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By the time that Conor McGregor rose to the top of the MMA world, a familiar comparison point had emerged to contextualize his ascent. To many of his most ardent supporters, McGregor was analogous to the legendary Muhammad Ali.
To be clear, these parallels were not about McGregor’s sociopolitical contributions to society, which were not nor did they aspire to be in league with what Ali accomplished. Rather, the comparison related to the way that the two men emerged onto the scene with audacious braggadocio and then managed to back up the most lofty of their claims with their fighting ability.
More recent generations that learned of the legend of Ali without having seen him fight when he was in his prime — including most of us who now love MMA — needed to learn that Ali was in fact doubted at many points in his career. There was widespread skepticism that he could deal with the devastating power of Sonny Liston to capture the heavyweight title or that he could handle the unbeaten George Foreman in Zaire. Yet Ali boasted and bragged about how great he was and then he proved it in the ring.
McGregor likewise had his skeptics. “Sure, Conor is a great striker but he won’t be able to deal with a wrestler like Chad Mendes.” “McGregor’s legit, but Jose Aldo’s the GOAT in that division.” “McGregor did well beating up smaller featherweights, but at lightweight he’ll be fighting bigger men and that’s the best division.” Yet the skeptics were proven wrong as McGregor kept talking and kept winning. By the time he became the first simultaneous two-division champion in Ultimate Fighting Championship history at the promotion’s first visit to the hallowed ground of Madison Square Garden, McGregor seemed analogous to the most unforgettable figures in combat sports history.
This put McGregor in rarified air. Dana White declared McGregor better at mental warfare than ever Ali. To his credit, McGregor dismissed the comparison, saying he didn’t compare to Ali in the buildup to his fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov. These days, it’s unlikely he would be asked about the comparison at all. McGregor remains the biggest star in MMA history, but the veni vidi vici aspect of the story was lost long ago. Even more, the charm of the man has dissipated for so many.
In some ways, McGregor has gone in the opposite direction of Ali. Ali was vilified in many circles early in his career but grew more appreciated as time went on and was largely beloved by the end of his career. He also maintained his relevancy, fighting for a version of the heavyweight title every fight from the Rumble in the Jungle until his penultimate contest. McGregor has retained undeniable popularity with many but the numbers of his critics have unquestionably increased over time as a result of some of his antics outside the cage. He has also slid from relevance with his defeats inside the cage.
That brings us to Saturday night and what was the low point for McGregor’s MMA career. He’d lost more decisively, to be sure. It may have been set up by the check of a leg kick, but the end did still come with McGregor stepping backwards and his leg snapping. However, the manner of the defeat was secondary to the lasting memory of the fight, which was McGregor sitting on the canvas threatening to murder Dustin Poirier’s wife in her sleep.
It’s understandable that McGregor would be in a bad state. The man’s leg was broken and he was likely in shock. There is certainly a strong argument that he should not have been interviewed in the Octagon, but this was before the interview. The McGregor we saw, full of rage and saying genuinely vile things, was not what anyone wants to see of the man. Whether you excuse it or not, that’s not what made him a beloved figure.
On Saturday night, McGregor more closely resembled a very different boxer than the one he previously drew comparisons to. McGregor instead came across more like Mike Tyson as his boxing career went downhill. Still a massive superstar, the appeal of Tyson switched from his greatness as an athlete to the spectacle of a man who seemed capable of anything. Fans were still fascinated but it was for the wrong reasons. Likewise, McGregor’s next fight will be less about whether he might still be the best or among the best and more about how he will react to his more recent struggles. With Tyson, the admiring gaze turned to a voyeuristic peek at his self-destruction.
If McGregor has entered into a stage like Tyson, it’s not entirely bad for the Irishman. After all, for all the mistakes Tyson made in his life and the people he harmed, he ultimately found redemption with so many in the court of public opinion. Fans remembered the good times and reembraced a self-aware Tyson. McGregor’s hope is surely that he can work his way back to the top of the sport. That looks like an uphill climb at this point. However, even if he isn’t able to complete that journey there is another path back to the love he once felt much more acutely. It just got a little more difficult after this weekend.