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Hearing neighbors shouting from windows on a Saturday night remains a good way to measure the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s popularity in Brazil.
What was curious about UFC 196 on March 5 was that, for the first time, I saw that kind of response without a Brazilian fighter being involved in the main event. It was not Anderson Silva, Jose Aldo, Vitor Belfort or Lyoto Machida that drove fans to stay up until 3 a.m. This time, it was Conor McGregor. The phenomenon could also be observed globally through social media. When Nate Diaz locked in his rear-naked choke and forced the Irishman to tap out in the second round, fighters, coaches, fans and journalists all wanted to be heard. It seemed everyone in the MMA world saw fit to share their opinion, either recognizing McGregor’s courage, hailing Diaz’s technique or giving the trash talker some of his own medicine.
What led to this featherweight from a country with no real MMA tradition becoming a revolutionary figure in the sport? Love him or hate him, McGregor has made plenty of noise and taught us some valuable lessons.
Respect the Weight Classes
The UFC 196 main event between McGregor and Diaz was contested at 170 pounds, with both men tipping the scales at roughly the same weight. In wake of the success of a fight between different divisions, it does not hurt to remember a little something about the sport’s history. What transformed vale tudo into modern-day mixed martial arts was the separation of fighters into weight classes. It does not make much sense at this point, with all we have learned about concussions and with the growing presence of anti-doping agencies, to risk going back to Royce Gracie’s glory days. Back then, the goal was to use a weight disadvantage to prove the proficiency of one style over the others. Today, athletes in the UFC are required to have an understanding of every aspect in “mixed” martial arts. As such, one must respect the difference in punching power and the ability to withstand it at different weight classes, if only to keep the sport moving forward.
The Importance of Training Smart
Train hard, win easy. In a multi-discipline sport like MMA, it is a time-honored tenant. There are no shortcuts. A champion must have accomplished sparring partners to push him during training camps. Great fighters need great training to stay at their peak. With all due respect, a fighter that is considered among the pound-for-pound best cannot have Artem Lobov as one of his daily tests in the gym. With the million dollars McGregor received from Zuffa for UFC 196, he needs to bring in more jiu-jitsu black belts and more wrestlers in order to remain at the top of the 145-pound division.
Another important point brought out by McGregor relates to the high number of injuries mixed martial artists have been incurring. Claiming to have adopted unique training methods that help him prevent getting injured, the Irishman has managed to meet all eight of his UFC commitments over the last three years; and he did not refuse last-minute replacements Chad Mendes and Diaz when Aldo and Rafael dos Anjos were forced to exit fights because of injury. This approach has allowed McGregor to score points with his bosses, all while injured fighters became villains in the eyes of the UFC, as their exits resulted in cancelled fights and altered cards. Aldo believes he was denied an immediate rematch with McGregor as punishment for suffering a rib injury two weeks before their scheduled UFC 189 battle. He is still waiting for the organization to show him some forgiveness. The UFC would be wise to address such matters. It should not be about labeling good guys and bad guys, and no one should demonize the work being done at gyms like the American Kickboxing Academy, Kings MMA and Nova Uniao. The time has come to do some serious research into the subject and, with the aid of the top coaches, create training protocols to minimize injuries. Another measure would invest in the development of more protective equipment for MMA fighters. Plenty of money has been spent on concussion-related studies -- a fine initiative, by the way -- but an investment should be made in training gear based on studies of what injuries occur most frequently. It would be an interesting way to market MMA to sports equipment companies, and it would directly aid the UFC and other organizations by helping to prevent last-minute cancellations due to injuries.
Handling the Media
Another important lesson McGregor has taught MMA is how important the media can be to an athlete. He has always viewed journalists as co-workers who played a significant role in getting him a shot at the featherweight title despite not having faced a top-five opponent. McGregor’s influence was felt all over the UFC “Unstoppable” press conference, which featured plenty of trash talk and supplied the media with an endless stream of headline material. All that helps the UFC sell tickets and pay-per-views. However, it does not mean that a fighter needs to act like someone else to please the media. UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum, for example, uses humor as his tool; and Georges St. Pierre, one of the greatest pay-per-view draws in history, rarely changed his approach to promoting a fight and never seemed comfortable with talking trash. Fighters develop their own style, which incorporates their personality, and make use of the media’s reach to pursue their goals.
Europe as the ‘New Eldorado’
The McGregor phenomenon has influenced Brazil-United States relations, which have been an integral part of the sport since the first UFCs. When Rede Globo acquired UFC television rights in 2011, the Brazilian market became a focal point for UFC President Dana White. At one point, 100-plus Brazilian fighters were on the organization’s 550-man roster. Since then, Zuffa has staged up to six UFC events in Brazil in one calendar year. Champions also rose out of the relationship. In 2012, Brazil was home to the same number of UFC titleholders (four) as the United States: Silva, Aldo, Junior dos Santos and Renan Barao. McGregor’s arrival and losses by all four of those Brazilian champions resulted in significant change. With McGregor and Joanna Jedrzejczyk now atop their respective divisions, Europe has the same number of titleholders (two) as Brazil. That fact has led to White’s plans to “colonize” the Old Continent, turning Brazil into something of a jilted ex-girlfriend. Consider that the UFC only held two events in Brazil last year, while it will have paid three visits to Europe between October and April: England, Ireland and Croatia. The shift is also evident in the number of Brazilian fighters who were released over the last six months, a trend which was accelerated by matchups between Brazilians on losing streaks. Two other factors are also at work: natural selection being one and the positive role UFC Senior Vice President and General Manager of Brazil Giovani Decker has played in the tug of war being the other. As much as White wants to develop MMA in Europe through marketing stars like McGregor, it does not happen overnight. Brazil and the United States will remain the sport’s preeminent forces, at least for a while. Look no further for proof the UFC Fight Night event in Croatia, which features a headlining bout between a Brazilian (dos Santos) and an American (Ben Rothwell).
A Legend’s Example
Do not be misled: McGregor’s loss to Diaz does not signal the end of an era. The defeat exposed his weaknesses, but if he pursues smart training, it can mark a new beginning for the featherweight champion. Remember, McGregor is just 27 and has been a professional mixed martial artist for only eight years. Seven years into his career, Silva was considered a great striker with flaws in his game. It was not until his second submission loss -- Ryo Chonan’s flying scissor heel hook in Pride Fighting Championships in 2004 -- that he fully dedicated himself to jiu-jitsu, wrestling and becoming a complete fighter. Two years later, he captured the UFC middleweight championship and went on to shatter organizational records. Fighters are in a constant state of evolution. If McGregor makes good use of his talent and shows the necessary discipline to close the holes in his game, he has all the tools to meet the expectations he has set for himself and etch his name permanently in the sport’s history.