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Conor McGregor announced today his retirement from mixed martial arts. As such, the sport lost its greatest superstar it will ever see. Sure, the casual sports fan at least recognizes the names Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier, but Conor was something else. He was the Lebron James of his sport, the kind of athlete any person would know. So, how did he end up retiring at only 30 years old?
Looking back about a decade ago, McGregor was largely unknown, mostly fighting in Cage Warriors, a United Kingdom-based promotion most known for producing Michael Bisping. He'd slowly build up a reputation in Ireland and England over the first four years of his career, before ultimately signing with the UFC in 2013. He wouldn't become a superstar right away, fighting a few undercards on UFC Fight Nights, but he'd just keep winning. He did it by both TKO and unanimous decision, but ultimately tore his ACL, sidelining him when he seemed ready to take over. In his first fight back, he was on the main card of UFC Fight Night, and he beat Diego Brandão by TKO in the first round in his first fight in Ireland in nearly two and a half years. This led to him getting his first big league call-up: pay-per-view at UFC 178. He, of course, won, defeating Dustin Poirier by TKO in less than two minutes. After one more appearance on UFC Fight Night (where he won again) he'd go pay-per-view for good. After knocking out José Aldo in thirteen seconds at UFC 194, Conor made his claim as the face of the sport: he was featherweight champion and at the height of his popularity. He'd have his own TV shows, would be featured in Call of Duty games, reaching heights unparalleled by any MMA fighter before or since. So, how did he blow it?
It started with Nate Diaz. Both men bulked up to welterweight for this fight, Conor because he wanted another championship and Diaz because Rafael dos Anjos dropped the fight due to a foot injury. Diaz took on Conor at UFC 196, the American forced him into a submission in the second round.
For the first time in over half a decade, Conor lost. Now to be fair to him, Diaz was slated to fight Conor less than two weeks before the fight started. He realistically couldn't prepare, especially in a new weight class. However, this fight did show the world he wasn't unbeatable. He was human after all.
About six months later, they would rematch at UFC 202, and with time to prepare for Diaz and more experience in welterweight, Conor would be back on top. He'd even accomplish his goal of winning a belt in another weight class, taking down Eddie Alvarez in the second round at UFC 202 for the lightweight championship. It would be the last time he would taste victory in any combat sport.
His downfall, unsurprisingly, was his ill-fated boxing career. Conor had been a boxer growing up in Ireland, but had exclusively dedicated himself to MMA since he was a teenager. He publicly flirted with a boxing career for years, but he wouldn't just fight any boxer, it had to be one of the greatest boxers of all time: Floyd Mayweather. At that point in his career, Mayweather hadn't lost a fight professionally ever, and hadn't lost a fight as an amateur since the 1996 Olympics, when he won in everyone's mind but the judges, since they instead ruled in favor of Bulgarian Serafim Todorov, possibly at the discretion of the head of officiating for Olympic boxing. If you want to go back to the last uncorrupted fight Mayweather lost, that would be against Augie Sanchez in Olympic qualifying. By the way, Sanchez would go on to lose twice to Mayweather and miss the Olympics. Dana White, for once, did the right thing and put a stop to Conor's attempts to fight Mayweather. He would cave after Mayweather announced he'd come out of retirement just to fight Conor. The fight was on. Conor stood a chance early, hanging with Mayweather the first few rounds. After that though, he began to get gassed. He wasn't used to fighting that long. Mayweather was, and the boxer would win a boxing match. In a little over eighteen months, Conor went from an unstoppable superhuman force to losing two of his last four fights. Yes, one of those losses was in a different sport, but at the same time, if you come at one of the greatest boxers to ever fight, one with a 50-0 record, you should at least put up more of a fight than Conor did.
He would return to the UFC for one more fight. At UFC 229, the most popular MMA event of all time, over 2.4 million on pay-per-view (not to mention the over 20,000 in the arena) got to watch Conor lose by submission to Khabib Nurmagomedov to retain the Lightweight Championship. After the fight ended, a skirmish between Khabib’s cornermen and Conor resulted in a six month suspension and a $50,000 fine for Conor, which, as we know now, he did not finish. He'd never set foot in an octagon again.
Conor was, and still is, MMA's biggest name and its biggest draw. His fatal flaw wasn't really his fault: he became bigger than his sport. MMA is a niche sport, it always has been, and although it's increasing in popularity, it likely will always be. Conor was the only fighter in at least the history of the UFC to become popular in the mainstream sports media. And it's not hard to see why. A badass Irish guy who was seemingly couldn't be beaten? That's easy for a lot of people to root for. It's why he stuck in the mind of sports fans. He introduced a lot of new fans to mixed martial arts, even if his career was cut short in a way. We as sports fans should appreciate all he did for MMA, because there will (probably) never be another fighter like him. I compared him to Lebron James as the face of his sport. Well, that isn't entirely true. Yes, Conor is the face of MMA like how Lebron is the face of basketball, but the difference is that Lebron has never been bigger than basketball, like how Tom Brady has never been bigger than football or how Mike Trout has never been bigger than baseball. In his prime, Conor was bigger than fighting, and he let it get to his head. So, he had to call it a career.
Don't remember him near the end. Remember him as the unstoppable force he used to be.