Tuesday 19 September 2017

The good, the bad and The Notorious - It was an eventful year for Conor McGregor

Conor McGregor celebrates with his featherweight and lightweight belts after defeating Eddie Alvarez at Madison Square Garden, New York last November. Photo by Adam Hunger/Sportsfile
Conor McGregor celebrates with his featherweight and lightweight belts after defeating Eddie Alvarez at Madison Square Garden, New York last November. Photo by Adam Hunger/Sportsfile

Tom Rooney

There was more than a faint note of irony to RTÉ naming Conor McGregor their 2016 Sportsperson of the Year, considering that Sport Ireland - their partner in the endeavour - do not even recognise mixed martial arts.

A host of disgruntled fighters on the UFC's roster would tell you that it was merely the latest example of the Crumlin native being afforded an unprecedented special allowance.

Conor McGregor submitting to Nate Diaz in Las Vegas last March. Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images
Conor McGregor submitting to Nate Diaz in Las Vegas last March. Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Closer to home, there was plenty of opposition to his nomination, let alone him joining a gilded list of previous winners that includes Henry Shefflin, Roy Keane, Sonia O'Sullivan and Brian O'Driscoll.

McGregor's persona, or at least the one he presents in public, will continue to make him a polarising presence, not least in his own backyard. Like the man himself, MMA rarely induces indifference so, whatever side of the fence one sits on, staying objective is no mean feat.

If it is in fact true that all's well that ends well, then McGregor can reflect on 2016 as a seismic body of work, but his path to becoming the first UFC fighter to concurrently hold two titles was an arduous and often fraught one.

Stripped

He suffered, and then avenged, his first promotional loss, temporarily retired amid an ongoing and all too public feud with his employers and, tragically, witnessed the death of a young man competing in the same sport.

Conor McGregor Photo by Joshua Dahl/Sportsfile
Conor McGregor Photo by Joshua Dahl/Sportsfile

Then, perhaps in some futile attempt to bring McGregor to heel, the UFC stripped him of his featherweight crown a fortnight after he spectacularly annihilated Eddie Alvarez at November's UFC 205 in Madison Square Garden to clinch the lightweight equivalent.

Like so much of the company's business practices, it was conducted in bizarre fashion: they announced during a live broadcast that McGregor had vacated the title, and then handed it back to Jose Aldo. McGregor, not for the first time, has refuted the promotion's version of events.

He countered by receiving a boxing licence in California, almost certainly as a means of breathing fresh life into the ridiculous notion that he might take on Floyd Mayweather.

Following his victory over Alvarez, the Dubliner demanded that the UFC's new owners, WME-IMG, offer him equity or he would reassess his future in their employ.

It's not an unreasonable request in light of the money he generates, and that the business was acquired for $4bn in July, but UFC president Dana White has said that he has nothing to discuss with McGregor until after the birth of the champion's first child.

Contrary to what McGregor has stated, White claims the Dubliner is on a 10-month hiatus, further pointing to a resumption of hostilities between a company realigning on the hoof and its feral golden goose.

In just over three years at the apex of a sport that continues to grow at a rate of knots, McGregor has won three world titles (one interim), accrued an unheard-of windfall and breached the wider consciousness in a way few would have thought possible for a man in a profession that is still considered in many quarters as boxing's vulgar stepchild.

Hollywood, television, professional wrestling and boxing are among the many, and far more lucrative, options now at his disposal, but McGregor's 2016 was ignited by a chastening loss.

Years from now, McGregor may thank Nate Diaz for strangling the hubris out of him last March at UFC 196. The defeat was also the genesis of a chain events where, for the first time since the 28-year-old became a known quantity, he found himself against the ropes, so to speak.

The compelling rivalry with Diaz was the result of another combatant's misfortune, but unfolded as the most profitable and engaging narrative of the MMA calendar.

It took McGregor just 13 seconds to do what 18 previous opponents had failed to, so his dethroning of Jose Aldo as featherweight champion in December 2015 only re-enhanced the belief in his own invincibility.

After defeating Aldo, McGregor was immediately given leave to move up to lightweight and challenge then champion Rafael Dos Anjos, who would ultimately withdraw from the bout with a broken foot.

On just 11 days' notice, in stepped Diaz. McGregor and his coach John Kavanagh have subsequently admitted that, drunk on success, they did not consider the Californian even the slightest of threats. In fact, Diaz's awkward southpaw stance and preternatural capacity to absorb punishment belie that notion.

Diaz responded by choking a poorly prepared McGregor into submission in just shy of two rounds.

The bout was contested at welterweight (170lb) so McGregor abandoned much of his customary fight-week routine and, instructively, lost his first UFC fight in which he wasn't the bigger man.

The detractors had a field day, but McGregor accepted the defeat admirably, and quickly cashed in on some favours the UFC owed him by ensuring they booked an immediate rematch.

However, events were soon put into perspective a month later at the National Stadium, where McGregor was in attendance as Portuguese fighter Joao Carvalho (28) died following a loss to his SBG team-mate Charlie Ward.

It was a shattering blow for all concerned, and McGregor and much of his team soon relocated to Iceland to prepare for Diaz - avoiding much of the furore that unfolded after Carvalho's death.

Then, from nowhere, McGregor posted that infamous retirement tweet, and sent the sport into an almost laughable tailspin. McGregor refused to attend a press event to promote his rematch with Diaz at UFC 200 four months later, and the promotion responded by pulling the fight from the card. Strange, considering he had banked more PR hours than the rest of his contemporaries combined.

Eventually, everyone made nice and the bout - again to be fought at welterweight despite Diaz being a natural lightweight - was rescheduled for UFC 202 in August.

McGregor and Kavanagh broke with a career habit by tailoring their camp to Diaz's attributes. Experts from various disciplines were summoned to Las Vegas for six weeks to the tune of roughly €300k.

During fight week, McGregor and Diaz enlivened what had been a decidedly inert public by hurling bottles and cans at each other during a public press event at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. It was atrocious behaviour but promotional gold, and a useful preview for what proved a five-round barnburner at the end of which McGregor was awarded a majority decision.

The win over Diaz paved the way to Alvarez and New York City, where McGregor was forced to share the spotlight with the ascending Donald Trump.

Twenty-three years to the day from the UFC's inaugural event, McGregor left the hallowed Garden as their only exponent to simultaneously lord over two classes.

The feat can be tempered by the fact it was achieved in a sport less than a quarter of a century old but, conversely, the level of competition has never been so exacting, so it is perhaps best gauged in the eye of the beholder.

He's been impossible to avoid in 2016 but, as Vincent Hogan noted on these pages, we're no closer to gaining any genuine insight into Conor McGregor.

You can't help but assume he wouldn't have it any other way.

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