On March 14, Rafael dos Anjos became the UFC’s lightweight champion.
Stunning, to say the least, considering how much we’d all believed in Anthony “Showtime” Pettis and his highlight-reel performances. It was a testament to the deep waters at 155 pounds, but a damaging blow to the UFC’s ability to market said waters.
Pin it to a nonexistent language barrier or reservations in becoming a popular athlete, but there was no way dos Anjos would be the second UFC athlete to be featured on the cover of a Wheaties cereal box. Not even after he defeated the first Wheaties cover boy would he be afforded that luxury. Though they’ll never admit it, the UFC stood a far greater chance of reaching mainstream acceptance with Pettis — not dos Anjos — as its lightweight champion. For better or for worse, that’s just how the sport works. More often than not, dominance is not followed up by undeniable charisma. All champions have the former, while few of those contracted to Zuffa are capable honing the latter.
Three months later, the UFC lost its key to the city in Mexico when Cain Velasquez was submitted against Fabricio Werdum in front of thousands of the former champion’s screaming countrymen. The American Kickboxing Academy heavyweight may not have had the mainstream marketability to that of a fighter like Pettis, but he was essentially the only Mexican(-American) fighter capable of carrying the UFC south of the border.
Another valuable champion replaced by a fighter more dominant.
The narrative essentially replicated itself at UFC 193 in Melbourne, Australia. Millions of eyes watching around the world and a record-setting 56,000 folks watching inside Etihad Stadium, the UFC’s biggest star came crashing down with what velocity she rose to the top. Holly Holm is, by definition, the better fighter, but you’d be reduced to roll with the punches if you think “The Preacher’s Daughter” would have brought mixed martial arts — both women’s and men’s — to the heights Rousey did in such a short span (or any span, for that matter).
Video game covers, movie roles and record-breaking international events, “Rowdy” Ronda Rousey was the most valuable asset the UFC had. Charming and likeable, Holm’s not the sort of fighter to carry the torch she earned with a vicious left high kick in Australia.
And so we reach the latest of the Zuffa’s potential conflicts: Jose Aldo vs. Conor McGregor.
If not No. 1, the Nova Uniao featherweight is almost always among the three fighters whose names come up in the pound-for-pound conversation in 2015. Unbeaten in over a decade with 18 consecutive victories used to blaze the trail left in his wake, Aldo is far and away the greatest featherweight fighter the sport has ever seen. Save for a handful of right hands from Chad Mendes at UFC 179 last October, nobody has come close to unseating Aldo from his rightful throne.
One after another, Aldo has prevented any other man at 145 pounds from accurately calling himself the best.
Unfortunately for the UFC, nobody outside of its relatively small hardcore fanbase cared enough to pay attention. Outside of Demetrious Johnson, Aldo is the lowest-drawing champion in the UFC, according to MMAPayout. That is, not until a brash Irishman came into the fold. But make no mistake, Conor McGregor is the only reason people are paying attention to UFC 194’s main event.
I know it.
You know it.
Dangerous as it may be, the UFC knows it, too.
Unprecedented media tours to fill up all the empty pages in your passport to promote the original bout in July showed us the UFC was serious about selling this fight. Thousands of people cramming inside the MGM, wrestling shoulder to shoulder only to get a good position to witness the “Notorious” one weigh-in the day before he’d face Aldo’s replacement showed us the fans were serious about supporting it.
Whether he’s fighting a stocky 36-year-old German striker or a heavy-handed 30-year-old American wrestler, people want to watch McGregor fight. In support of his victories, in hope of his potential defeats, McGregor creates fanatics of those previously indifferent.
He moves the needle and — though they’re too sharp to ever consider admitting it — the UFC would be fortunate to see McGregor stop Aldo inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. A dominant, but far-too-reserved and respectful champion replaced by an arrogant fighter as comfortable inside of the Octagon as he is in front of the camera.
At time of publication, McGregor rules the sport of mixed martial arts. It all stands an opportune chance of going away should he become the latest challenger to fall short against Aldo. For all intents and purposes, McGregor’s popularity retains exclusive ties to his dominance inside the cage. Cliche as it may be, McGregor’s talked the talk while walking the walk. But the moment he no longer has his legs beneath him to continue on with the latter, the former falls on deaf ears. It all goes away.
No more Croke Park.
No more dual-division championships.
But this isn’t just about McGregor and his legacy in the sport. This is about what positive vibes he brings onto the promotion he fights for. A victory earns McGregor the crown, while a loss weakens Dana White’s chances of seeing his company secure that highly coveted No. 5 spot alongside the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL.
Zuffa needs McGregor to win, because Aldo’s already proven the company cannot see its proverbial hand raised any further with a dominant, essentially nonexistent champion at 145 pounds.
Dominance is not enough. A sport supported by human beings with human emotions, it never was.