Conor McGregor's impact: How he changed the UFC landscape

Conor McGregor will be making his long-awaited return to the UFC on June 29.
Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor / USA TODAY via Imagn Content Services,

Former two-division UFC champion Conor McGregor is the biggest star in MMA history. Over the years, McGregor’s popularity has grown steadily in the combat sports circuit irrespective of the success inside the Octagon. McGregor is by far the only star in MMA who rose above the sport and created his own unique space in history.

While there are many fighters whose competitive achievements far outshine McGregor, no other fighter has accelerated the growth of the UFC and MMA quite like him. So, how big is the impact of McGregor on the UFC and MMA? Let’s explore.

The UFC’s commercial success touched new highs in the Conor McGregor era

McGregor’s biggest contribution to the UFC on the financial turf is undoubtedly the biggest in the sport’s history. Before his rise, the UFC had pay-per-view stars like Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva, Jon Jones, and Brock Lesnar, to name a few. While these fighters enabled the UFC’s popularity to grow steadily, McGregor boosted the growth to unprecedented levels and single-handedly propelled the sport into the mainstream.

Many hail Jones as the greatest combat sports athlete in history. However, Jones does not hesitate to acknowledge McGregor’s role in the sport getting mainstream appeal. “I love what he did for the sport, I love the businessman that he is, the mindset, the marketability,” Jones said on the OverDogs podcast. “I mean, he fast-forwarded this whole game up at least ten years, and he'll always have my support. He will always get my pay-per-view buy."

McGregor’s impact on the UFC’s commercial success can be gauged by the fact that eight of the 10 highest-grossing pay-per-view events in the promotion’s history were headlined by him. Additionally, three of the five highest gates in UFC history also happen to be the McGregor events.

No other mixed martial artist has come remotely close to achieving this level of success. A brief glance at the current and upcoming stars on the UFC roster and we can confidently say that the records he created on the commercial front might remain unbeaten for the foreseeable future.

It is no secret, therefore, that St-Pierre once chose McGregor as one of the fighters he would pick for MMA’s Mount Rushmore. “Who raised the bar in terms of PPVs, and awareness for the sport? Conor McGregor,” St-Pierre told Complex Sports.

McGregor fully understands his impact on the economics of MMA and because of this he had the confidence to take credit for the UFC’s $4 billion sale in 2016.

MMA fighters learned to take a new approach to their careers because of Conor McGregor

Winning a divisional title is perceived to be the biggest achievement in combat sports. Achieving this feat proves the competitive mettle and brings money, fame, popularity as well as legacy as a by-product of it. 

As a result of this correlation, most of the combat sports megastars have also been dominant champions. Be it Floyd Mayweather and Canelo Alvarez in boxing or Silva, Jones and St-Pierre in MMA, they reached the top of competitive achievements before achieving commercial success.

McGregor completely shattered this notion and proved that a fighter can achieve commercial success with or without a belt. It would be unfair to say that McGregor’s competitive achievements pale in front of his popularity. After all, he was the first simultaneous two-division champion in UFC history and did that in style.

But the point is, McGregor didn’t need a long title reign or be in championship fights to sell the tickets and get the fans excited to watch a UFC event. It’s been long since he ceased to be the champion or a legitimate top contender, McGregor continues to be the most popular mixed martial artist and garners a global fan-base.

It was this very nature of McGregor’s stardom that has inspired many fighters to build a personality and try to bring more eyeballs to their fights with promotional tactics. This is precisely the reason why we got stars like Jorge Masvidal, Colby Covington, and Sean O’Malley in the post-McGregor era, who became a must-watch TV without necessarily being in title fights.

Spillover effect - Conor McGregor’s opponents became some of the biggest stars in MMA and that’s not a coincidence

McGregor’s biggest contribution to the sport of MMA is perhaps the superstars he helped ‘create’. Whether the Khabib Nurmagomedov, Dustin Poirier, or Nate Diaz fans like it or not, it is an undeniable fact that a large chunk, or perhaps the largest chunk, of their followers in the casual fans circuit know them because of their fights against McGregor.

While Nurmagomedov has continued to criticize McGregor long after their fight, it cannot be denied that a lot of his commercial and financial success came because of his rivalry against McGregor. The numbers stand testimony to this as one year before UFC 229, Nurmagomedov took home a disclosed pay of $160,000, including $80,000 win bonus for his dominant win over Edson Barboza. Meanwhile, he earned a $2 million salary after defeating McGregor.

Similar differences can be observed in the earnings of other fighters like Poirier, Diaz and Eddie Alvarez. Even now, fighting McGregor is the concrete way of earning life-changing money for any MMA fighter. The McGregor fight is such a lucrative option that it can compel a veteran fighter like Michael Chandler to wait for over a year despite being at the tail-end of his career.

Because of his popularity and an ability to pull the crowd, McGregor will most likely hover around the title picture until he formally retires from the sport. Even the current batch of champions like Ilia Topuria, Islam Makhachev and Leon Edwards have entertained the idea of defending their titles against him, which speaks volumes about the impact McGregor can have on other fighters’ careers.

