As a fan, a viewer, a consciousness-on-a-couch, I had drifted away, years ago, from the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Had I aged out of it, maybe—lost my youthful tolerance for violence? Softer midriff, softer mind? At any rate, it seemed to be over between me and the UFC. Until last year, that is, when I was goosed in my psyche by the fighter-phenomenon Conor “The Notorious” McGregor. Peacocking around in his beautiful suits, lightly promising destruction to his enemies, he zapped through my middle-aged culture filters. He was unbeaten in the UFC. His left fist was an astonishment. On iTunes, I bought his 2013 fight against Max Holloway: There’s McGregor, dazzling with witty hook kicks and punches from the future, the bruises slowly thickening Holloway’s face like an index of stupefaction. “Let’s put him away,” advises John Kavanagh, McGregor’s coach and cornerman, icing him down between the second and third rounds. “More water?” “Yeah, a little bit,” shrugs easy-breathing McGregor. “I feel great.” “You look beautiful,” chuckles Kavanagh. “You look beautiful, man.” I was in love.
The UFC is the largest and most dynamic promotion company in the still-emergent sport of mixed martial arts (MMA), and Conor McGregor, 27, a former plumber’s apprentice from Dublin, is its most resplendently entertaining—and bankable—character. Inside the Octagon, the eight-sided, chain-link-fenced UFC ring, he cuts a figure of near-comic bellicosity, hoisting his fists and bending his knees like a Regency pugilist; outside of it he sells the fights like nobody else. He appeared on the March 2016 cover of Fighters Only magazine in a pink bow tie. In his chewy Dublin accent, he methodically maddens his opponents. And he wins and he wins. In December he fought Jose Aldo for the UFC featherweight belt, and the effects of the McGregor hype-out were startlingly visible: Aldo is a fearsome and seasoned fighter, but climbing into the Octagon he was skittish, cramped, out of focus. He was pre-beaten, and after 13 seconds of bouncing, unbearable anxiety, he walked with what looked like relief into the good night of McGregor’s left hand.