There are very few crossover stars in mixed martial arts. They are the kind of fighters who have not only captured the imagination of existing fans and media, but have also helped to bring in new legions of supporters to the sport. It’s a rare thing. The fighters with charisma and the gift of the gab don’t always combine that with being both exciting and effective in the Octagon.
GSP and Anderson Silva are (as good as) in the past. Brock Lesnar won’t fight in a cage ever again. The mainstream stars of the last era are no longer with us. However, there’s a new small but elite group that are making inroads. Ronda Rousey has been a revelation in women’s MMA. The fact that she was an Olympian, the first female UFC champion, and a legitimate arm-breaking, sleep-inducing badass helped her move into public consciousness.
Over on the male side of the roster there is no bigger star right now than Irishman Conor McGregor. Since his UFC debut in 2012, he has gone from highly touted prospect to legitimate main event magician in almost no time at all. There have been champions – namely Jose Aldo in his own division – who have been on top for years upon years, yet they haven’t had anywhere near the amount of coverage.
How has McGregor done it? Was it really an overnight sensation? We take a look at the winning formula.
It has to be the number one aspect of what’s made him so successful. This is the fight game and you can have all the one-liners you want, but if you can’t fight then nobody is going to want to hear them. McGregor certainly can. Before even making it to the UFC, McGregor was a two-weight world champion with Cage Warriors, one of the biggest promotions outside of the “big show”. He had sustained some losses early on – as most fighters have – but his will to work hard and improve meant they became nothing but a blip in the rear view mirror.
Since a submission defeat in 2010, McGregor posted eight straight finishes to get the UFC call up, and has since gone on to go 6-0 in the Octagon. Amazingly, five of those were finishes and the other was a decision with a torn ACL mid-fight. His finishing rate is unrivalled, and that’s what people want to tune in to see. They love the guy that turns out the lights, and the way he does it is also very pleasing on the eye.
He moves, flows and adjusts. He’s accurate and deadly. Yes, there are chinks in the armour as Chad Mendes showed in their battle, but that’s also quite alluring. Everybody wants him down, but when you can’t keep him there or finish him on the mat, you’re going to hate it when he works back up to his feet. Quite simply, he’s been levels ahead of the so-called “rookies” he’s met in the striking department thus far.
How he’ll fare against the division’s best striker, Jose Aldo, we will see when the pair meet for their title unification bout in December.
He’s been called a “modern day Muhammad Ali” by Greg Jackson, one of the leading brains in mixed martial arts. There’s no doubt that his off the cuff wit as well as the rehearsed spiels have played a huge part in McGregor’s ascent. Love it or hate it, it creates attention and builds storylines. The reasons he can brag about his paydays and personal meetings with the UFC CEOs is because McGregor has talked up fights so much that they’ve created more intrigue than anybody else in UFC history.
The UFC’s domain is mostly North America. In the USA, the love for the bold and the brash is evident. You don’t have to be toned down. If anything, you need to turn it up to 11. This is what makes the Super Bowl the biggest earning and the biggest spectacle of the sporting calendar. Amazing amounts of money changes hands when it’s built up to such a crescendo – from the advertising revenues, to the betfair betting markets, everyone is willing to put their money on the line for sporting events that matter to them.
Conor McGregor has made sure every one of his fights has mattered to the public. They’ve tuned in, bought tickets, bought PPVs and more. Records have been broken and thoroughly smashed. This all comes down to how he has hyped it up. He’s a true showman, once in a generation. The talk comes easy and it is lapped up by the press and the fans alike. Aside from his fighting, his mouth has been the biggest attribute in making him a superstar.
Sharp suits, a confident swagger, well kempt hair and expensive shoes; McGregor looks the part for every occasion. He’s not strolling into press conference in jeans and a t-shirt, or his gym’s tracksuit. He is wearing bespoke suits and he has no doubt been responsible for a sharp rise in the purchases of three-pieces in the last few years.
When you talk like he talks, you can’t let your public persona down in any aspect. Forget the ‘London look’, people love the McGregor look. And that’s not just MMA circles, that’s mainstream sports circles. It’s easy to promote somebody and put them on a front cover when they make it look so bold. It’s an underappreciated part of his repertoire.
This might not seem so obvious, but being Irish has certainly helped Conor McGregor. The Irish are passionately patriotic and supportive of their own exports and that contributed to record-breaking gates in Dublin.
It’s this combination of things inside and outside the cage that have made Conor McGregor so enthralling to watch and hear. Ultimately it’s the hard work he’s put into becoming a better martial artist that has won him UFC gold, but his pay cheques are so big because of everything else that comes with it.