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Editorial: The Conor McGregor era ends not with a bang, but a simper

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Conor McGregor may not be done, but he’s done as an elite main event fighter after the sideshow the UFC 264 aftermath turned into.

Conor McGregor berates Dustin Poirier after injuring his ankle at UFC 264 in Vegas.
Conor McGregor berates Dustin Poirier after injuring his ankle at UFC 264 in Vegas.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor gave us every reason to be excited about their fight going into UFC 264. The previous two fights were pretty awesome, and there was a lot to unpack from a purely technical standpoint, which excited the MMA nerds. For the easily amused (I don’t judge), you even got your standard-issue reality TV drama. To add to all that, the winner would be the candidate to potentially clarify the lightweight title picture.

Instead, we got a grand guignol of profanities, and mutilated ankles. “This is the fight business” as Dana likes to say — mostly in order to excuse whatever vulgarity (or action) pops into a fighter’s mind that they feel the need to share with the world. But even he didn’t have the stomach for Conor’s brand of Make It Personal. Dana’s always been inconsistent with this kind of stuff, but that says a lot.

So: is Conor’s brand finally wearing thin? Maybe. Maybe not. To be honest, part of what makes the grimy aftermath such a shame is that, I think, McGregor looked okay-ish? He may not have been punishing Poirier with those leg kicks, but he was putting in the work. He landed one really clean straight left. Sure we’re grasping at straws here, but I could see how one might argue that there was at least enough to like to say that maybe McGregor still something. But that’s the glass half-full take.

The glass half-empty take is that he made some bizarre technical errors with the guillotine attempt. He had no defense from Dustin’s ground and pound, and even on the feet, an argument could be made that McGregor was more overeager than deliberate. Given Conor’s motor, it’s hard to imagine him maintaining that kind of offense with or without Poirier pushing back the way Poirier does so well.

Granted, Conor looks like he’s still in good shape, ankle stability notwithstanding. Poirier will challenge for the lightweight title, and if Poirier theoretically won, are we really gonna make the claim that Conor is “done” just because he lost to a world champion in a fight that didn’t even end all that definitively?

“This is just typical Bloody Elbow clickbait. Maybe not a slow news day, but definitely clickbait.” Don’t harass me on Twitter just yet. You’ll have my permission in a sec. If we define ‘era’ as the window of time that included McGregor as a serious challenger to the featherweight or lightweight belt, then yes, that era has ended.

A lot of this depends on language. What is meant by ‘done’? Am I saying that Conor is shot? No. Am I saying that he can’t be competitive against most anyone in the division? No. Using a word like ‘done’ needs context. To Conor’s credit, he is not your average fighter of much of any context. He’s the fighter that doesn’t just get MMA fans talking, but your coworkers, and your family talking too. McGregor is an all-or-nothing attraction. Either he’s fighting for a title, or fighting for a big purse. Four of his last nine fights have been for a title. With two consecutive defeats, he’ll be done pursuing a title at this point.

In which case, where does that leave him? Conor is not a Kimbo Slice: a rough and tumble street brawler who was more meme than martial artist. He’s not Brock Lesnar. McGregor was birthed into the MMA world as a martial artist. He’s not Chael Sonnen either. Sonnen’s an outlier: a strange, phoenix arisen from the ashes of an aloof wit, and a late-blooming emergence as a quality fighter. Wherever Conor exists on the spectrum of former champions who still have something to give, he’s a main event fighter first and foremost. And the one thing all main event fighters have in common is that people stop caring if you can’t produce main event performances.

And that begs the question. Is Conor still that? It doesn’t look like it. Sure, we can “ignore” the Dublin sexual assault allegations, his Corsica arrest, the bus attack, his Florida Man moment, or the time the punched an old man at a pub. But at what point is the stench of turmoil so strong that everything happening outside the cage starts to affect what he’s doing inside of it?

Is his own coach even seeing the same thing? Given Kavanagh’s comments, it certainly doesn’t seem like it. With talk about a fourth fight, does anybody really care that much? It’s not like we get to routinely chart his evolution, and adjustments. He’s not active enough. He’ll sooner have a rematch with Floyd than fight three MMA matches in a year.

That’s the thing. Any era is defined as much by the feelings and emotions they stir in us as the history that comes with it. McGregor doesn’t just bring a fight. He brings a show. And right now both are a lot less interesting. The image of McGregor talking shit from the ground is so perfect, it feels like a film school metaphor. With all of his rage turned toward the man he wanted to get even with, even his body wasn’t willing to support him.