It’s been stated numerous times in 2014 that the UFC has a star problem on its hands.
Replacements exist in Jon Jones, Chris Weidman and Ronda Rousey, however none of them have reached the level of the names mentioned. Regardless of what’s behind it, the end result is that the UFC seems to be struggling to create modern star power.
The exception to this is Conor McGregor.
McGregor (14-2) will headline his first UFC event Saturday, as he takes on Diego Brandao at O2 Arena in McGregor's native Dublin, Ireland. It is only McGregor’s third fight in the UFC and first in nearly a year, but his box-office appeal is unmistakable.
The UFC Fight Night event sold out within hours of tickets going on sale. Part of that can be attributed to the area’s general interest in the UFC brand, but not all of it. The last time UFC visited Dublin in January 2009, the event sold out in weeks. Not hours.
Attendance is so strong this time around, the UFC issued tickets for Friday’s weigh-in, an initiative the promotion has rarely had to do.
“I don't really pay attention to it, but all I know is when they put me on the headline, it’s the fastest sellout in UFC history,” McGregor told ESPN.com. “When they put me on the headline of a fight, there are tickets for the weigh-in.
“How many times have there been tickets for a weigh-in, you know what I mean?”
McGregor still has a long way to go in terms of establishing himself as a legitimate UFC title threat or a draw on pay-per-view, but he’s filled with potential to be both. Even his opponent this weekend can't dispute that.
“Just the way he dresses even, I love it,” Brandao said. “Classy. It’s amazing. The way he talks and goes on about guy, moving his hands around and touching his beard -- he looks like a movie superstar to me.”
The 26-year-old Irishman is not the first fighter to wear a suit to a press conference, (although, McGregor does wear them rather cleanly). Nor is he the first UFC athlete to toss out a sound byte (although, again, his are usually top-shelf stuff).
The disdain McGregor has expressed publicly for other fighters in the division has placed him on an island early in his UFC career. When recently asked if he felt the 145-pound division has changed in the last 12 months, which he sat out because of knee injury, McGregor responded, “They sucked then, and they suck now.”
Too few fighters appreciate the power a microphone provides in terms of building a career, but at the same time, if a few quotable lines were all it took to create a star, the UFC would have plenty of them.
McGregor’s appeal goes well beyond that. To say it doesn’t is an oversight.
When the UFC visited Dublin in 2009, McGregor was 20. The year prior, he made his professional mixed martial arts debut, but he wouldn’t end up fighting at all in 2009. He suffered a few minor injuries, but mostly, he was figuring out what to do in life.
The storybook version of events says that McGregor, while attending UFC 93 at O2 Arena, told his coach he would headline the next UFC card that went to Dublin. More accurately, that card had an impact on McGregor, but it wasn’t life-changing.
“Of course, UFC 93 spurred me on, but even then, I didn’t know,” McGregor said. “I was a young kid. No Irish man had ever done anything like this before. The dream wasn’t really attainable at that point because it wasn’t really there.”
Regardless of whether he could become rich and famous from it, though, McGregor liked to fight. Then one day, McGregor loved to fight. Eventually, McGregor had to fight.
“I don’t know when it clicked for me,” McGregor said. “It just became an obsession. It was an addiction. I’m an addict for this. I can’t do anything else.”
When McGregor underwent surgery on a torn ACL in September, he was bedridden for five to seven days in Orange County, California. The only time he would get up was to go to the bathroom several times a day.
“There was a counter on the way to the bathroom, and I used to lean over it and do clap pushups,” McGregor said. “They weren’t full pushups, but I’d do a lot of them to just, I don’t know, get rid of energy. I like to move. Movement is good for the mind.”
He says he constantly shadowboxes throughout the day, regardless of the setting. As he puts it, “I side kick every wall I walk by.”
In competition, McGregor regularly talks to his opponents and claps at them during exchanges. Sometimes, it “clouds an opponent’s judgment,” but McGregor says that’s not why he does it. It’s natural.
“I never worked on it or nothing,” McGregor said. “It’s just the way it is in the gym, and I think that translates into competition. If I was to do it another way and be too emotional, it could go bad for me. It just happens naturally, I don’t force it.”
McGregor expects to win the UFC featherweight title this year, although that seems impossible given the schedule. Current champion Jose Aldo is injured, but he is expected to defend his belt against Chad Mendes sometime around October.
Featherweight contender Cub Swanson will attend Saturday’s fight, leading many to think he might face the winner. McGregor is on record as saying Swanson is "old."
Despite never facing a ranked opponent in the UFC, McGregor says his gut tells him the title is within reach by the start of 2015. It’s an unrealistic goal, but maybe that further illustrates why McGregor is the UFC’s best shot at a new star this year.
“I have a clear, clear vision of me winning the belt by the end of the year,” McGregor said. “It seems to be this very clear picture I have, and I’m not going against it. So, I believe I will be the world champion by the end of the year.