Last week, in the buildup to UFC 264, Conor McGregor left no doubt about the right way to win a fight.
“I only count knockouts,” McGregor told ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith. “The only thing that’s final in this business is a knockout. All the other s—, the decisions, the taps. All that s— means nothing to me.”
Naturally, McGregor then attempted a deep guillotine on Dustin Poirier in the first round of their main event bout, seeking a submission victory.
As soon as you have the answers, McGregor changes the questions.
From the mat, McGregor continued his onslaught of vicious insults toward Poirier, clearly crossing a line when stating, “In your sleep, you’re getting it, in your sleep you’re dead, you and your Mrs.” Those are lines more suited for a villain in an action film than by a mixed martial artist, but fellow UFC great Ronda Rousey saw it for what it was: McGregor already promoting his next fight.
Whether the tactic was wrong or right, Rousey was accurate in her assessment. McGregor is the single greatest personality in the history of MMA, and no one knows promotion better than him.
Once McGregor recovers from injury, all indications point to a return to the cage—and the timing is perfect. By then, Poirier could have dethroned current lightweight champion Charles Oliveira, which would turn a rematch with McGregor into a title bout.
Under more typical circumstances, McGregor would have to win a fight (or two) before earning his shot at gold. He is 3–4 in his last seven fights, struggling to find the same success as a lightweight that he did when dominating the featherweight division. He would struggle against fellow top 10 talent in the lightweight division, especially top-tier fighters like Justin Gaethje. Tony Ferguson could be an ideal opponent, but the more probable likelihood is that McGregor gets a lucrative fourth fight against Poirier. If he loses, there is always the trilogy fight against Nate Diaz, which will also be a massive draw.
A bout against McGregor is a guaranteed payday and main event, so there is no shortage of UFC talent lining up to fight him. McGregor has turned into MMA’s version of Mike Tyson from the 1990s’ boxing scene. He is no longer performing at his peak level, but every fight he takes is appointment viewing. And even when he loses, which he’s done in his last two fights, McGregor’s stock still rises.
In the fight world, it is impossible to miss someone until they go away. McGregor will be away from the spotlight while he recovers from his surgery, rehabbing his injury and working back to full strength. The legion of people enamored with McGregor continues to grow, and his return in 2022 will likely be met with optimism and excitement.
Remarkably, the broken bone at UFC 264 somehow increases McGregor’s star power. If he had lost any other way, it would have been a nightmare. Two judges had scored the opening round, 10–8, in favor of Poirier, and it appeared McGregor was in for a long night. Had he been defeated by submission, or knocked out by Poirier, interest in his next fight would have waned. Instead, losing like this makes an even bigger splash and creates more interest in his return. His presence has been seemingly ubiquitous in mainstream coverage since Saturday, a rare type of coverage for MMA fighters. McGregor could build even more of an audience as the underdog, overcoming his injury and returning to challenge Poirier. If the belt is on the line, it’s an even bigger fight than their first three.
Even though this past Saturday’s fight added another defeat onto his record, McGregor leaves UFC 264 with even more mainstream interest. For the greatest showman in the history of the sport, it is only fitting—he leaves (for now) keeping his audience guessing what will happen next.
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