In nine days’ time, Conor McGregor will step into the ring and make his professional boxing debut against one of the greatest boxers of all time. To say his chances are slim would be an understatement, but that’s a familiar feeling for the Irishman.
Conor McGregor made his UFC debut a little over four years ago, back in April 2013. He faced Marcus Brimage, 3-0 in the UFC at the time, winning in just over a minute with an impressive TKO victory.
Just four months passed before McGregor took on Max Holloway. We didn’t know it back then, but we were watching a bout between the future UFC lightweight and featherweight champions. McGregor soundly defeated a 21-year-old Max Holloway via unanimous decision.
Almost a year later, McGregor headlined his first UFC event against The Ultimate Fighter 14 winner Diego Brandão. Brandão struggled to offer any real offense against McGregor and lost via first-round TKO on what veteran combat sports journalist Kevin Iole called the greatest event in UFC history.
This is where McGregor really started to ramp up the trash talk. He took aim at anyone and everyone at the top of the division, including longtime UFC featherweight champion José Aldo.
At the time, the concept of McGregor facing Aldo, let alone defeating him, seemed ludicrous. The brash young Irishman had been competing on the UK and Ireland regional scene a little over 12 months ago, yet here he was picking a fight with one of the greatest fighters in UFC history.
Dustin Poirier, not Aldo, was up next- undoubtedly the toughest opponent McGregor had encountered this far. Before this fight, McGregor had never been ranked higher than 18th in the world, whilst Poirier found himself inside the top ten. The well-rounded Poirier opened up as a relatively strong favorite with the bookmakers and many felt this was the bout where McGregor would be found out.
Competing on Pay-Per-View for the first time, McGregor handed Poirier the first TKO/KO loss of his career. This was the moment where a lot of people sat up and realized that Conor McGregor was for real. Wins over Brimage, Holloway and Brandão seemed decent enough, but defeating Poirier was a serious achievement.
As McGregor’s fan base grew, his critics, too, grew louder. It was a lucky shot! He’s never faced a real wrestler! He cherry-picks opponents! Truth be told, his next matchup didn’t exactly prove the dissenting voices wrong.
McGregor’s popularity had reached a new level, yet he found himself booked in a relatively unglamorous, and many felt one-sided, fight against veteran Dennis Siver. It was made clear that a win for McGregor would see him rewarded with a title-shot, which led to many fans criticizing the UFC for essentially setting McGregor up for a bout with Aldo.
McGregor defeated Siver with ease, making use of the stage he’d been given to record a dominant second-round TKO victory. In an effort to get the maximum number of eyeballs on McGregor before his title-fight, this fight was placed on free TV, where it did record-breaking numbers.
Unfortunately, an injury to Aldo saw their scheduled title fight that summer fall through at the last minute. Chad Mendes was brought in as a replacement on just 18 days’ notice to face McGregor for the interim belt.
Mendes, who was widely considered the second-best featherweight in the UFC, had a record of 17-2 with his only two losses coming to José Aldo. He was also a stylistic nightmare for McGregor, who was still accused by many of avoiding wrestlers.
Mendes opened as a favorite with the bookies and for the first round and a half, the fight went exactly how a lot of people said it would. Mendes, the best wrestler in the division, took McGregor down with ease, held him down and dropped some nasty elbows that cut the Irishman.
Once standing, however, the fight was a different story. McGregor returned to his feet and picked apart a visibly gassed Mendes, finishing the fight with a beautifully precise array of strikes to claim the interim title.
He’d finally defeated a wrestler, but the critics still claimed it would have been a different story if Mendes was coming off a full training camp. They were sure that the eventual title fight with Aldo would finally put an end to McGregor’s streak.
Aldo was 25-1 and hadn’t lost a fight in over 10 years, defeating the best fighters the WEC and UFC had to offer at 145 pounds time and time again. As the fight approached, McGregor, aiming to end Aldo’s 6-year world title reign, closed as the underdog.
In just 13 seconds of action in December 2015, McGregor finally silenced everyone. It was the culmination of a classic Man Who Would Be King story. After years of telling us what he was going to do, McGregor had done it. He became the first man to defeat José Aldo in the UFC, winning the undisputed featherweight title.
There were finally no excuses. This was the best featherweight in MMA history and McGregor slept him with the first real punch of the fight. Sure, some fans would call it a lucky punch, but those dissenting voices were much quieter than they had been before.
Less than three months later, McGregor took on Nate Diaz at welterweight, a weight class 25 pounds heavier than where he’d defeated Aldo. Diaz, on just 11 days notice, came back from losing the opening round to submit McGregor in the second. The result, McGregor’s first UFC loss, felt seismic, yet in the end, it did little to stop McGregor’s ascension.
Just four months later, McGregor avenged the defeat in a thrilling decision win, again at 170 pounds- a caveat that McGregor had insisted upon as he looked to ‘re-run’ their first meeting. The Diaz saga propelled McGregor (and Diaz, to an extent) to an even higher level of popularity, appearing on A-list chat shows, Forbes lists and even video games.
Next up, McGregor, still holding the UFC featherweight title, would face UFC lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez for the 155-pound belt. Only two fighters in UFC history, Randy Couture and B.J. Penn, had held titles in multiple weight classes, primarily due to the large jumps between weight divisions in MMA as opposed to boxing. Neither Penn nor Couture, however, held two belts at the same time, as McGregor was aiming to do.
In November 2016, at the iconic Madison Square Garden, McGregor breezed through Alvarez with an emphatic second-round TKO before famously slinging one belt over each shoulder. He had become the first fighter to hold two belts simultaneously in UFC history- doing something none of the other 66 UFC champions have ever accomplished.
The first double champion. The first man to defeat José Aldo in the UFC. The first male European champion in almost a decade. One of a handful of fighters to record UFC wins in 3 separate weight classes and a man who has positioned himself in a fight that could make him upwards of $100m.
Yes, he needs to do the impossible to defeat Mayweather, but he’s been doing that his whole career.
Conor McGregor takes on Floyd Mayweather Jr. at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on August 26th.