Mixed Martial Arts can be a very cruel sport — the fall from grace can be just as dramatic as the grueling climb to the mountaintop. For a sport that has been in the mainstream for less than three decades, MMA continues to shuffle the deck in search of the greatest mixed martial artist of all time.
Just when we think the sport has found the best of the best, that person is knocked off the throne, tumbling out of view. Just as quickly as Ronda Rousey was recognized as the best fighter on the planet, Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes came along and had everyone questioning whether Rousey was ever that good to begin with. The same goes for the likes of Fabricio Werdum, Fedor Emelianenko, Tyron Woodley, Jose Aldo, Anthony Pettis, Chris Weidman, Anderson Silva, Demetrious Johnson and others who had their greatness snatched away from them.
This leads us to Conor McGregor.
The UFC’s biggest star and the first fighter to hold world titles in two divisions simultaneously was knocked out by Dustin Poirier in the main event of UFC 257. The loss was his second in his past three fights, as he’s gone 3-3 since his stunning first-round knockout of Aldo back in 2015.
It begs the question: How good is Conor McGregor? As groundbreaking as the Irishman has been throughout his career, how much of his success had to do with a perfect storm of timing and the right opponents at the right time?
This isn’t to take away from what McGregor has accomplished. His one-punch knockout of Aldo at a time when Aldo was riding a 17-fight winning streak cannot be understated. However, a sport as volatile as MMA often leads to these swift and shocking finishes.
Georges St-Pierre was upset in stunning fashion by Matt Serra, but Serra was never the same again after St-Pierre made short work of him in the rematch a year later. St-Pierre never lost another fight. Aldo never had the opportunity to redeem himself, free-falling to a record of 4-5 after the loss to McGregor. He also tumbled out of the all-time pound-for-pound conversation.
McGregor could be soon to follow.
MMA is cruel to fighters because there is no such thing as tune-up fights in the sport. Unlike boxing, which allows a fighter to work back up the ladder with relatively soft touches, MMA throws a loser right back into the lion’s den against another ranked opponent.
Aldo followed his loss to McGregor with fights against Frankie Edgar, Max Holloway (twice), Jeremy Stephens, Renato Moicano and Alexander Volkanovski. Silva was widely recognized as the greatest fighter to ever compete until he lost to Weidman by knockout in 2013. His next five opponents were Weidman, Nick Diaz, Michael Bisping and Daniel Cormier.
McGregor finds himself in a unique spot. Being 3-3 in your last six fights certainly doesn’t sound like greatness, especially when all three of those defeats were inside of the distance. The glaring blemish is his submission loss to Nate Diaz, who was a fan favorite but had never won a world title and has been slightly above average throughout his career. While the first fight can be chalked up to short notice and weight class, the rematch was a closely contested battle. McGregor narrowly escaped with a victory that time.
Losing to Khabib Nurmagomedov is forgivable because the retired lightweight champion has trounced everyone that has been put in front of him. However, the second-round knockout loss to Poirier has brought forth more questions than answers.
While Poirier has been incredible during his current run, nobody is calling him an all-time great at the moment. Add that to the fact that there were no pre-fight mind games played by the Irish brawler, unlike their first fight six years ago when McGregor got into Poirier’s head with his trash-talking and turned his opponent’s aggression against him.
You know, kind of like how he did with Aldo and Eddie Alvarez.
Could it be that McGregor’s mind games have now been neutralized by challengers who have smartened up to his antics? And with that element gone, could he just be another fighter who is certainly above average but doesn’t fit with the all-time greats?
Of course, McGregor is only 32 and could still go on a tremendous run to solidify his status. This isn’t a knock on him by any means. But the margin of error between the greatest and the very good is slim. And that’s when you start to consider the likes of Jon Jones, GSP, Nurmagomedov, Nunes, Emelianenko and Silva.
Jones has yet to be defeated inside of the Octagon outside of a questionable disqualification loss back in 2009. That’s almost 13 years of dominance with victories against some legendary names along the way. Nurmagomedov has barely lost a round in his roughshod run over the lightweight division. Silva and Emelianenko were deemed untouchable during the peaks of their careers. Silva spent six years turning fights into glorified sparring sessions while Fedor plowed through a murderer’s row of heavyweights for nine years. GSP avenged both of his losses and never looked back. Nunes has defeated everyone who has ever been considered a great in women’s MMA and isn’t finished writing her story.
McGregor has had no such sustained success.
His ability to self-market has seen him reach remarkable financial highs and unrivaled stardom. But there are questions surrounding his greatness that will need to be answered as he prepares for his next steps in MMA. He could walk away with his riches and know that he made a significant impact on the sport — much like Rousey — but leaving now will certainly push him out of the conversation.
If McGregor cares about his legacy, he still has a chance to prove himself as one of the greats. But he has a lot of work to do if he wants to be mentioned alongside the best who have ever stepped into a cage.
Was he overrated? Perhaps, but only because the sport was looking for a superstar, and what McGregor accomplished was unprecedented both in and out of the Octagon. It also speaks to the volatile nature of mixed martial arts. Only the best of the best can go on sustained runs of dominance.
For now, the shooting star known as McGregor has been brought back down to Earth where he’ll have to compete with the rest of the mortals.
And maybe that’s not such a bad place after all.