The biggest fight in UFC history is happening tomorrow. I don’t think that it is even up for debate, Tito-Ken III, Chuck-Tito II, UFC 100, Kimbo-Roy Nelson, UFC 200, the upcoming DC-Brock fight, none of them will be bigger than this fight. It is one of those rare fights that has something for everyone, the casual fan, the one who turns to SportsCenter for their MMA coverage and can’t get enough of whatever it is that Conor does, will tune in to see Conor. The die-hard MMA fans, well they are going to give the UFC their money because, well, that’s just what they do, and this fight is good enough that they might not even complain about it. Everyone in between, they’re interested in it to some degree or another. It is going to big. And, as great as Khabib is, and he is one of the more compelling and violent men in the history of this sport, this whole thing revolves around Conor.
There’s a lot of things that I don’t like about Conor McGregor. Let’s just say, he’s not the kind of guy I would want to be around, but I do think that, in some ways, he’s a breath of fresh air and the sort of person that MMA was been waiting for. He’s a captivating personality, an unrepentant shit-talker, but unlike everyone else who fits that description, up to this point in MMA, there’s a chance that he might be the best to ever do this whole MMA thing.
No one, truly in earnest, has ever put together the whole package in MMA. There have been truly great fighters, there have been fighters who had compelling personalities, and there have been fighters who could talk mountains and mountains of shit, but Conor is the first who has a chance to do it all, and if he beats Khabib on Saturday, he’ll probably have done it. That isn’t to say that a win of Khabib makes McGregor the greatest of all time, I don’t think it does, but I do think it does put him in the conversation, and really that is all that matters. There is never going to a consensus, so being in the conversation, and legitimately so, not in the Phillip Miller way, is as good as actually being the best.
The hardest bar to clear in this scenario, is the actual fights and certainly this is the area where Conor is the most lacking. Is he a great fighter? I don’t think that is up for debate, his win over Jose Aldo is masterful and caused a monumental shift in the spirit, his win over Eddie Alvarez incredible and historic in its own way, his string of stoppage wins before his loss to Nate Diaz are one of the great runs in MMA history. But, Tim Sylvia had a great run of TKO victories, Randy Couture and BJ Penn held titles in separate divisions, Holly Holm dispatched Ronda Rousey and upended a division, and none of them really stack up to the GSPs, the Anderson Silvas, the Jon Joneses, The Fedor Emelianenkos. A win over Khabib might put Conor in that stratosphere. A loss on Saturday, considering his career arc and temperament, probably mean he won’t ever reach that level. It is a fine line, and one that is increasingly hard to cross, but Conor is on that precipice.
The personality and shit-talking aspects, well they’re not up for debate at his point. You don’t have to like it, I don’t, but there is something about what McGregor does that a large portion of people really seems to like. The Floyd stuff veered into racist garbage, the Khabib stuff has been pretty bad, and really the vast majority of what he says is objectionable in some way, but it works. People will pay to see him, and at the end of the days, that’s what this whole prize fighting thing is all about. But, what Conor has that everyone else casts from that same mold, is that he is actually a great fighter.
The number of fighters who built their career around being able to talk people into buying their fights is pretty slim. Chael Sonnen, really stands as the most striking example. To a lesser degree, you could include Tito Ortiz, Nick and Nate Diaz, Brock Lesnar, and maybe Ken Shamrock, but those guys were all better fighters than Chael, I mean Chael lost to Jeremy Horn three times. That has always been the thing with guys like Chael, the whole thing is pretty much and act, a put on. Chael talks about being the best to ever do it, but he’s not the best fighter to ever come out of Team Quest, he might even be in the top three. It is all bravado, a con. To an extent the same applies to guys like Tito and Shamrock, to a lesser extent Brock, it is just a way to try and sell tickets, not an authentic part of their personality. You can’t say the same thing about Nick and Nate Diaz though, I don’t think those guys are capable of being inauthentic. But, that authenticity is, by and large, lacking from MMA.
I don’t think that Conor McGregor’s act is 100% authentic, I’m not even sure it is even mostly authentic, but it is deeply rooted in his own unbreakable confidence. This is a guy who thought he could train for 6 months and beat Floyd Mayweather, he really thought he could. It was lunacy, that’s message board shit, but it does say something about him, and in part, why people are drawn to him. He is believable, to an extent. When Tito goes off about lions and being the king of the jungle, it borders on self parody, Lesnar threatening to kill Daniel Cormier is pure pro wrestling. But there is something about Conor that, at the very least, has a seed of truth behind it. He has something, outside of all the “fooks” and exemplary fights that people are drawn to. He is, for all his warts, special.
On Saturday, Conor and Khabib will fight and a couple million people will watch it, that in and of itself is important, if the fight eclipses 2 million buys, it will be an incredible achievement for all involved, but if Conor can win, it will, more than likely, be the biggest win of his career, and this is a guy who finally beat Jose Aldo after 9 undefeated years, and he’ll do it as the biggest star is the history of this sport. That is the sort of thing that doesn’t really happen all the time, the best fighters are usually stars in some regard, but they aren’t the best of all time. No one has ever drawn the number of eyes to an MMA fight that Kimbo Slice did, but he wasn’t a top 100 heavyweight, but there’s a chance that Conor could be the best fighter in the world, maybe ever, and draw the most attention of any MMA fighter ever. That kind of thing is icon-level stuff, even if they way he’s done it by bottom-of-the-barrel shit talk.