All of the lovers, the haters, believers, and naysayers have each contributed equally towards the eternal battle between those who have followed one young man from Crumlin, Dublin as he took over the fight-game.
The rivalries that exist within the world of sport are one of the foremost reasons we tune in week in, week out. The built-in narrative that makes it all worthwhile when all is said and done.
Whether it’s the traditional significance of an El Classico showdown in Spain or the long-brewing competitive history of a meeting between Federer and Nadal – summoning up emotional investment from the fans isn’t hard when there’s so much on the line.
In mixed martial arts, we often look at rivalries in terms of the animosity that exists between two fighters who have drawn blood and clattered bones inside the cage.
From our memories of Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz to our ongoing interest in Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier – palpable tension sells and often results in some of the most emotionally-charged conflicts you could ever imagine.
But when we speak of rivalries, we often forget that the same rules that hold within team-sports can apply within the more individually-driven realm of combat sports.
It doesn’t matter where you stand on the former dual-weight UFC champion Conor McGregor – chances are you’ve helped contribute to the most compelling divide the sport has ever seen.
When Conor burst onto the global scene just over five years ago, the first seeds were planted. Taking a page out of the famously-divisive Floyd Mayweather’s playbook, this young, brash featherweight controlled your focus – whether you were behind him as he walked to the octagon or not.
In the popularity contest that has woven itself into the road taken by would-be superstars, to be ignored is the first step towards being forgotten. From the very moment he first called on Dana White to grant him his 60 G’s, McGregor demanded your attention and has maintained it ever since.
For all the worthwhile storylines to be found in the UFC’s modern-day makeup, one look at any comment section online will tell you that Conor maintains a vice-like grip on the fans’ collective unmentionables.
So much so that what transpires within the octagon has been relegated to a secondary concern.
The fanboys and the haters. Two groups as impossibly determined and emotionally invested as each other – willing to ignore progression and turn a blind eye to logic to maintain their support.
Where football has El Classico and baseball has the Yankees and the Red Sox, mixed martial arts finds itself left with the eternal tug-of-war that revolves around the capabilities and limitations of a man who has split the public down in the middle in a manner unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
It has been famously said that Conor has brought his critics upon himself by raising the stakes beyond belief every time he steps in and fights.
Following his 13-second destruction of José Aldo in the UFC 194 main-event, the momentum had fully moved to his supporters as their hero confirmed everything they had hoped for with one flush left-hand.
Post-UFC 229, so-called ‘haters’ across the world were left with finger-cramps as they gleefully fired back online – discrediting the Irishman and championing Khabib Nurmagomedov as the man to finally shut down the hype.
It’s a constant race for validation where the grand prize is the right to say ‘I told you so’.
And it’s a far more interesting dynamic than many give it credit for.
It might seem unlikely and ridiculous to some, but Conor McGregor could well be sitting on top of the world once again by this time next year.
Or he might not.
Maybe he takes a fight with Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone as so many expect him to do and ends up absorbing a perfectly-timed patented head-kick from the veteran – sending his legions of fans into perhaps an even greater shock than his last UFC outing.
It doesn’t matter.
I don’t think there’s any conceivable scenario where McGregor does something incredible and wins over his detractors just as I don’t believe any loss inside the octagon from here on out can truly convince his fans that he is not a special athlete.
At the end of the day, that’s loyalty I suppose.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena