The punch exploded on the chin of Jose Aldo and reverberated across the mountaintops of mixed martial arts. When Conor McGregor knocked out the previously shatterproof UFC featherweight champion with a straight left hand just seconds into their 2015 title fight, there suddenly was a brazen 27-year-old Irishman sitting on top of the world.
This stunner of an ascension, though seemingly lightning fast, was months in the making against Aldo — and a lifetime in the making for McGregor.
But it was not merely those 13 seconds of fighting that ended the six-year reign of Aldo and elevated McGregor into the stratosphere. Aldo’s 18-fight winning streak was a goner long before its owner went crashing to the canvas.
For months during the buildup to the championship fight, McGregor had badgered and belittled Aldo. Even in Aldo’s homeland. Especially there.
“I own this town! I own Rio de Janeiro!” McGregor declared during a prefight news conference in Brazil. “So for him to say he’s the king and I am the joker, if this was a different time I would invade his favela on horseback and kill anyone that was not fit to work. But we are in a new time, so I will whoop his ass in July.”
McGregor has not been above hyperbole, xenophobia or race-baiting when it has served him in his career. With Aldo, he was unrelenting.
“Look into my eyes, little man,” McGregor growled as he and Aldo faced off at the end of that joint media appearance in Rio. Then the Irishman launched into a mocking recitation of a favorite chant of Brazilian fans.
“Uh vai morrer!” a wide-eyed McGregor yelled into Aldo’s face, a face that grew tenser by the syllable. “Uh vai morrer!”
You’re gonna die!
Some fans recoiled from this escalation of MMA’s standard-issue trash talk. But many more embraced the audacity. That latter camp included a man who, years before anyone had heard of Conor McGregor, was a primordial version. Chael Sonnen, the sport’s greatest talker until McGregor came along, loved what he was hearing and recognized what it meant for the title fight.
“When you talk like that, you get your opponent out of his game plan,” said Sonnen, a longtime middleweight contender and now an ESPN analyst. “He’s fighting emotionally. He makes mistakes. “
Moments after his dethroning, Aldo insisted that McGregor’s insults “really didn’t affect me at all.” But the world had just seen 13 seconds of evidence to the contrary.
McGregor has reached the lofty place he occupies in mixed martial arts thanks in large part to his left hand, which proved itself worthy of all the accolades that night. The thunderous fist has been put to the test on many nights at many levels, called upon to back up the work of McGregor’s other ruinous weapon: his mouth.
It’s not simply a matter of him talking a great game and then having to back it up. For McGregor, the verbal attack is integrated into the offensive game plan. It inflicts a beatdown no less hurtful than sticks and stones.
The Aldo fight was the most dramatic and game-changing example of McGregor using verbal warfare to disarm an opponent. It stands as the greatest victory of his career. But discourteous prefight behavior was standard operating procedure as the Irishman rose through the featherweight ranks.
McGregor declared himself “the mental champ” after his very first UFC win in 2013, when he unnerved Marcus Brimage with trash talk before the fight and then won a KO-of-the-night bonus. “It’s a game,” McGregor said at the time, claiming Brimage was too emotional and overthrew his punches, providing McGregor an opening to counter.
A pivotal instance of the same dynamic occurred a year and a half later, when McGregor faced his first top-10 opponent. Both he and Dustin Poirier were rising in the 145-pound division, although the Irishman had more buzz behind him. Some fans and fighters viewed McGregor as the favorite son of the UFC promotional machine, fueling bitter feelings. But McGregor validated all the hype by making quick work of Poirier.
Once again, the dizzying left hand was just the final blow in a McGregor assault that began well prior to the fisticuffs. Poirier had never before dealt with such a deluge of trash talk. He didn’t know what hit him.
“I wanted to make the guy pay, you know? I was angry,” Poirier told ESPN years later. “I remember wanting to fight him at the weigh-in, which is crazy to look back at. I was just in such a weird place in my mind.”
