In its early years, the UFC gave itself the tagline “As real as it gets”, making the point that there is nothing so visceral as two men fighting in a cage. To the extent that it was ever true it still is, but as the sport has grown, commercial pressures have come in to the mix. Big fights are devised not solely on merit but also according to the likely pay-per-view take, a sum inflated by the extent to which fighters debase themselves in promotion, ramping up “storyline” and “hatred”. The distinction between sport and entertainment has never been blurrier.
No one manipulates this reality better than Ireland’s Conor McGregor, the UFC’s most marketable asset and, as of Saturday night in Madison Square Garden, its most decorated fighter. Already the featherweight champion, after thrashing Eddie Alvarez inside two rounds he is now also the lightweight champion, the first man to hold two belts simultaneously.
Thanks to an amazing aptitude, intense focus, the backing of an entire country and an in-depth understanding of the fighting game — McGregor is almost as big as the UFC itself. He fights who he wants to fight, when he wants to fight them.
McGregor’s debut fight in the UFC came in 2013, and after he dispatched his opponent in short order, he made the first in a series of bold claims. “I feel like I’m stealing the show,” he said. “I’ve stolen everything. I’m going to steal all the money from the UFC and hightail it back to Ireland. Fuck the recession!”
Next, he beat the excellent Max Holloway despite tearing his ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in the second round, and then missing the best part of a year. He returned in July 2014 to dispense another drubbing, headlining the UFC’S first visit to Dublin – an event put together solely because of him. Afterwards, he addressed his public once more: “We’re not here to take part,” he said told them. “We’re here to take over.”
Since then, McGregor has competed seven times, more than anyone else on the UFC’s roster, putting himself in harm’s way wherever possible. Each time he has delivered a thriller of some description, performing with the poise, grace and confidence of a ballerina; albeit a ballerina holding a shillelagh.
In December 2015, McGregor fought José Aldo for the featherweight title. Unbeaten in ten years, with nine successful defences, Aldo was already a great of the game; McGregor knocked him out in 13 seconds. “Nobody can take that left hand shot,” he said afterwards. “Precision beats power and timing beats speed”.
But that was not the only key to his victory. Over the course of a year, McGregor had chipped away at Aldo with unrelenting, agrresive patter. Since then, though, he has phased out the undercutting of opponents and replaced it with tedious brags about money – specifically, how much of it he earns both relatively and absolutely. When he found himself fighting at welterweight to save a show, after his original opponent, the lightweight champion, got injured, he ragged Nate Diaz for teaching jiu-jitsu to kids when really he should just have been richer, and also called him a “cholo gangster from the hood”. In the event, McGregor encountered a bigger man who could take that left hand shot – just – and lost a classic scrap after being submitted in the second round.
Though the fight had no wider significance, and he had yet to defend his belt, he insisted on a rematch; it was scheduled for the UFC’s landmark 200th show, only to be pulled after McGregor refused to complete his media obligations. He retaliated by pretending to retire. He and Diaz then met a month later than originally scheduled, and McGregor eked out a majority decision in a five-round war.
He moved down a weight category to contest the lightweight title, arriving late to Thursday’s pre-fight press conference, in a white mink coat and ridiculous red trousers, before picking up a chair to throw at his opponent. Where once he had been sharp, now he was pathetic. Until the bell rung.
Last weekend, though, was not all about McGregor, far from it. It was the UFC’s first visit to New York after years embroiled in the “human cockfighting” arguments that were settled elsewhere long ago. Because contests are shorter and gloves less padded, MMA is safer than boxing and American Football; repeated shocks to the head are far more damaging than clean knockouts. Which is not to say that MMA does not deliver some brutal blows, but it is also a sport of artistry, intellect and dignity.
These are qualities personified by the UFC’s other breakout star, Ronda Rousey. A judo expert who won a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics, she transitioned to MMA and despatched nine straight opponents, spinning them to the ground via a variety of parabolic tosses, then applying agony by hyperextending the elbow and waiting for them to tap. This brilliance persuaded Dana White, the UFC president, to develop a women’s division – something he said he’d never do. But as with all as with all the fight game’s nevers – they only stay nevers until money orders otherwise.
And Rousey was – is – money. Her competitive charisma is part of it, but there is a lot more to it than that. She is mean and amenable, guarded and candid, formidable and vulnerable, everywoman and Superwoman — a perfect confection for selling fights.
Simultaneously, she built and destroyed her division, annihilating those who insulted her and shunning the post-fight, score-settling hugs. Nor did she keep this attitude inside the cage. Her response to haters who criticise her buffed-up physique as too masculine, was to publicly state that she is a not a “do nothing bitch” — a phrase borrowed by Beyonce during a live concert last September. Rousey is still capable of showing her human side, however, opening up to TV chat show Ellen DeGeneres about the suicidal thoughts sparked by her title loss to rival Holly Holm last November.
In such context, it is easy to see why Rousey now has a lucrative career outside of MMA, co-starring in The Expendables 3 and writing a best-selling autobiography. She will play the lead role in the remake of the 1989 action film Road House which starred Patrick Swayze.
At the end of this year, she will return to the cage in a bid to regain her title – the bantamweight title, never the women’s bantamweight title. Because, for all its myriad flaws, the UFC does not distinguish between men and women — there are no “w” prefixes and no sex-based pay discrepancies — it is only recently that McGregor usurped Rousey as the top-earning fighter.
But unlike Rousey, who plans to retire in the foreseeable future, McGregor is “just getting started”. So certain was he of winning on Saturday that he was almost apologetic in explaining why Alvarez – a high-class and savvy veteran, but without an outstanding attribute – could not live with him. But before long, he was back talking about money, demanding a share in the company. And why not? He is a dedicated, epochal talent, enduring pain to deliver entertainment.