Has Conor McGregor Truly Changed the Fight Game?

Conor McGregor
Credit: Mike Sloan/Sherdog.com

Conor McGregor was in the combat sports event of the year.  Has he also changed the game for the athletes that will follow him?

This past summer, Conor McGregor participated in what was arguably the biggest combat sports event of all-time when he faced Floyd Mayweather Jr. in a boxing match. The cross-over event garnered media attention the world over and generated millions of dollars in revenue. It was unlike anything an elite mixed martial artist had ever been a part of, and some argue that he has changed MMA in the process.

The most unique part of the entire spectacle was that there were plenty of reasons it was not going to happen. Conor McGregor is the UFC’s biggest star and to compete in a boxing match of that magnitude meant the organization would have to agree to co-promotion, something they had never done in their history. Mayweather, on his part, was retired and seemingly content collecting his paychecks as a promoter and businessman.

Both men used each other without throwing a punch. McGregor stayed in the headlines while he was on hiatus to observe the birth of his son. Mayweather was able to keep his name relevant as a promoter without needing to step into the ring himself. It was a circus that played out across sports talk programming around the world, and the public devoured it with an appetite that wouldn’t be quelled until the two finally collided.

Regardless of whether or not the two seriously considered a fight, the fact was the star power of both men put enough money on the table that the UFC was willing to come to terms and coax Mayweather out of retirement. Mayweather prevailed, as many expected he would. But the numbers spoke for themselves: the bout was the second biggest in history, bested only by the fight between Mayweather and Manny Pacquaio years earlier. Consider this: public anticipation had been built up for five years before Mayweather and Pacquiao collided. The fight with Conor McGregor: Only 11 months from the day “The Notorious” mentioned fighting Mayweather during a UFC press conference.

What does this mean for the UFC and fighters going forward? First and foremost, UFC President Dana White made it clear that he has no intention of making cross-over fights a regular occurrence. One must also consider the circumstances: McGregor is arguably the most famous active combat sports athlete in the world today and is in the same weight class as Mayweather. With McGregor at the height of his popularity, the time may never have come again for such a fight. That doesn’t necessarily mean the door is closed on the UFC and boxing in the future. White himself has spoken openly about putting on boxing events under the UFC banner down the line.

Conor McGregor is a bigger star than any the UFC has had before. That said, the same was true for stars like Chuck Liddell, Georges St-Pierre, Brock Lesnar, and Ronda Rousey. There’s no reason to believe another fighter, male or female, couldn’t one day reach similar astronomical heights. When they do, who’s to say they can’t also achieve more than even “The Notorious.” McGregor came up short against an all-time great in Mayweather, but could the next athlete be the one who accomplishes the task? Down the line, we will be introduced to a new upstart who destroys opponents inside the cage with a frightening display and enamors fans outside of it with wit. Who’s to say that man, or woman, won’t have the skills to enter the boxing ring and defeat the Canelos or Triples Gs of the world?

Perhaps we have already met this athlete? Max Holloway is only 26 and is already a year or two away from possibly sweeping the featherweight division. Or is it someone younger like Aaron Pico? At just 21 years old, he is an accomplished amateur wrestler and boxer who has entered MMA with the potential to be the next great phenom. Perhaps this superstar just hasn’t arrived yet, and is still too young to understand MMA and its various components.

When the time comes, there will be talk of why couldn’t they cross-over for a super fight like McGregor did in 2017? Why shouldn’t the UFC allow them to compete in a mega-event that brings in vast amounts of money? Why, after making history inside the cage, can’t they be given the chance to cross-over and be an even bigger star when they return?

We have already seen that the opportunity is there if the star is big enough, if the timing is worked out, and the money is right. The only thing left is to find a star who shines even brighter in both the ring and the Octagon.