A muscle-bound Pole named Mariusz Pudzianowski won the World’s Strongest Man competition a record five times before embarking on a mixed martial arts career with a lower-tier promotion in his home country. But it is a different European who has proven himself to be the strongest fighter in the sport.
How is that possible? It’s because the strength I’m referring to is not the brawn it takes to lift a car off the ground or toss around a beer keg, but rather the mental potency that enables one to perform like an unruffled maestro when the spotlight is at its most sweltering. I’m talking about the cerebral might that’s necessary to defeat another man -- a superstar of MMA, no less -- not just quickly and efficiently but really before a single blow has been landed.
Conor McGregor is the UFC featherweight champion after knocking out José Aldo in all of 13 seconds in the main event of UFC 194 on Saturday night before 16,516 fans -- including a sizable Irish contingent that roared like 50,000 for its countryman -- at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
But it wasn’t the one straight left hand that McGregor (19-2) landed that toppled the Brazilian to his first loss in 10 years. Aldo (23-2) was a beaten man before he set foot in the octagon, following a withering year-long verbal attack that at one point last spring played out like a traveling circus, with the UFC taking the fighters to eight cities in five countries for acrimonious joint promotional appearances. It quickly became clear back then that Aldo wasn’t interested in talking. He just wanted to fight. Unfortunately for him, he still had to listen. And listen some more.
We learned, once the bluster of words sunk in, that it’s not simply a matter of McGregor being loquacious. He told us over and over that he says only what he believes, and gradually we were left with no choice but to believe him. He spoke about freedom of movement, about the precision of his strikes, about the power of the will, and when you connected the dots between these poised proclamations and his virtuosic past performances, the picture that emerged was of not just a big talker but of someone with the drive and the facility to walk the walk.
McGregor’s self-focus is unblinking, and what he visualizes for himself seems like fantasy until it plays out like reality TV right before our eyes. The 27-year-old Dubliner is a puppet master, plotting out a string of glorious scenes as he lives them. He’s a GPS with a destination of greatness locked in, just as he himself is locked in.
And so when he began his fateful journey to the octagon on Saturday night, he did so with a smile on his face. He moved through the arena like a dancer, light on his feet, as if not a care were weighing on his mind. Aldo’s walkout, by contrast, was tightly wound. And once the reigning champ was inside the cage, he stood stiff and still in his corner, eyes downcast. He looked tiny. Meanwhile, across from him, McGregor was immense, all wingspan and fluid movement, as if he’d shown up for the midnight tai chi class.
Now, it’s always a slippery slope to read too much into appearances. At Friday’s weigh-in, for example, McGregor had looked like a skeleton after what is said to have been a difficult weight cut to reach the 145-pound featherweight limit. There were reports from Vegas that the challenger’s gaunt look on the scale had prompted heavy late betting on Aldo, shifting the odds in the champ’s favor. In the end, all of that meant nothing.
But Aldo’s tightness at showtime played out in the fight, what little of it there was. After McGregor immediately took residency in the center of the cage, threw a straight left hand that missed, then a measuring right leg kick that landed on the champ’s thigh, Aldo uncharacteristically surged forward. He’s always been a patient fighter, wearing down opponents while remaining out of harm’s way. But harm was about to come to him now. Aldo showed a right hand as he stepped toward his challenger, then unleashed a big left hook. But McGregor already had a left hand of his own on the way, and his landed first, flush on the jaw. By the time the Aldo punch had landed, its author was on his way to the canvas, face first.
Thirteen seconds. Knockout. One punch. Fastest in UFC title fight history (edging Ronda Rousey's 14-second submission win back in February). It took longer for Aldo to talk about the fight afterward -- he mentioned his desire for a rematch more than once -- than it took for him to fight the fight.
But as always, the words that mattered were McGregor’s. “Again, nobody can take that left-hand shot,” he said. “He’s powerful and he’s fast. But precision beats power, and timing beats speed. And that’s what you saw there.”
Going forward, the words of McGregor are going to matter even more. He already was a star, but this victory catapults him to an MMA stratosphere that he alone populates. Ronda Rousey is still the biggest mainstream celebrity the sport has produced, but within the fight game and with its core audience, neither she nor anyone else can match McGregor. He is well aware of that, by the way, so expect him to cash in on it.
The bold Irishman is the leading figure in a changing of the guard. Minutes before he took the featherweight belt, the middleweight strap changed hands, too, as Luke Rockhold put a brutal beating on Chris Weidman on the way to a fourth-round TKO. That’s two new champions in one night, and another was crowned in the UFC’s most recent previous pay-per-view event, a month ago, when Holly Holm dominated Rousey. All told, 2015 saw seven of the UFC’s 10 championship belts change hands, with one of the remaining three having gotten a new owner just a few weeks before the year began. The longest reigning champ is flyweight Demetrious Johnson, who has defended his strap seven times since winning it in September 2012. No other reigning champ has more than two title defenses.
With the pecking order playing musical chairs, the most dramatic upheaval has been at the very top of the sport. The two-pronged process began 28 days ago, when Rousey was shockingly dethroned, and culminated on Saturday night when McGregor did what he poetically had promised for many months: “We not here to take part, we’re here to take over.”
What else has McGregor been saying? Well, he’s talked about stepping up to lightweight and challenging the winner of next weekend’s title fight between Rafael dos Anjos and Donald Cerrone. He’s spoken of reigning in two divisions and defending both belts. He’s gone on and on, dreamy-eyed, about his desire to perform at Croke Park, the 80,000-seat soccer stadium in his hometown, Dublin. At Saturday’s postfight press conference, McGregor was asked whether he thought he now had the sway with the UFC to demand a Croke Park date. “Maybe I can these days,” he said.
Yes, he can. The UFC made all the right moves to cultivate a star in Conor McGregor, and now the strong-willed Irishman has earned the right to make some moves for himself.