It’s only been a mere nine weeks since Conor McGregor’s history making exploits at UFC 205 but in that time, there has been a changing of the guards within MMA’s top promotion.
The Irishman has ruled the UFC with impunity for much of the last two years, decimating the featherweight division before clearing a path to lightweight glory in November.
Becoming the first simultaneous two-weight champion was a commitment he made four years ago as he began his journey to stardom and in the time between then and now, he changed the game and became the first true superstar of the sport.
Having conquered his domain, McGregor announced he was to step back from the octagon in 2017 in order to focus on family and impending fatherhood. With its biggest star on hiatus, many fans wondered how the UFC would cope in his absence.
The return of Ronda Rousey was perfectly timed but unfortunately imperfectly delivered. Lasting a harrowing 48 seconds against Amanda Nunes at UFC 207, ‘Rowdy’ has quickly retreated out of the spotlight to evaluate her future once again.
So with the UFC’s top two stars now absent, from where is UFC president Dana White to find the kind of star power that last year saw the promotion ride the crest of a wave all the way to a $4 billion windfall?
Cue the class of 2017.
Just as Conor McGregor would have taken up MMA with dreams of emulating the likes of Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, BJ Penn, Randy Couture and Forrest Griffin, the rise of the ‘Notorious’ one has inspired a new generation to follow in his footsteps.
The emergence of Cody Garbrandt and Yair Rodriguez, plus the re-emergence of Max Holloway, over the last 18 months has heralded the start of perhaps a new chapter for the UFC.
Garbrandt’s spectacular domination of long-time bantamweight king Dominick Cruz at UFC 207 last month sent ripples through the lighter weight divisions.
The 25-year-old cut a swagger similar to McGregor and his propensity for throwing bombs over the guard of Cruz was an all too familiar sight.
The American’s new found fame is well deserved. With an 11-0 (6-0 UFC) record, he has ascended to the throne on merit.
He has done so with an unorthodox style that has baffled opponents; a lesson learned from McGregor perhaps?
Then there is Rodriguez. Fresh from his heavy handed destruction of UFC Hall of Fame alum BJ Penn at UFC Fight Night 103, Rodriguez looks set to take the featherweight division by storm.
Like Garbrandt, the 24-year-old holds a perfect 6-0 record in the UFC (10-1 overall) and following his latest victory, has become one of the hottest names in the lighter weight classes.
With the featherweight ranks still recovering from McGregor’s path of destruction, the Mexican has a realistic chance of a title shot within his next couple of fights.
One of those above him in the pecking order is the rampaging and reborn Max Holloway. Despite being in the UFC since 2012, the Hawaiian featherweight interim-champion is, like Garbrandt and Rodriguez, still quite young, having only just turned 25.
Until he met, and lost to, McGregor in 2013, Holloway undulated to a 3-3 record in the promotion. Since then however, he has enjoyed a blistering 11 fight winning streak and is now the top contender to face the reinstated champion Jose Aldo.
Interestingly, since that loss to the Dubliner, Holloway has on more than one occasion, paid deference to McGregor as a motivation to improve.
Watching the Irishman succeed and deliver in such emphatic style over the last couple of years will surely have given those younger fighters on the roster the affirmation that their own dreams are attainable.
As McGregor reached the summit of two divisions and afforded himself the luxury of enjoying the trappings and opportunity of fame and fortune, those who have shared his hunger for success continued to improve and watch their stars rise.
Contenders, not pretenders, to McGregor’s throne are fast emerging. In his absence they will continue to enjoy the spotlight, not needing to share it with the Irishman.
Upon his return, the UFC landscape will be a less familiar place. The gladiatorial arena will be the same, so too the lights and the sounds. The faces however, along with the level of experience, will be new.
New challenges in and out of the octagon will face the new father. New distractions that were not there when he left will require his attention.
His will be a return of unequalled proportions. He will not be one to shun the media spotlight like Rousey. He will be big, brash and bombastic with his predictions. Above all however, he must deliver or risk the same fate of the former Queen of the promotion.
If history has taught us anything, it is that Conor McGregor is something special. No longer unique, he does however have the ability to carry the weight of greatness with ease while redefining the range of a fighter’s capabilities.
Having already rewritten the history books once, not many would bet against him doing so again.
Gary Brennan, Pundit Arena
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