For many years now, the question “How does a fighter become a superstar?” has been asked time and again. In 2015, it was answered not with explanation, but with a single name: Conor McGregor.
With only four UFC fights under his belt heading into 2015, Conor McGregor achieved all that he had been bragging about for so long, culminating in two massive events that saw him shine brighter than anyone else in the known MMA universe.
Granted, he is a gifted fighter; you don’t finish Chad Mendes without some serious skill in the second round, no matter how short notice the fight was. That is doubly true for defeating long-time king, Jose Aldo, in just 13 seconds.
Yes, McGregor is a fantastic fighter, there is no question, but that alone doesn’t make a fighter such a star. If it did, men like Junior dos Santos, Carlos Condit and countless others with a high finishing percentage would be enjoying the same level of adulation.
McGregor is far more than that. He is an event unto himself — an event nearly no MMA fan wants to miss, be they passionate fan or ardent detractor.
Consider his interim title fight with late-replacement Mendes. The weigh-in for the bout was packed with the kind of crowd normally associated for the fights themselves, and make no mistake about it, that was a McGregor crowd. It was an impressive display of drawing power, to say the least, but it was outdone when Sinead O’Connor rose on a platform in the crowd, singing “Foggy Dew”’ to a frantic crowd as McGregor walked to the Octagon.
And the Irish celebration after McGregor claimed the interim title was insane.
McGregor followed that by blasting Aldo out of the water at UFC 194; an event promoted nearly entirely by him and for his namesake. That moment may very well become the singular moment for Irish fight fans, replacing that other moment when Billy Conn got starched by Joe Louis after beating “The Brown Bomber” on the score cards for nearly all of the 12 previous rounds, way back in 1941.
McGregor was a king before he defeated Mendes and Aldo because he was predicting it before every camera and microphone available, telling the world of his greatness before hand; the victories that followed simply gave him a crown for being so correct.
He’s a brash personality that inspires reaction, either for or against; there really is no middle ground for any other feelings. You either adore the man for calling his shots with such daring and arrogance or you hate the man for delivering on his promises with such finality and panache.
McGregor achieved all of this by putting himself out there, unscripted, live and in your face. He has been tireless in promoting not only himself, but the sport, the UFC and its sponsors. The man is constantly on Twitter or giving interviews that in turn give the media plenty of things to fill up their notebooks, which in turn ends up serving his ultimate aim; nobody stops talking about him.
McGregor was the topic of MMA in 2015; even the careers of other fighters began to gravitate to him. Fighters had been talking about him well before 2015, responding to his brash claims with predictable and usable — for McGregor — passion and furor.
But after his defeat of Mendes at UFC 189, he went from being a name to the name. When he began to talk about fights after Aldo—as if he had defeated the man already—focusing on other fighters of note—both champions and contenders—suddenly he was like bonfire set to turn into a raging inferno.
And fighters recognized that with that fire came money, which is a soothing balm for any burn, be it in or out of the cage.
No doubt those fighters, like McGregor’s detractors, felt slighted, annoyed and offended by being dismissed as a victim in waiting, but they also knew a fight with the man would bring great opportunity given the size of the spotlight he commands and the attention that always follows.
Even now, reigning lightweight champion, Rafael dos Anjos, is telling McGregor to stay away from lightweight, but there is no small part of him that likely hopes McGregor responds to such warnings the way real fighters do; by stepping up.
And stepping up is another thing that makes McGregor so hard to look away from. Now that he is the UFC featherweight champion, he is looking to do that which has never been done before: win another belt in the next division up — at 155 pounds — and from there, retain both by defending both.
If he succeeds, he will be the first UFC fighter to be a reigning champion of two divisions at the same time, rendering all that he accomplished in 2015 a prequel for even greater things to come.
And that may be the biggest aspect of his power; his ability to touch with a needle our hopes and from there, deliver on a promise.
His victories over Mendes and Aldo in 2015 made him a champion, but it was that promise of greatness — that he delivered, with passion and power and pride — that brought us to a boil on either side of the line in 2015, en masse.
That’s how a fighter not only becomes a superstar, but the sportsperson of the year for MMA in 2015.