All eyes will be on Conor McGregor on Saturday night, but how much is on the line for “The Notorious” at UFC 229?
If Conor McGregor were to walk away from the sport following UFC 229, win or lose, he would go down as an individual who revolutionized the type of opportunities possible for a mixed martial artist. From a marketing standpoint, his endorsements with blue-chip companies like Beats and Burger King have raised the ceiling for stars in MMA. Even ahead of Saturday’s bout, the fact that his brand of whiskey will be integrated into the production as part of the canvas is historic. McGregor will not just be the fighter getting the biggest cut of the money, the entire promotion is granting exposure that will generate profit only for him.
Inside the cage, his two-year campaign in 2016 and 2017 stands as one of the best runs in MMA history and is second perhaps only to Jon Jones’ 2011. He claimed the interim featherweight title in 2016 in an event that shattered pay-per-view records before ending the reign of the legendary José Aldo to win the undisputed title. He set pay-per-view benchmarks again in 2017 in two fights with Nate Diaz, the only glaring mark against him is that he lost the first bout despite Diaz stepping in on eleven days notice. The rematch stands as the highest selling event in UFC history. Shockingly, it outdid his subsequent bout in which he headlined the UFC’s insanely stacked debut in New York where defeated Eddie Alvarez to win the lightweight title and become the first fighter in UFC history to ever hold belts simultaneously in two weight classes.
The biggest criticism of McGregor’s fighting career is that his pursuit of greater riches has kept him away from bigger challenges in each division. He is an exciting fighter and the sport’s most profitable star. But the best ever? At 145 pounds, that honor still belongs to José Aldo for his longevity. Furthermore, current champion Max Holloway rides a 12-fight win streak with two victories over Aldo himself. For McGregor to take that designation, a return to featherweight would be necessary, along with dispatching current stars such as Holloway, Brian Ortega, Frankie Edgar, and others.
Pundits agree that 155 pounds is McGregor’s best weight class as he doesn’t put his body through the strain of cutting ten extra pounds and still carries his incredible power. If there is money to be made and big fights to be had in the higher weight class, then it is understandable if he doesn’t return to featherweight even if it means never testing himself against the new and improved Holloway. But that puts even more pressure on his return to lightweight on Saturday. Both Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson ride more momentum at this point in the division than Eddie Alvarez did when McGregor wrested the title from him in 2016. For McGregor to assert his dominance, he will need to dispatch of both men as well as likely facing former foe Dustin Poirier or the surging Kevin Lee afterward.
McGregor’s boisterous persona and actions often overshadow the skills he carries. He is arguably one of the most dangerous strikers in the history of the lighter weight classes, with several notable victories to substantiate the claim. But as with any athlete or team, one’s legacy is defined by competing against their peers. In the last two years, those peers have ravaged their respective weight classes in his absence. A triumphant return for McGregor on Saturday will prove that he was one of the best when he left and he is one of the best now. A loss would leave him scrambling to regain the aura that he currently enjoys and which allows him to pick and choose whichever matchup he so desires.
He will not be without options following UFC 229. Championship or otherwise, McGregor will have exciting bouts and other lucrative opportunities in the sport of MMA. The true question will be, can his immense popularity last should his skills not be able to deliver in the wild sport of mixed martial arts.