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Irish Instigation: Is Conor McGregor the new Chael Sonnen, or something more

UFC featherweight Conor McGregor
UFC featherweight Conor McGregor

When UFC promo-machine Chael Sonnen was fired last month in the wake of a blood doping scandal, the UFC universe was left with an unmistakable void.

“The Gangster from West Linn” made his career on being a lightning rod for controversy. He undoubtedly didn’t want to go out like he did, but when Chael Sonnen ruled the UFC, the company was a better place. He injected life, visceral discussion and fervorous debate, despite his rather bland approach to the actual fight itself -- Sonnen was always considered a ground and pound specialist, if anything, and very rarely offered the audience very much flash or pizazz.

Did his skills match his mouth? Did he deserve his place in the division or was he elevated due to his ability to sell? Was it disrespect, these venomous verbal jabs, or was it confidence? Was he a troll, or did he genuinely believe the words that were coming out of his mouth?

The debate on Sonnen’s place in the sport would rival any Star Wars/Star Trek fanboy roundtable on its best day. Whether you loved or hated Chael P., you cared. He had a respectable resume – at one point beating Dan Miller, Yushin Okami & Nate Marquardt earning his first shot at then champion Anderson Silva – that seemed to back up his braggadocio.

With Sonnen now gone, forced into an early retirement; on the other side of the globe, across the Atlantic Ocean, there is a fighter looking to fill that black hole of “I’ll fight anyone the UFC puts in front of me” fun-suckers. There’s a storm brewing in Ireland and a brash Celtic twenty-something is turning European MMA on its head, and in the process, making the whole sport take notice.

His name: “The Notorious” Conor McGregor.

Before his fight on Saturday in his native Dublin at UFC Fight Night, McGregor – who had just two prior victories in the company – told media that he planned to be champion of the world by the end of 2014.

It was a head shaking statement to some, funny to others, and fuel to the fire for the already incensed McGregor supporters who stand behind their man with unwavering conviction. Although this wasn’t the first time the featherweight division was put on blast by the Notorious one (McGregor previously said that was looking to “clean out the division” and regularly took to social media to harass higher profile contemporaries), this statement was so over the top and startling, that you were forced to take notice.

It was almost like Chael Sonnen dropped 80 pounds, got a really large chest tattoo, a hipster fade, adopted an Irish accent and inhabited the body of Conor McGregor. The kid has all the makings of a world-class instigator. And the fact that he keeps on winning will only bolster his incredible claims. He’s not Sonnen-class yet, but he moves the needle much in the same way Sonnen did in his early career. People can’t seem to stop talking about McGregor. And let’s not forget, McGregor isn’t just popping up in 2014. It was just last year when he was invited to Las Vegas for the first time; a journey that saw him treated to a special tour of the Strip with UFC President Dana White in his Ferrari.

Not bad for only having two fights in the UFC at the time.

“Notorious” won on Saturday in spectacular fashion with a first-round stoppage victory over Diego Brandao, making him 3-0 in the company. The crowd was unbelievable. Reports of the room being piping hot sprawled across social media, and McGregor delivered on the biggest stage up in his still very young career.

But see, that’s just it: This is still very much Conor McGregor’s early career. No matter your opinion on the man, you would have to be blind to not notice the type of impact he is making. When he speaks, people listen. When he fights, people watch. He is, by all accounts, the real deal, both inside and outside the Octagon.

Unlike Sonnen, McGregor fights like a man possessed. It’s not a knock; it’s just a valid observation, especially when discussing the entertainment side of the business. He swings with purpose and seems to genuinely enjoy mixing it up with each and every opponent he faces. A karate style, with a penchant for wheel-kicks and flashy combo punching doesn’t hurt his case for being a top draw in the near future, either.

McGregor’s first three wins over Marcus Brimmage, Max Holloway and Diego Brandao are nothing to scoff at. Those inaugural opponents would be exceptional for any UFC-newcomer, and McGregor has made statements in each one of them. On Saturday, moments after defeating Brandao, he took to the microphone to spout off one of the greatest post-fight speeches in the company’s history.

“What's next for me is that I'm going to go backstage, sit down with Mr. Lorenzo Fertitta, drink some fine-ass whiskey and talk about football stadiums," shouted McGregor after the victory. He then went on to say how titles were also a part of his plan in conjunction with the aforementioned football stadiums and whiskey.

It was an arrogant, but striking proclamation; saying that you want to headline 40,000-seat arenas, sell out soccer stadiums, fight pound-for-pound champions, all while tipping your hat to the marks who hate to see you balling out on some top-shelf whiskey, shoulder to shoulder with the owner of a billion dollar company.

But that’s what the fight business is all about: making people take notice. And if Conor McGregor isn’t going to say he can sell out soccer stadiums, who will?

Nobody, that’s who.

Obviously, calling out titleholder Jose Aldo is a silly endeavor for a person with just three wins. But this is an era of robotic, stale, repetitive post-fight speeches, when everyone is clamoring for someone to yell, “I want to fight (this guy)!”

All it takes is one man to stand up and use his voice. So, if McGregor has turned people off with these loud declarations, at least he is making them. He’s planting a seed, so if somewhere down the line, there is actual discussion about the topic, it will be that much more enticing for the fans watching; and more importantly, buying.

Much in the same way that Sonnen made people believe, McGregor is a linguistic wizard cut from the same cloth. When he speaks, he speaks with confidence and without hesitation. When compared to the stammering, half concocted tirades of a Tito Ortiz or Ken Shamrock (who were once thought of as some of the best promo men in the company) in year’s past, McGregor is fluid with his delivery. Simply put, he’s believable.

There’s a long road ahead for Conor McGregor. However, during his brief, three-fight stint in the world’s premier fighting organization, he has managed to make an impact that few, if any, have achieved before. With his wickedly slick tongue, mass appeal, controversial nature and universally admired fight-style, he may not be the UFC’s next Chael Sonnen quite yet, but then again who says he needs to be.

He may very well be working on becoming the UFC’s first “Conor McGregor.”

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