Heroes and Villains: McGregor, Aldo and the Best and Worst of MMA

Aldo McGregorIt was a UFC journey like no other; starting in Brazil, traveling north through America and culminating in Dublin, MMA’s Emerald City. It was – if you believe the words of a brash young Irishman – a metaphor for a journey to be travelled later this year, as a few pounds of gleaming metal and tough leather makes its way from one mantelpiece to another. The UFC 189 press tour will be remembered as a rousing success, but one that managed to highlight both the best and the worst of Mixed Martial Arts. Heroes and Villains The undertaking was mammoth; spread over two weeks, multiple continents, numerous press engagements and a record-setting ten episodes of the UFC’s excellent ‘Embedded’ series, the promotional clout thrown behind what was essentially a public relations exercise has been like nothing in recent memory. It was also unique for the leeway it gave the principle cast; the chance to play both hero and villain. We’ve seen fighters split the crowd before; all the most successful ones do. For every fan Fedor had, there was another that pegged him the hipster’s choice of JMMA fan boys. For everyone who loved Tito Ortiz, there was another that wrote him off. Chael Sonnen, Jon Jones, Georges St Pierre, Brock Lesnar; all are or were revered and hated in equal measure. This was different. Aldo is idolised by Brazilian fight fans. A poor boy from the favelas, he rose to prominence and became a national treasure. He is a man of the people, a trait captured in beautiful high definition when he dove head-first into the crowd and was hoisted onto the shoulders of the masses. McGregor, similarly, is the face of a movement in his native land. A month after UFC Dublin, Cage Warriors graced the Helix, a modest (yet spectacular) 1,500 seat venue. McGregor joked at the time that he would be turning up to collect a bonus for selling the place out… he may not have been far wrong. In their respective homes they are kings, but all it took was a hop across the pond to affect a complete and dazzling role reversal. McGregor was bombarded with the familiar ‘You’re gonna die’ chants in Brazil, while Aldo endured the full spectrum of pantomime boo’s to outright abuse in Dublin. You’re lookin’ at the king The UFC have never needed a figure like McGregor more than they do now. Amidst the blandness of Chris Weidman, the absenteeism of Cain Velasquez, the indifference shown to Demetrious Johnson and the inevitability of Jon Jones, McGregor is a beacon of hope on a barren landscape. Despite a full slate of blockbuster offerings between now and July 11th’s UFC 189, it’s a sub-155lbs title fight garnering all the headlines. Aldo, while undoubtedly a fine champion and arguably close behind Jon Jones in the pointless and endless pound-for-pound greatest fighter debate, has largely been a generic foil. He’s been riled up and thrown his fair share of expletive-laden (and poorly translated) verbal barrages at his opposite number, but over the past two weeks you always got the feeling that it could have been anyone on the other end of McGregor’s verbal jousts. It wouldn’t have mattered. The UFC have never made big money off the little guys before; in an era of plummeting Pay-Per-View buy-rates, the thought of an enigmatic Irishman who can captivate and polarize the marketplace like ‘The Notorious’ as champion has likely driven Dana White to 2006-Liddell levels of arousal. The best, the worst and the truth about mixed martial arts That the Aldo-McGregor fight is capturing imaginations to levels not seen since the UFC’s glory years speaks volumes. The reactions garnered not just in the fighters’ own back yards, but in North America (where business is done and Pay Per Views are sold) bodes well for the UFC, and by extension the sport as a whole. Oversaturation has bred malaise, but here we are, watching McGregor stealing Also’s title belt on an infinite repeat. It’s something to get excited for. It’s what the fight game is all about; characters, storylines, conflicts and post-human talent. The intense coverage and ‘Embedded’ series also gave fans a first-hand look at the blueprint of how to make money in MMA. This is prize fighting – there’s no prize if nobody wants to see you fight. People bemoan fighter pay, but McGregor is too busy spending his money to complain. As the tour progressed it became clear that Aldo was running out of steam. McGregor is a born showman, a raconteur, a rabble-rouser. Aldo – by all accounts – is a quiet, simple man who just so happens to be good enough at hurting people to do it for a living. It may have been magnified by the trip ending in Dublin, but while the Brazilian faded the Irishman thrived. Conor McGregor will in all likelihood retire a richer and more famous man than Jose Aldo. Two years ago he was on welfare. It is not impossible to make money in MMA. It is a bittersweet concept though – that while there are possibly more opportunities than ever before for people to make a living through mixed martial arts, being a good or great fighter is simply no longer good enough. At least, not if you’ve any intent to live well. The tour also gave us a few glimpses of the sport’s ugly underbelly. The Dublin crowd were a stark reminder of the fact that this sport largely appeals to the lowest common denominator of human being. Drunk, abusive, bandwagon hopping cage-fighting fans let down the passionate Irish MMA crowd; Brazil wasn’t guilt free either. They illustrated the point that with an image such as it has, far from becoming “bigger than football” as Dana White once claimed, MMA will probably always be a niche entry in the sporting calendar. We were even treated to a display of the UFC’s attitude towards a free press, when respected journalist Brian D’Souza was berated then blacklisted from UFC media events for asking a tough, but legitimate question related to comments made by one of the men on the dais. It’s indicative of how insecure the UFC (and nearly every promotion I’ve ever worked with or around) are when it comes to honest reporting. If you’re not ‘on message’, you’re on the outside looking in. The reason mixed martial arts is afraid of being asked tough questions about money, drugs and safety is that for the most part, we don’t have good answers. We’re just muddling through, hoping that nothing bad happens before we can get our fractured house in order. Fastest-growing sport in the word? No…not now, not ever. But who cares? As long as we’re still having fun, right? So buy a ticket and take the ride. Aldo/McGregor is about as good as it gets… which in itself is both the highest praise and a stunning damnation of this wonderful, troubled sport. By Brad Wharton @MMABrad48    

Written by Brad Wharton

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