Conor McGregor once again rules the UFC, following his victory over Nate Diaz at UFC 202.
In a year that witnessed an ascension to the featherweight throne last December, a crushing defeat to Diaz in March, a ‘retirement’ in May and an incredible ‘against-the-odds’ revenge victory at UFC 202 in August, it is fair to say that nobody lights up the world of MMA like Conor McGregor.
Since arriving in the UFC in 2013, the Irishman has been brash, outspoken and controversial, yet humble in defeat and gracious in victory. Without fail, he has been devastating in the manner in which he backed up his larger than life persona.
The inevitable comparisons to boxing legend Muhammad Ali are never far away, leading to boxing purists to cry blasphemy. The very utterance of both names in the same sentence sends critics into a tailspin of horror and vocal objection.
Such a comparison has been rightly rejected and balked at by fans of both MMA and boxing codes, until now. McGregor’s victory over Diaz, an opponent two divisions above his championship winning weight, has further lent credibility to the notion that he is, in fact, ready to be legitimately compared to the ‘Greatest Ever’.
Ali invented, or at least brought to the mainstream, the concept of trash talking. Merciless taunting during pre-fight build ups and press conferences, Ali was in the head of his opponents before ever stepping into the ring. In his prime, he always backed up his mouth with blistering speed and agility.
Decades later, McGregor has become the reincarnate of the great Ali. Taking the UFC by storm, McGregor’s wit and way with words has coined many memorable one liners that look set to match the gravitas of Ali’s ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee‘ – perhaps most memorably his post-fight victory cry, “We’re not here to take part, We’re here to take over“.
That, and many other lines that are quintessentially McGregor, have grown the fighter’s persona to such a level that he now transcends the sport of MMA. A global name, the UFC featherweight champion has grown the sport and the UFC promotion to levels never before thought possible, and all through his words, backed up by his actions.
Muhammad Ali similarly brought controversy and theatre to a sluggish heavyweight boxing division. Splitting opinion, Ali took boxing into the mainstream, onto talk shows and newspaper front pages. Opinionated on the social change of the era, Ali transcended his own sport nearly five decades before the name McGregor was ever even known to the UFC.
Fast forward to 2016, McGregor has become like gravity. Every fighter within two weight classes of the featherweight champion wants to fight him. To do so would mean a headline event, increased profile, a big money pay cheque and an opportunity to bask in the the Irishman’s spotlight, at least for a time.
In beating Nate Diaz at UFC 202, McGregor has answered many of the questions so vocally posed by critics. Yes, he can go the distance. Yes, he does have the heart for it. Yes, he does have the endurance. Yes, he does have the punching power. Yes he is indeed the superstar of the sport.
Likewise, the haters will continue to hate. They will be critical of McGregor’s tactics of moving away during the latter rounds. They will be critical of his reluctance to go to the mat.
However, like Ali in the ring before him, the man from Crumlin has redefined the theory of movement in the octagon. Ali’s speed and agility stunned boxing fans. No heavyweight should move that way. Until Ali, nobody had. Ever since, many have tried.
So too with McGregor, he is known for his focus on movement. Precision over power, timing over speed. He moves like no other fighter in the UFC, with many taking note and trying to emulate, or at the least adopt these same principles.
Both in and out of the octagon, McGregor’s influence is abundantly clear. No other fighter can claim to have made such an impact and no other fighter has the evidence to prove such a lofty claim.
Like Ali did with boxing, McGregor has changed the sport of MMA and has done so in a gloriously vocal and enigmatic way. A divisive figure with devoted followers and a unique ability as a wordsmith, his similarity to Ali is obvious, regardless whether it be heresy to claim it.
Ali’s career was long and storied. Over time it grew beyond the original boundaries within which it was once held. The passage of time can do that, and allow a legend grow. McGregor has already changed his sport, has already become champion, has already become its biggest star.
As he builds and redefines his legacy, dare we say that when it is all said and done for the ‘Notorious’ one, he will be accepted as an equal to the great Ali and, in the decades to come, when another comes along to stake their own claims of greatness, it will be against both Ali and McGregor that they will be compared?
Gary Brennan, Pundit Arena
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