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Joe Corcoran: Love him or hate him, but McGregor is a global icon

He's already achieved fame and fortune. But what's next for Dublin's fighting superstar, asks Joe Corcoran

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Conor McGregor struts his stuff in the UFC Octagon

Conor McGregor struts his stuff in the UFC Octagon

Conor McGregor struts his stuff in the UFC Octagon

When we say that a moment is history in the making, what we usually mean is that it is so utterly without precedence that we lack the perspective needed to fully comprehend its significance then and there.

For four years and a few odd months now, Conor McGregor has been caught up in just such a moment. In that time, he has transcended two different sports, put Crumlin on the pages of the Wall Street Journal and gone from a €188 weekly social welfare cheque to a net worth well in excess of $100m.

All of this would be impressive in its own right, but what makes McGregor's ascension particularly historic is that it has occurred without there being any underlying structure in place to precipitate it. He has not just climbed the ladder of success, but built it anew, higher than anyone had ever thought possible.

His promoters in the UFC never set out to create an icon of his magnitude. Before he came along, their entire business model revolved around keeping their combatants subordinate to the promotion in order to avoid the calamities inherent in boxing matchmaking, wherein a handful of fighters gain just enough popularity to go into business for themselves and avoid match-ups of any sporting merit for years on end.

Up until then, it had worked out rather well for them. Though it was generally accepted that the sport's golden years as a genuine mainstream curiosity had come and gone around the turn of the decade, the UFC still managed to occupy a respectable place on the fringes of the modern sporting diet, churning out monthly pay per views for between 2,000 to 500,000 hardcore fans.

McGregor had not been on the UFC's radar long before signing with the promotion in February 2013. In fact, it mightn't have happened at all had UFC president Dana White not been invited to receive a Gold Medal of Honorary Patronage from Trinity College that same month. During his trip, he was so overwhelmed by requests to sign the then Cage Warriors' champion that he ended up flying him out to Las Vegas for a meeting as soon as he'd returned home.

It could not have come at a more opportune time for McGregor, who was by that stage all but finished with the sport in which he'd become a minor league domestic icon.

"As you know, outside the UFC, (MMA) is not financially secure," he recounted in a 2015 interview. "So, I was unsure of what to do.

"A long-time teammate of mine had got some bad news from too many wars inside the Octagon. So, you know, I sat back, and the UFC had not called at this stage where I had two gold belts wrapped around my waist, and I was thinking, 'I don't think I want to do this. Maybe, maybe this is not for me'."

All of that changed after his meeting with Dana, who immediately recognised he had found something special in the 24-year-old Dubliner.

"I called Lorenzo [Lorenzo Fertitta, then-UFC chief executive] when I got into the car, and I said, 'I don't know if this kid can fight, but if he can even throw a punch, he's going to be a huge star'."

He could do a lot more than just throw a punch. From the outset, it was apparent that McGregor was on the cutting edge of the MMA's technical development, with a supremely honed boxing game that blended elements of capoeira and kyokushin karate into a snaking style of pressure-based counter-striking that bewildered his opponents. Not counting a hard fought unanimous-decision victory over future world champion Max Holloway in which he was forced to take the fight to the ground after tearing a knee ligament, it took the Irishman just under 24 minutes to knock out his first five opponents and capture the interim featherweight title in the summer of 2015.

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Already by then the biggest star in the sport, it would not be until he finally met long-time champion Jose Aldo (then undefeated for more than a decade) in December that he would truly begin to reach the unheard of heights he now occupies.

The fight, which had already fallen through once before, was easily the most marketed contest in the sport's history, with both fighters embarking on a worldwide media tour that saw McGregor rattle the previously impenetrable Brazilian's psyche with a barrage of insults that fans lapped up gleefully at every stop.

Come fight night, Aldo was so desperate to get back at his tormentor that he made the uncharacteristically aggressive decision to charge forward at the bell with a looping right hook.

Watching with a group of friends, there was a period of time after it was called off - as play-by-play man Joe Rogan screamed out in delirium "Oooahh, he slept him! One punch!" - when none of us could muster a word in reaction.

Aldo's 10 year-reign of dominance had unravelled in 13 seconds. McGregor seemed invincible. Like nothing we'd ever seen before. It was almost frightening. The parameters of what could be achieved in the sport had been turned completely inside out with one left hand.

It was as such strangely comforting to see him finally taste defeat the following March in a fight two weight classes above his titular home, against maverick veteran and long-time fan favourite Nate Diaz. The loss seemed to put things back into perspective. McGregor's claim to invincibility could be dismissed as an illusion of circumstance. Like an overpriced sports car, he could get from 0-60 faster than just about anyone, but would quickly break down whenever the going got tough. Perhaps a part of me had even hoped that that would be the end of him, that he would go off into the night never to return again, proving once and for all that he hadn't ever been a fighter in the truest sense, but a freak show best forgotten about.

That is not what happened, if anything the character he showed after the loss made him more popular than he had been before. Battered and bruised both physically and emotionally, he showed up nonetheless to the post-fight press conference in one of his trademark blue suits and answered every question asked of him. He made no excuses, he congratulated his opponent, admitted to being "inefficient with his movement" and promised that he would not make the same mistakes again in the rematch.

Diaz vs McGregor II was the biggest fight in UFC history. It was also one of the best. In front of a raucous, celebrity-filled crowd of 15,539, the two superstars went to war for five rounds.

There were moments when both men looked on the brink of being put away, back and forth swings in momentum to rival any great drama you could think of. As the judges' decision was being called out, there was no way of knowing who they were going to favour. Ultimately it was McGregor who got the nod, avenging himself for his defeat five months earlier. He had proved the world wrong yet again.

It was in this fight's immediate aftermath that talks of the match-up with Floyd Mayweather Jr began to gather steam. In November, McGregor made one more stop inside the Octagon, steamrolling lightweight kingpin Eddie Alvarez to become the UFC's first simultaneous two division world champion. After that, the two biggest stars in combat sports set each other firmly within their sights and the subsequent contract signing was one of the smoothest in recent memory.

By the time you read this, Conor McGregor is either a defeated man once again or he is the new biggest sports star on the planet. If it's the former, as most expect it to be, then the fight now probably feels like it was a profound waste of time. Far into the future, people will look back on it and wonder how anybody could have ever been duped into believing a man with no professional boxing experience could out-box the greatest boxer in the world.

But what they ought to recognise is that the man in question was no ordinary one. He was a man who had made a career out of defying expectations; out of taking everything we thought we knew about combat sports and obliterating it so dramatically that he did indeed seem to have something intangibly magical about him.

In that sense, the result of the fight is largely ancillary. That it has occurred at all is a victory for Conor McGregor - a testament to perhaps the most extraordinary sporting career this country has ever seen.


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