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The one thing missing from Conor McGregor’s quest for all-time greatness: winning

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist
·5 min read
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Conor McGregor arrived at the W Hotel in Abu Dhabi on Sunday via a yacht and then a Rolls Royce, opulent symbols of what makes the former two-weight UFC champion different from all of his peers.

McGregor will headline UFC 257 on Saturday at Etihad Arena on Fight Island when he meets Dustin Poirier in a rematch of a 2014 bout in Las Vegas the Irishman won by first-round knockout.

At stake will be a shot at the UFC lightweight title, either against champion Khabib Nurmagomedov or someone else if Nurmagomedov stays retired.

Saturday’s fight is almost certain to eclipse one million in pay-per-view sales, a number that only McGregor among UFC fighters is regularly able to achieve.

In his last three fights, against Donald Cerrone at UFC 246 on Jan. 18, 2020; against Nurmagomedov at UFC 229 on Oct. 6, 2018; and in a boxing match against Floyd Mayweather on Aug. 26, 2017, McGregor sold 1.1 million, 2.45 million and 4.4 million pay-per-views, respectively.

He’s the biggest star — by far — the UFC has ever produced, and if he sticks to his plan to fight multiple times this year, his notoriety will only increase.

In every sport, there are stars, and then there are those rare few who shine above the others: Michael Jordan, LeBron James and the late Kobe Bryant in the NBA; Tom Brady in the NFL; Tiger Woods in golf.

As big as McGregor is, though, he hasn’t hit the level that those icons have for one simple reason: He hasn’t won like they have.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 26: Conor McGregor attends the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on January 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)
Conor McGregor attends the 62nd annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center on Jan. 26, 2020, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)

That’s remarkable, because McGregor is one of the most gifted fighters in UFC history. He was the first fighter in UFC history to hold two weight-class championships simultaneously, and he’s one of the rare fighters to have won bouts in three different weight classes.

But for all his success, McGregor’s record in UFC title fights is just 3-1. He defeated Chad Mendes to win an interim featherweight title, then knocked out Jose Aldo in 13 seconds in the performance of his lifetime on Dec. 12, 2015, to become the full-fledged featherweight champion.

He stopped Eddie Alvarez on Nov. 12, 2016, to become the lightweight champion, and then lost a title bout to Nurmagomedov at UFC 229.

When you compare him to those other iconic figures, three championship wins is lacking. Jordan won six NBA titles, Bryant five and James four. Brady won six Super Bowl championships. Woods is tied for first all-time on the PGA Tour with 82 victories and is second behind only Jack Nicklaus with 15 major titles.

Winning in the biggest situations is what nudges a superstar to that next level. Activity, of course, is an issue for McGregor. Saturday’s bout against Poirier is just his third MMA match in the last four-plus years. That’s not enough to sustain the interest of the non-MMA fan, particularly since his fights are always on pay-per-view.

That makes it more difficult to reach the masses. Brady, for instance, has played in nine Super Bowls, each with an average audience in the U.S. of over 100 million viewers on network television. On Sunday in a 30-20 NFC divisional round playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints on Fox, Brady was seen by more than 29 million fans.

McGregor has never been on television in front of that many people, and it hurts him in terms of ascending to the final, rarest level in sports. It’s harder for fighters to make it given how infrequently they compete, but Muhammad Ali did. Mike Tyson did. And yeah, Mayweather did.

Tyson is so iconic that his exhibition bout two days after Thanksgiving against Roy Jones Jr. sold more than 1.9 million on pay-per-view.

McGregor is positioned well to make that last, toughest step because there are a number of potentially intriguing bouts ahead of him. Plus, with the UFC now partnered with ESPN, he’s going to be promoted like he has never been before.

ESPN has a vested interest in his success and so he’ll be all over your television.

If he defeats Poirier on Saturday and UFC president Dana White is able to persuade Nurmagomedov to come out of retirement to give McGregor a rematch, it will provide him a mega-platform. Undoubtedly, Nurmagomedov-McGregor II would be the best-selling fight in UFC history and one of the best sellers of any combat sport, period.

It would almost certainly surpass three million sales and White believes it could sail past four. Only two fights have ever done more than 2.5 million in sales — Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao, which did 4.6 million in 2015; and Mayweather-McGregor, which did 4.4 million in 2017.

If McGregor defeats Nurmagomedov, there would be a rubber match that would set another record.

The opportunity is there for McGregor to be even bigger than he is now and to command more money than he ever has. He’s already earned nearly a quarter of a billion in his career, and could double that before he’s done if things break the right way.

To do it, though, he’s got to do what Jordan and James and Bryant and Brady and Woods were able to do so often in the biggest moments:

Win.

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