In a business that’s frequently bolstered by bad blood, few fighters have been able to get it pumping like Conor McGregor.
Just look at the box office receipts that “Notorious” has generated during his time with the UFC and you’ll realize it’s futile to question his promotional tactics. Put McGregor’s name on the marquee, and you’re guaranteed results. Line him up against an opponent with whom he has genuine animosity, and soon you’ll be swimming in your riches like Scrooge McDuck.
Even though his in-cage appearances have been, to put it kindly, infrequent over the past few years, McGregor remains the biggest draw in all of MMA and one of its most habitual line steppers. Take his recent Twitter feud with Rafael Fiziev, for example, which stemmed from a seemingly innocuous exchange and rapidly escalated into another classic McGregor meltdown.
The Fiziev chatter isn’t likely to go anywhere, but plenty of McGregor’s past beefs have led to high-profile fights inside the octagon, clashes that are considered among the most dramatic in UFC history. The question we ask today is, which one was the best?
For the purposes of this discussion, we’re keeping the definition of “best” or “greatest” loose. Is it the feud that made the most money? Led to the best fight? The most heated build? The one that is most likely to stand the test of time?
Leave it to the MMA Fighting crew of Alexander K. Lee, Shaun Al-Shatti, Damon Martin, and Jed Meshew to sort this one out, and leave your own thoughts on the topic in the comments below.
Lee: Sometimes the most obvious choice is the right choice. Simply put, no one drew the ire of McGregor quite like Khabib Nurmagomedov, and the reverse was unquestionably true. When you consider how respectful “The Eagle” was with most of his opponents, that’s one reason why this rivalry is particularly spectacular.
Perhaps “ugly” would be a better word to use here, because as much money as Conor vs. Khabib eventually generated for the UFC, it also provided several moments that were equal parts memorable and regrettable.
Who could forget the infamous dolly throw in the bowels of Barclays Center? McGregor wasn’t even supposed to be in Brooklyn, but a run-in between Nurmagomedov’s crew and McGregor BFF Artem Lobov forced the Irish star’s hand. He gathered up a posse, hopped on a private jet to fly from Ireland to New York, and then went absolutely nuts on a bus that was transporting Nurmagomedov and others. McGregor shattered a bus window with a dolly, injured Michael Chiesa and Ray Borg, caused then-strawweight champion Rose Namajunas to suffer mental trauma ahead of her title defense at UFC 223, and somehow didn’t get himself any serious reprimand from the UFC.
And it actually escalated from there! McGregor took some gross shots at the customs of Nurmagomedov’s religion at the press conference for their fight and on social media, and Nurmagomedov accused McGregor of being an alcoholic. For anyone dismissing the pre-fight talk as just that, McGregor had this to say:
F*** peace. There will never be peace here. I always said you should aim for peace, but if you can’t aim for peace, aim between the eyes. And that’s it. I’m going to aim right between that man’s eyes and this is never over. Never, ever, ever over.
He wasn’t lying.
Their fight at UFC 229 mostly went as expected. Despite McGregor’s fame and accomplishments, Nurmagomedov’s style was considered to be the perfect foil for him, and sure enough, it was the lightweight champion’s incomparable wrestling that won out in the end as he submitted McGregor in the fourth. That should have been enough satisfaction for Nurmagomedov, but in a rage he climbed over the cage wall and, like his majestic nickname, literally flew from the side of the octagon to attack McGregor’s cornerman Dillon Danis, sparking one of the ugliest (there’s that word again) incidents in company history. Fines and suspensions were handed down, but no amends were made and the bad blood simmers to this day.
Of all of McGregor’s feuds, this was the only one that spilled into genuine real-life violence. It crossed way over the line from heated fight promotion to deep-seated hatred. It probably would have made for an unbelievably lucrative series of fights, too, if McGregor could keep his s*** together.
Instead, we got just the one, and considering everything that happened around it, it was more than enough.
