A Look Back at the Record-Breaking Rise of Conor McGregor
In April of 2013, a 25-year-old Conor McGregor waved goodbye to a job as a plumber’s apprentice and made a successful UFC debut with a first-round TKO of Marcus Brimage. In the moments after the win, McGregor would famously call for a knockout of the night bonus. He would receive that bonus, and return home to Ireland $60,000 richer.
Given that McGregor had just collected a welfare check for €180—roughly $230 USD at the time—this was obviously a huge moment for him.
“Just last week I was collecting the social welfare,” McGregor said at the post-fight press conference. “I was in there saying to them, ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m signed to the UFC. I don’t know. Blah, blah, blah.’ Now I suppose I’m just going to have to tell them f**k off.”
Today, of course, $60,000 is mere pocket change to McGregor, as the Irishman has emerged as the biggest star in MMA history in a true, rags to riches story.
Let’s take a quick look back at the Irishman’s rocket-fuelled rise, and what he’s accomplished along the way.
McGregor’s sophomore UFC outing saw him defeat Max Holloway, who is now one of the UFC’s top featherweights, by unanimous decision. Whether or not you choose to believe him is up to you, but the Irishman claims to have done achieved this win with a badly injured knee. This win over Holloway is one of just two decisions on McGregor’s 23-fight record, and the only fight of his 9-fight UFC career for which he wasn’t awarded a post-fight bonus.
By the time McGregor’s third fight rolled around, he had already generated enough interest to convince the UFC to return to his home town of Dublin, Ireland, and put him in the main event of that return. And while a lesser fighter might have crumbled under the pressure of headlining a UFC card in their home town so early in their career, McGregor rose to the occasion in the biggest way possible, mauling his foe Diego Brandao to a first-round TKO.
“We’re not here to take part, we’re here to take over,” McGregor would famously say after the fight.
McGregor’s next fight would mark his first time on a UFC pay-per-view, as he was matched up with a dangerous foe in Louisiana’s Dustin Poirier on the main card of UFC 178.
In advance of the fight, McGregor predicted that he’d finish Poirier in the first round. On fight night, McGregor made good on that pre-fight prediction, earning himself a rep as a bona fide MMA soothsayer and the nickname “Mystic Mac.”
The Irishman’s next scrap took place in beautiful Boston, Massachusetts, a city with a rich Irish history. While his opponent, Dennis Siver, was widely viewed as a bit of a sacrificial lamb, McGregor made sure to deliver a dynamite performance all the same, scoring a TKO win in the second round.
In the seconds after this win, the Irishman famously jumped out of the cage and got in the face of then champion Jose Aldo—a feat that would cement his place as the featherweight division’s next title challenger.
As we know, however, the UFC’s first attempt at an Aldo vs. McGregor featherweight title fight would not go as planned. After an unprecedented international press tour, Aldo pulled out of the planned bout with an injury, and was replaced by long-time contender Chad Mendes. Despite this last minute shakeup—and a tough first round—McGregor ultimately came out on top with a second round TKO, earning gold in just his sixth UFC bout.
Yet this bout with Mendes was significant for another reason, too. It marked McGregor’s first time headlining a UFC pay-per-view, and with nearly 900,000 buys, it was a massive box office success. With the fantastic success of this PPV, McGregor’s days of headlining televised Fight Nights were done. The Irishman had become the key to a guaranteed pay-per-view success.
Just how capable McGregor was of headlining pay-per-views became even clearer in his next fight, when he finally got in there with Jose Aldo. The pair’s title unifying showdown would bring in a whopping 1,200,000 pay-per-view buys—the fourth most successful pay-per-view in UFC history. The truly historic thing about this bout, however, was the way McGregor performed. In just 13 seconds, he knocked Aldo out cold, ending the former champions decade-long unbeaten streak, and winning the undisputed UFC featherweight crown in the process.
Under normal circumstances, the new, Irish champ would have then shifted his focus to his first title defense. As we’ve seen time and time again, however, the circumstances surrounding McGregor’s career are far from normal.
Instead of defending his featherweight crown, the Irishman immediately shifted his focus to a shiny, second belt: Rafael Dos Anjos’ lightweight title. The two were scheduled for the main event of UFC 196. If McGregor won, he would make history as the first fighter in UFC history to hold two UFC titles simultaneously.
As we now know, of course, McGregor vs. Dos Anjos would never happen. Instead, Dos Anjos would withdraw from the bout with a foot injury, which would result in a hastily-arranged, non-title welterweight bout between McGregor and Nate Diaz—and the lone loss of McGregor’s incredible UFC career.
Anyone who hasn’t spent the last year on Mars knows how it went down. McGregor started strong, but ultimately burned himself out and surrendered to a second-round rear-naked choke. Of course, it wasn’t all bad news for the Irishman. This first bout with Diaz would go down as the most successful pay-per-view in UFC history with a whopping 600,000 buys. The bout would also see McGregor become the first fighter in UFC history to earn a disclosed payday of $1 million. Though he’d experienced his first loss in the Octagon, his wins in the business arena continued to pile up.
This brings us to McGregor’s most recent challenge – a score-settling rematch with Diaz. Though the bout was a tricky one for the UFC to book, it eventually came together as the main event of UFC 202 in August. And though Diaz didn’t make it easy for him, McGregor ultimately had his vengeance, earning a hard-fought majority decision win.
This second bout with Diaz would sell even more pay-per-views than the first, raking in 1,650, 000 buys to become the most successful event in the company’s history. It would also see McGregor reclaim his throne as the highest paid fighter in UFC history, surpassing the $2.5 million record set by Brock Lesnar at UFC 200 with a $3 million disclosed purse. When pay-per-view points are factored in, McGregor is estimated to have walked away from the fight some $15 million richer.
Like we said, $60,000 is pocket change for the Irish star.
Today, McGregor has his sights set on the lightweight title fight that eluded him earlier this year, though the belt is now owned by Eddie Alvarez. The fight will headline the UFC’s first ever trip to New York City – a major moment in history in itself – and will give McGregor the chance to become the first fighter in UFC history to hold two UFC titles simulatenously.
So, while there are whispers that the Irishman might take some time off after his fight with Alvarez, it is clear that is record breaking run is not yet done. In a few short weeks, he’s poised to break additional pay-per-view records, break down new barriers in terms of fighter pay, and perhaps, make history as the first concurrent two-division champ in the sport’s history.
Hard to believe he collected a $230 welfare check just a few years ago.