Irish superstar Conor McGregor’s mixed martial arts (MMA) career came full circle when he won the interim UFC featherweight title by defeating Chad Mendes with a vicious come-from-behind TKO in the blockbuster main event of last weekend’s (Sat., July 11, 2015) UFC 189 from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The historic win completed a meteoric rise for McGregor that, while still incomplete due to the necessity of facing long-time champion Jose Aldo for the official title sometime soon, will still go down as one of the fastest runs to the top that MMA has ever seen. That run is only compounded by the fact that McGregor is already the pre-bout favourite to leave the Octagon as the undisputed Featherweight Champion.
McGregor has his legions of fans, and he also has his throngs of haters that will tune in to each and every one of his fights in order to hopefully see him lose, similar to hated boxing champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. But before the vast majority of people knew who he was, before he was the ‘Notorious,’ McGregor was just a young Irishman with a dream.
It was a big dream; one that was not without its fair share of bumps in the road that nearly saw him quit the tough sport of MMA. Seven years ago in 2008, a young 19-year-old McGregor left his plumbing job behind to pursue an active MMA career, but his true love for the fight game was fully cultivated when he made his way to UFC 93 in 2009.
There, he made his life’s goal to become UFC champion, and while many a fighter has said exactly the same thing, ‘Notorious’ actually made it come to fruition, a completely different accomplish in and of itself.
With his previous boxing training as his base and a growing skillset under Straight Blast Gym’s John Kavanagh, it was clear that the ‘Notorious’ was a natural fit for combat sport, as he accrued four knockout wins in his first six fights fighting for smaller promotions in his native Ireland.. But he also suffered two submission losses to Joseph Duffy and Artemij Sitenkov in that span, proving that he would have to become a better-rounded fighter if he truly wanted to compete at the top levels of MMA.
After the humbling 38-second loss to Duffy, McGregor went on an eight-fight tear from early 2011 to late 2012 that featured seven knockouts and one submission win, earning him a trip to the UFC opposite The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) veteran Marcus Brimage at UFC on Fuel TV 9 in April 2013.
Repeatedly stating that he was broke heading into the fight, McGregor arrived on the scene in a big way at that fateful event from Sweden, knocking out Brimage in the first round to earn a $50,000 “Knockout of the Night” bonus and kick starting his MMA career into high gear.
That’s when the massive, worldwide Phenom status began building for McGregor. No, it didn’t happen overnight, yet it also didn’t take long to build up a full head of steam.
UFC President Dana White has discussed a trip to Dublin prior to McGregor’s debut with the promotion where nearly every Irish fight fan talked of his ability to become a star, and it was then that the pioneering executive knew that if ‘Notorious’ could fight anything close to what his people talked about, he potentially had a huge star on his hands.
He was obviously right, and after watching McGregor storm into the Octagon at UFC Sweden, he promptly (and intelligently) booked him for a quick turnaround to face younger prospect (and now top-ranked contender) Max Holloway at August 2013’s UFC Fight Night 26 from Boston, Massachusetts; a hotbed for Irish fight fans.
McGregor won that fight by unanimous decision, and while he was disappointed that he was unable to finish Holloway, even worse news came in the form of a torn ACL that he had suffered early in the fight. The injury derailed McGregor’s hype train temporarily, leaving him on the sidelines until the following summer when he was booked to headline UFC Fight Night 46 against American Top Team (ATT) product Cole Miller from his native Dublin.
Miller withdrew from the fight as ‘Notorious’ predicted him to and was replaced by TUF 14 winner Diego Brandao. The fight went as most expected, with McGregor wearing down the formerly touted Brazilian with an onslaught of punches ending with his patented straight left as the finishing blow.
The card was a massive success for the promotion, and it was clear that the company would look to make up for lost time by taking full advantage of his rising star power by booking him for another quick turnaround against top-ranked Dustin Poirier at last September’s blockbuster UFC 178 pay-per-view (PPV).
After a hype-filled build-up that featured a ton of creative trash talk from McGregor, the Irish fan favourite stepped into the Octagon and took a few clean punches from ‘Diamond’ before putting him away with an excellently timed punch behind the ear and a barrage of follow-up punches for the stoppage. It was a defining win for McGregor; one that proved he could hang with the elite of the UFC 145-pound division.
He was due for a top-ranked opponent his next fight, but the UFC instead somewhat surprisingly booked him against veteran Dennis Siver at January’s UFC Fight Night 59 from Boston. McGregor’s critics cried that the fight made no sense, that it was time to test ‘Notorious’ against one of the division’s many grinding wrestlers to see if he actually deserved a shot at division kingpin Jose Aldo.
Their calls weren’t answered, however, and McGregor did all that he could in absolutely destroying the overmatched German kickboxer en route to a second round TKO stoppage in Beantown.
That win earned him his shot against Aldo at UFC 189, and the promotion embarked on an unprecedented 10-ciity World Championship Tour to promote the fight, a media spectacle the likes of which had never been seen before in MMA. The hype was there, a fight featuring McGregor against the world’s top-ranked pound-for-pound fighter was there, but unfortunately it all came crashing down when Aldo pulled out of the fight with an injured rib, something that ‘Notorious’ had predicted all along.
Chad Mendes was promptly booked to face McGregor at UFC 189, and in many ways, that fight actually made more sense. McGregor would get his top-ranked challenge to determine if he truly
deserved his title shot, and he would simultaneously get a chance to answer all of the critics that said he needed to beat a top-level wrestler in order to fight for the belt.
Despite being put on his back repeatedly by an opponent who only had two weeks to prepare for the fight, McGregor showed the heart of a true champion by staying calm, persevering, and getting back up to unload a fight-ending combo on ‘Money’ that was capped off once again by his massive straight left hand.
His career goal had become reality, and even though it was an interim belt around his waist, it became clear that McGregor sat alongside women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey as one of the promotion’s two biggest stars.
All this from a man who nearly quit MMA until a call from his mother to Kavanagh got him back into the gym and re-focused on his training. All this from a man who was broke despite a 12-fight win streak heading into his first UFC bout. McGregor’s Cinderella story is just that; a rags-to-riches tale built on hard work and a massive amount of charisma that just can’t be taught.
Love him or hate him, and there’s not much room to teeter in between, it simply can’t be denied that McGregor’s story is an emotional, inspiring one that ended up with him on top of the mixed martial arts world.
Will he stay there?? Tough to say, but what’s he accomplished will already go down in the annals of MMA history. And we may have just witnessed the start.