Conor McGregor is undeniably the biggest name in MMA and has been ever since his devastating defeat of José Aldo in December of 2015.
When he exploded onto the scene of the top promotion, he did so already a double champion. Having swept to the Cage Warriors featherweight title, followed quickly by the lightweight strap, UFC president Dana White saw enough in the fiery Irishman to give him his shot in the big time.
In April 2013, against Marcus Brimage, McGregor introduced his now famous left hand to the UFC. A mere minute into his debut and he had his first victory in the promotion.
There followed a five-fight rampage through the featherweight ranks, accounting for names like Brandao, Poirier and Mendes, and all leading to a long desired and inevitable title fight with Aldo at UFC 194.
The 13-second bout shook the promotion to its foundations and confirmed McGregor’s status as a UFC superstar.
2016 bore witness to eleven months of weight-hopping adventures that included two classic fights with Nate Diaz at welterweight, before the chance for McGregor to realise his ambition of two-weight glory.
At UFC 205 in New York, the Irishman put on another masterclass, destroying lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez in eight minutes. The UFC was at the feet of the man from Crumlin.
The subsequent announcement of a hiatus from the sport and McGregor’s continued assertions of his plans to face Floyd Mayweather in the boxing ring, have now thrown shade over the double champion’s glittering UFC career.
To reinvigorate a stagnant featherweight division in the absence of it’s champion, Dana White stripped McGregor of his belt in November, awarding it back to a begrudging and combative Aldo. Though incredulous of the decision, McGregor continues to promote his Mayweather ambitions.
Now, as the UFC forges ahead without its biggest star, questions over McGregor’s legacy are being asked.
It is agreed, undeniable and undisputed that he has single-handedly changed the game, both for fighters and the UFC itself. Catapulting the business into the mainstream media and consciousness, the financial floodgates were opened and the business was awash with more money than ever before.
McGregor quickly became the richest fighter the company has ever had, and in doing, showed other stars how to seek their own just rewards.
He has made history in the UFC by becoming the first ever simultaneous two-weight champion and has cleared a direct path for future Hall of Fame induction.
Yet, with all the records, all the talk, one glaring omission remains on McGregor’s resume. He has yet to defend a title.
Neither during his Cage Warriors days or his time in the UFC has McGregor stood still long enough to even contemplate a title defence.
The upward trajectory of his career, fuelled by his own ambitions, has seen him leap from one achievement to the next, with the ultimate ambition yet to be revealed.
His achievements in the Cage Warriors promotion opened the door to the UFC, and like any sensible fighter, he was walking through without a second thought.
The manner in which he laid waste to the featherweight division certainly supported his notion that there was no challenge left for him there, that the move to lightweight was logical.
It was the fast-track awarding of a lightweight title shot however, ahead of the likes of Khabib Nurmagomedov, Tony Ferguson and Rafael dos Anjos, that led to fans crying foul and questioning the fairness of his shot at Alvarez at UFC 205.
As it turned out, McGregor once again backed up the talk and proved himself to be undeniable. He had beaten the best.
But what about the rest?
McGregor’s hiatus and subsequent Mayweather ambitions now leaves number one lightweight contender Nurmagomedov to take on Ferguson for an interim lightweight belt at UFC 209 in March, a title that neither fighter really wants.
Both men have demanded their title shot against McGregor. Both men, in truth, deserve it.
It has come to the point where the champion really must return to the UFC and defend his title, lest he and the UFC lose credibility. Having already given up one title, he simply cannot afford to do so again without damaging his legacy in the sport.
While José Aldo detractors will quickly point out that he was gifted the featherweight title on two separate occasions by Dana White, his record cannot be denied. The Brazilian defended his belt on no less than seven occasions before his loss to McGregor.
Having achieved so much in such a relatively short space of time, the Dubliner has but one final box to tick before his legendary status can be written in stone – a title defence.
Until he does this, it will always be the stick with which his legacy will be beaten by fans and fighters alike.
Gary Brennan, Pundit Arena
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