W L L … W W L

Conor [1-3] : W L L L

Yes, RDA got smashed by Eddie Alvarez and, yes, Conor whipped Eddie in his next fight; but both lost to Khabib, RDA never lost to Nate and Conor only defeated Cowboy once.

MMA math: I’ll let you decide where to start the equation.

According to my own concepts defined previously, the facts presented above only allow for a momentary comparison between the two fighters’ résumés. Additionally, comparing their legacies is not yet possible as both are still technically active and so are a proportion of their opponents, past and present.

We can, however, begin to look at how their legacies are ageing in real time, assimilating all new information that becomes available. In the past two weeks alone, Donald Cerrone has lost (again) and is now retired, and RDA was knocked out early into the fifth round of his main event headliner against Kyrgystani Lightweight Rafael Fiziev.

RDA’s ageing legacy

RDA's career is not without its fluctuations. After losing the Lightweight title decisively to Eddie Alvarez and a further decision loss to Tony Ferguson, RDA made the jump to Welterweight and strung together an impressive 3-fight win streak against larger experienced opponents. His next two losses at Welterweight came against Colby Covington and Kamaru Usman: themselves divisional titleholders.

Subsequent to these losses, RDA went 1-2 at Welterweight before moving back down to Lightweight in November 2020, where he is currently 2-1, collecting wins over last-minute replacements Paul Felder and Renato Moicano and the aforementioned fifth-round knockout loss to soaring Muay Thai standout Fiziev.

So while RDA’s post-title résumé technically tallies heavier on the wrong side of the win column (6-7), it’s hard to ignore that many of his recent losses —standing in the refreshingly cool breeze of new information— are hardly incriminating.

At this point, how do wins over Marcus Brimmage, Denis Siver and a fat Chad Mendes compare with losing via decision over 5 hard rounds with a prime Colby Covington or Kamaru Usman?

Who will go down in history as the better Lightweight, or Welterweight?

Who will go down in history as the better Mixed Martial Artist?

Ageing is a verb

RDA's legacy is still unfolding, which itself will demand an ongoing recalibration of what we newly know with what we have known historically.

My point here is that ageing is a verb, which means that it is constantly doing something. In terms of legacy, ageing means that it is evolving. What's fascinating is that one or two years in fight world can dramatically alter the landscape we view these things across. Just ask Tyron Woodley, Darren Till or Jorge Masvidal.

The problem with Conor's ageing legacy is that little of what he does now can alter the fact that his dated wins are being increasingly cemented as nonentities in the context of his retiring opponents’ own fading legacies.

While the impending future soon becomes the recent, malleable past, the distant past increasingly comes to cement itself into the foundational infrastructure of what will become a fighter's legacy. While Conor himself cannot be held responsible for the career trajectories of his earlier opponents, what their final legacies do is force us to re-evaluate what we previously once thought we knew.

This is why in the title of this article I call for us to re-think some things. We need to re-think, reassess, re-analysis — constantly— in the face of new information. The hard truth is that a fighter's legacy is never fully the result of their own doing. Legacies evolve in real time. They age, and some age more poorly than others.

I simply can't accept the claim that Conor is one of the top 30 Mixed Martial Artists of all time because we now have too much information about his past opponents to suggest otherwise.

Compared to the level of fighters that RDA has defeated (and those that he has lost to), Conor's résumé —over time— is beginning to look alarmingly thinner and lighter, while the résumé of RDA (who admittedly can never claim the *superficial* simultaneous two-division champion status) allows for the opposite; many of his previous wins and losses now appearing like deeper and more respected notches in what will become his own legacy.