Poirier was in a much more poised frame of mind this past January when he and McGregor met again. The leadup to the rematch was cordial, and the faceoff at weigh-ins downright friendly. Poirier even gifted McGregor a bottle of his signature hot sauce. Poirier was promised a bottle of McGregor’s Proper Twelve whiskey in return.
The cordial vibe had been the same at McGregor’s previous bout, a 40-second knockout of Donald Cerrone in January 2020. Was this a new Conor McGregor? If so, was it an advantageous evolution? Mr. Nice Guy sure did fine against “Cowboy.”
McGregor did not, however, fare as well in the rematch with Poirier, who fought brilliantly and won by second-round knockout. With no trash talk directed his way, Poirier didn’t have to waste mental energy on fighting back his emotions. He was able to focus on his game plan for McGregor the fighter, not McGregor the antagonist.
Poirier’s on-point performance was also a reflection of his growth as a mixed martial artist and as a human in the six-plus years since his first dance with McGregor. But it would be naive to ignore that his fight-night task was made a whole lot easier by McGregor not poking at him during the lead-up.
As Poirier and McGregor prepare to complete their trilogy on Saturday at UFC 264 in Las Vegas, the question lingers about whether McGregor still has it in him to defeat an opponent before the first punch is thrown. There has been a bit of acrimony flung back and forth this time around, but it was initiated by Poirier, who chided McGregor for not having followed through on a pledge to donate to Poirier’s charity.
McGregor responded with vitriol and with a donation — to a different charity in Poirier’s hometown.
Then, on Tuesday, McGregor posted a voice message with a couple of insults and said he was coming for Poirier. He later tweeted what appeared to be a direct message request from Poirier’s wife, Jolie. There were no accompanying words from McGregor, just insinuation. Dragging family into the trash talk is a low blow, and both that and the voice message seem more like acts of a desperate man than masterful head games. But we’ll see on Saturday.
Some may prefer the respectful McGregor. They may be in the minority among MMA followers, but the reality is that his sublime skills as a fighter deserve all the shine. That group would happily discard the nonsense and focus on an elite martial artist who carries himself with class.
But is that guy taking the most efficient road to success? McGregor can win fights with his punching and kicking abilities alone. However, at the highest level of the sport, a fighter is best served by utilizing every offensive tool he has at his disposal. A gracious McGregor is metaphorically tying one hand behind his back.
“How do I know that talking to an opponent before a fight works?” Sonnen said. “I know because I’ve had guys do it to me. When your opponent says things about you or what he’s going to do to you, over and over, pretty soon you can’t help but wonder, ‘What does he know that I don’t know?’ It flips your thinking. You tighten up. You’re hesitant to take risks. You are not at your best.”
Sonnen saw the mental attack work like a charm in the fight for which he’s best known: his 2010 challenge of indomitable middleweight champion Anderson Silva.
“I saw Anderson’s face when he started thinking about the things I was saying,” Sonnen said. “It started with him saying to himself, ‘Man, this guy’s crazy.’ But after a while, whether he’ll admit this or not, he did start to wonder, ‘Is this guy right? Is it true that he can take me down whenever he wants?'”
Sonnen did take Silva down, again and again, although a late submission saved the day for the champ. The vitriolic lead-up played a role in Silva struggling to defend his belt, Sonnen is certain, but he insists that his blustery talk was aimed at an audience of one: himself. The more Sonnen talked himself up, the more he believed that he really was the greatest ever.
“I used to hear people say, ‘He wins because he gets in everybody’s head,'” Sonnen said. “But for me it was more a matter of getting in my own head.”
And now he advises a return of that strategy for McGregor, whose unshakable self-belief has brought the best performances out of him, and whose callous swagger has brought out the worst performances from opponents.
“I like the Conor with an edge,” Sonnen said. “That’s a big part of what has made him special. And I think he needs to zero in on being that guy again.”
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