Conor McGregor’s quick wit, his ability to turn a phrase, to charm reporters around the world, has helped him become a star and a wealthy young man.
But it’s his audacity, his willingness to dream, to take risks, to reach for the stars – that's what makes him arguably the most compelling fighter in the world.
People are drawn to greatness in all forms. It’s why Tiger Woods always drew such large galleries. It’s why Michael Jordan remains a cultural icon more than a decade after his retirement.
They reached beyond their grasp and aspired to something few others would even dream to chase.
And so, too, it is with McGregor, the UFC’s featherweight champion. He was scheduled to fight Rafael dos Anjos on March 5 in Las Vegas for the lightweight title, hoping to become the first athlete in the promotion’s history to hold two belts simultaneously.
Dos Anjos pulled out of the fight on Tuesday with a broken foot, temporarily shelving McGregor’s dream. But UFC president Dana White said he has had no second thoughts despite dos Anjos’ injury.
The injury to dos Anjos shows the difficulties inherent in such a gambit. It’s not the act of simply moving up a weight class and going for a second championship that makes McGregor’s reach so inspiring. It’s precisely that he wants to retain his other belt and defend both.
It’s a path fraught with risks. One of those risks is injury. McGregor has to be available to fight in both weight classes and defend his title twice a year in each division. That is a massive undertaking in and of itself.
But when a fighter gets injured, it doesn’t just push back that fight and the division it’s in, but in McGregor’s case, it would impact a second division.
It would be easy to understand if White and UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta had second thoughts about allowing McGregor to try to hold two titles given dos Anjos’ injury.
With no injuries, the path was clear: If he defeated dos Anjos to become lightweight champion, he’d defend the featherweight belt in July against Frankie Edgar at UFC 200. And if successful there, he’d defend the lightweight belt in the fall.
But now, the dos Anjos injury creates all sorts of uncertainties and impacts both divisions.
White, though, was emphatic when talking with Yahoo Sports Tuesday that the injury would have no bearing on his decision to allow McGregor to go forward with the attempt to become a two-weight world champion.
“This two belt thing is a Conor thing,” White said. “He does what he says and he shows up and he will fight anybody! Baddest dude I have ever worked with other than Chuck Liddell. I wouldn’t let anyone else do it.”
McGregor’s outsized personality and boastful words get under the skin of many, fans and his peers alike. Many fighters are resentful of him because they believe he gets special treatment.
What’s lost on them is that he deserves special treatment. No one other than former women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey promotes a fight as vigorously as McGregor.
He says yes to every opportunity and never backs down from a challenge. He creates interest in his bouts and in his division and clearly has grown the fan base.
The biggest audience for a bout on cable television in the last five-plus years was McGregor’s 2015 match with Dennis Siver on Fox Sports 1.
He had two of the four biggest pay-per-views of 2015, as well. The paid gate of $10.006 million for his bout against Jose Aldo at UFC 194 in Las Vegas is the largest in U.S. history and the second-largest in UFC history, trailing only UFC 129.
McGregor has earned what he’s gotten, and he wants the chance to win a title in two different weight classes.
If he does it, it will have an enormous trickle-down impact on the entire sport. Already, MMA popularity is at its peak. The UFC had its best year in 2015 – five fights sold more than 800,000 each on pay-per-view – and it figures to be better in 2016.
Bellator has had very strong ratings on Spike, and its much-mocked show on Friday averaged 2.5 million viewers during the Kimbo Slice-Dada 5000 bout and peaked at 2.7 million.
The big stars are the ones who create the widest dragnet and build the most interest.
Rousey and McGregor are in similar positions in 2016 as Woods was in 1996 when he was a rookie on the PGA Tour. Many of the veterans openly resented the attention paid to him. But when purses and sponsorships increased dramatically, they very much warmed to Woods’ presence.
McGregor will do much the same thing for his peers. Yes, he’s going to make more than most, if not all, of them, but who could argue that? But if he helps drive up purses and sponsorship dollars for the rest of them, it’s made everyone better.
Professional sports are big business, and it’s never wise to forget about the money. But even from the standpoint of someone who simply loves the competition and wants to see someone excel, McGregor shines.
He’s literally willing to fight anyone, anywhere at any time. Many scoff when he and his coach, John Kavanagh, suggest that if he’s successful at claiming the lightweight belt, he wants to challenge welterweight champion Robbie Lawler for his title.
Logic would say that Lawler is far too big for McGregor, but who could ever fault him for wanting to give it a shot?
Nobody currently on the roster is going to get the opportunity that White is giving McGregor now.
McGregor, quite obviously, is being given special treatment.
And that’s fine, because he not only deserves it, his pursuit of what seems an unattainable goal has lifted an entire sport along with him.