“I believe that [Khabib’s team talking positively about McGregor] is with the idea that down the line, you can get that fight for Islam Makhachev. Because you know what it did for Khabib in terms of star quality. Look what it did for Dustin Poirier,” Daniel Cormier said on his YouTube channel.

Conor McGregor changed the way champions view success or the quality of title reign

But the biggest change happened in the way champions perceived the quality of their title reigns. MMA is a rapidly evolving sport and every new generation of fighters renders the previous one ineffective. As a result, becoming a long-reigning dominant champion appears a lot more difficult than ever. McGregor, by becoming the two-division champion, opened the gate of a new opportunity for fighters to create a lasting legacy without having to go through the painful and long road of defending the title multiple times.

The race to become simultaneous two-division champions was, in fact, McGregor’s gift to the MMA community. A brief glance at the history of UFC champions gives a solid foundation to this claim. Why? Because a total of five fighters tried to be simultaneous two-division champions in the post-McGregor era while three succeeded. Unsurprisingly, this number stood at zero before UFC 205.

The newfound enthusiasm to create unique achievements started a new age where fighters were no longer restricted by the conventional notions of achievements.It is in this age that the talks of Henry Cejudo and Israel Adesanya potentially becoming three-division champions or Francis Ngannou becoming a world champion in two different sports could take place.

One may argue that this change has made a negative impact as well. Every time a champion decides to fight to a lower-ranked fighter based on his popularity or moves up to another division to fight for the second title, the divisions fall in disarray and it can take years for normalcy to resume. While it is undeniably true, the point is that this change has taken place. Whether it is good or bad for the sport and a majority of athletes at large, it is essential to accept that McGregor's rise has triggered this change.

Weaponizing fight promotion

There was a time in MMA when in-the-cage tactics and strategies largely governed the outcome of the fights. While there were some notorious trash-talkers like Chael Sonnen and Michael Bisping that made things that much more interesting, nobody weaponized the pre-fight build-up and promotional obligations like McGregor.

Mind games and pre-fight antics have existed since a long time and they have had a significant impact on the outcome of many fights. But McGregor truly mastered the art of sapping the energy from his opponents and mentally defeating them long before they stepped inside the Octagon.

Jose Aldo, the most dominant champion in the UFC featherweight division's history was hailed as this mentally unbreakable force of nature that would punish McGregor for all the insults, lowly remarks and below-the-belt attacks he launched during the famous world tour.

But the impact of McGregor's mind games was such that it forced Aldo to charge at him with reckless abandon and get viciously knocked out in one of the most upsetting defeats in UFC history.

With time, fighters learned to deal with McGregor's mind games. Diaz and Nurmagomedov practically negated every advantage McGregor enjoyed heading into fights up to that point. Even Dustin Poirier, who admittedly paid the price for allowing McGregor to get the better of his emotions in their first fight, handled the trash-talk incredibly well heading into the trilogy fight.

Although it seems unlikely that McGregor would be able to get an edge with mental warfare at this stage of his career, he has proved that every moment from the moment the fight is announced is as integral a part of the fight as those five rounds inside the Octagon.

Many fighters have tried to adopt a similar persona as McGregor, while others have tried to play their own game with learnings from his career. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that most of them have done a great job at shaping themselves into interesting personalities that don’t just rely on their fighting skills to sell the fights.

“Now you can really see, you know, the personalities of all these other fighters come through. Everyone's trying to be the next Conor McGregor - Walk like him and talk like him. I think that no one will be able to have his originality. There's going to be other stars. I absolutely believe that. But I think that he's going to be known as the first most important person to really change the UFC and MMA to this household name," ex-UFC fighter Paige VanZant pointed out in an appearance on the Endless Hustle podcast. 

Conor McGregor normalized talking about money

How common is it for people around you to declare their intentions to earn boatloads of money with brutal honesty? Not very common. Well, the world has generally been like that and the UFC was no exception, that was until McGregor’s rise on the UFC horizon.

In his own brash and outspoken way, McGregor normalized talking about wanting to earn money, multiplying wealth and getting the most out of a combat sports career right from the beginning of his UFC career. After he made it to the top of the sport, McGregor used his fame and popularity to venture into other businesses and created his own little empire.

While a lot of people saw vulgarity and lack of depth in his ambitions at the time, McGregor’s approach to his career has proven that he refused to accept being a mere prize-fighter and extended his legacy far beyond the confines of MMA or combat sports.

This is probably why fighters today do not hesitate talking about wanting to ‘get a bigger pay check’ or openly admit to wanting ‘money fights’ instead of ‘testing themselves against the best martial artists’. Again, this may come across as a positive or negative development depending on individual perspective. But can anyone deny that getting paid handsomely is the least one can expect in a profession where your life is at risk every time you step inside the cage?


Next. A timeline of Conor McGregor’s criminal history [UPDATED]. dark