Al-Shatti: The feud that started it all. This is always going to be the correct answer, and anyone around for those early years will understand why.
McGregor’s rise to superstardom was the Jose Aldo rivalry. From the moment he put pen to paper with the UFC in early 2013, his single-minded pursuit of the greatest featherweight champion the sport had ever known was all-encompassing. It defined him. And it was a promotional masterclass in every sense of the word. From Brimage to Holloway to Brandao to Poirier to Siver, McGregor never strayed off message: He’d come to slay the boogeyman of 145 pounds.
His brash overconfidence was the perfect foil for Aldo’s steely grandeur — and when he finally landed the fight at UFC 189, the UFC went all-in, launching the pair on a 12-day press tour that was unprecedented in MMA for its time. The globe-spanning event began in Aldo’s hometown of Rio de Janeiro and ended in a chaotic scene among McGregor’s Dublin faithful. Every day was a new adventure, and every stop of the tour served only as a hype-building exercise to amplify tensions between the two men, from McGregor throwing darts at a photo of Aldo’s face in the middle of a Rio bar to his constant needling of an all-time great. It was glorious.
When disaster struck and Aldo dropped out of UFC 189 with an untimely injury, McGregor persevered to beat Chad Mendes on short notice and capture an interim belt in the greatest UFC pay-per-view of all-time, and the rivalry exploded into overdrive. Suddenly, the two men were on equal footing — and it infuriated Aldo, as did McGregor’s constant insults about his withdrawal.
By the time UFC 194 finally arrived in December 2015, it felt as if Las Vegas was the center of the whole damn world. It was unlike anything MMA had seen before, and in many ways, the fight itself undersold the splendor of the moment — after nearly 33 months of promotional perfection, McGregor’s 13-second knockout almost felt anticlimactic. But it was still the feud that launched the Irishman forever into the stratosphere, and neither before nor since has the UFC come close to replicating what Aldo vs. McGregor meant to the sport in real time.
Martin: It’s difficult to imagine that McGregor’s greatest rivalry came because of an injured foot, but that’s exactly how he ended up fighting Nate Diaz for the first time at UFC 196.
Originally scheduled to face Rafael dos Anjos for the UFC lightweight title, McGregor was forced to find a new opponent after the Brazilian suffered a training injury that left him unable to compete with less than two weeks to go until the event. That’s when all of Diaz’s dreams came true, because he had already been targeting McGregor — including his infamous post-fight speech just a few months earlier when he shouted “Conor McGregor, you’re taking everything I worked for m***********, I’m going to fight your f****** ass.”
As if he willed it into existence, Diaz got the call when dos Anjos couldn’t compete, and the rest is history.
McGregor and Diaz engaged in a volatile press conference to promote the event, with security on high-alert the entire time just waiting for the fighters to erupt in a battle on stage. The back-and-forth got ugly, but the real fight didn’t begin until they actually set foot in the cage together with McGregor coming out of the gate firing right away.
He bloodied Diaz early and it looked like another signature performance from McGregor, who had quickly become the UFC’s most prolific draw. But then in the second round, things started to shift.
McGregor slowed down and Diaz began tagging him with punches. The damage started to mount so much that McGregor was running out of gas, and he dove for a takedown, which ultimately spelled his doom after Diaz stuffed the wrestling attempt and secured a fight-ending rear-naked choke.
It was a shocking result, because up to that point in his UFC career, McGregor had looked unbeatable, but Diaz had dispatched him in less than two rounds. That fight only ignited an even bigger war with McGregor demanding an immediate rematch. His request was eventually granted, and the second fight against Diaz was booked for UFC 202 just five months later.
Another press conference followed, except this time Diaz showed up and McGregor couldn’t be bothered — or at least he couldn’t be bothered to show up on schedule. When McGregor finally arrived, Diaz was already irritated and soon headed for the door, but not before he tossed a water bottle back at the dais.
McGregor quickly got up from his table and started launching bottles and full cans of soda back in the direction of Diaz and his team, who were also firing right back at him. It got really ugly — I can personally attest to this, as a water bottle went zinging about a foot over my head at one point thanks to my close proximity to coach John Kavanagh at the press conference. The situation was so volatile that UFC President Dana White just gave up on restoring order and ended the press conference.
The rematch a couple of nights later ended up an all-time classic with McGregor and Diaz beating the living hell out of each other for 25 consecutive minutes. McGregor landed several knockdowns, but he just couldn’t put Diaz away. In return, Diaz came back at McGregor with a relentless pace and overwhelming volume that nearly became too much to handle.
Somehow, McGregor survived and lived to win a majority decision on the scorecards before unleashing one of his best post-fight speeches of all time where he proclaimed “surprise, surprise, m************, the king is back!”
The series between McGregor and Diaz was tied at one win apiece, but that certainly didn’t end the rivalry because despite the last fight taking place in 2016, it’s rare that a few months go by without one of them addressing the other on social media. The fight world has been clamoring for another showdown between McGregor and Diaz ever since the rematch ended, which only speaks further to the impact those two bouts had over a relatively short period six years ago.
Despite no title being on the line, the stakes never felt higher than when McGregor and Diaz were in close proximity to each other and that proves just how much this rivalry meant to both of them as well as the combat sports world. Even now as McGregor and Diaz are both dealing with a string of tough losses with a combined 2-6 record in their past eight fights, a trilogy between them would almost certainly pull off record-breaking numbers for the UFC and that’s all thanks to the lasting rivalry these two will share forever and always.
Meshew: In truth, McGregor’s greatest feud is his battle with this balance beam — the only opponent to not only have defeated him, but one that made him look foolish in the process — but instead of lampooning McGregor for his 21st century update to the phrase “tilting at windmills,” I’ve decided to argue that McGregor’s greatest feud is with the laws of a functioning society. Because yes, his clashes with Aldo started it all, and his rivalry with Diaz launched him into the stratosphere, and his blood feud with Khabib took MMA to highs it may never reach again. But all of those are passing fancies. McGregor’s war on respectable social interaction is the gift that keeps on giving.
Since becoming a global superstar, McGregor has faced more legal trouble than any fighter in the sport, including that bastion of moral respectability, Jon Jones. There’s the aforementioned bus attack, where he injured and traumatized other UFC fighters, where he ultimately got off with community service, anger management, and restitution. There’s the phone smashing incident he was arrested for (the charges were ultimately dropped). There’s the pub incident that saw him plead guilty and pay a fine. There are the multiple sexual assault allegations he’s faced. Don’t forget about how he allegedly assaulted Machine Gun Kelly and Francesco Facchinetti in the span of about a month. And, of course, there’s his most recent incident, where he was arrested and had his vehicle seized on dangerous driving charges. And that’s not to mention the time he got into an altercation with referee Marc Goddard at a Bellator event, or some of the terrible things he’s said in his time on the mic! In each of these instances, McGregor had the charges dropped or got off lightly, but the totality of it really is impressive.
The fact is, we live in a society and there are rules to it, but McGregor seemingly views the rules more like guidelines, and he has no issue coloring outside of those when the mood strikes him. Afterward, he will do what is expected of him and apologize, pay restitution, etc,but another incident is always coming down the pipeline, and that’s why this is his most compelling feud. Nothing is more dramatic than a man who has everything wrestling so publicly with inner demons hellbent on returning him to the nothing he came from. And the very real possibility that McGregor’s actions are at least in some part accelerated by the need to live the character, well, that makes it that much more interesting.
Bill Simmons coined the phrase “The Tyson Zone” to describe a celebrity whose behavior had become so erratic that you could believe any headline that came out about them, and McGregor falls firmly into that category. If news broke tomorrow that McGregor challenged the moon to a boxing match with Steve Harvey as the referee, no one would be like, “Hmmm, seems out of character.” This is simply who “Notorious” is, and he’s not going to change for anybody. Hell, he already told us so himself.
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