His star power is enormous. But after breaking his leg in a fight on the weekend, the sport must bank on other athletes.
As Conor McGregor waited inside the octagon for Dustin Poirier to enter, he bounced around, looking fluid, fresh and agile.
Less than 10 minutes later, he laid at the edge of the mixed martial arts cage with a broken leg and a litany of questions for himself and for the future of the Ultimate Fighting Championship without its biggest draw.
The third bout between McGregor and Poirier in eight years ended anticlimactically at the end of the first round at T-Mobile Arena, with McGregor throwing a punch and then landing awkwardly. Dana White, the UFC president, said McGregor broke his lower left tibia.
Poirier was declared the winner because McGregor could not continue.
Afterward, Joe Rogan, the comedian and podcast star who was acting as a commentator, sat next to McGregor and placed a microphone near his mouth so he could scream for a rematch.
"This is not over," McGregor said, his Irish accent echoing. "If I have to take this outside with him, it's all outside."
Those strong words don't change the official results. McGregor lost via a technical knockout, his fourth defeat in his past five fights. It was also only his third fight since 2018.
The most marketable star in the UFC, McGregor is now in a state of limbo. But the promotion will move forward, with or without him.
White said Poirier would challenge lightweight champion Charles Oliveira for his next fight. After McGregor recovers, a fourth fight with Poirier may be possible, White said.
"The fight didn't get finished," he said. "You can't have a fight finish that way."
McGregor knocked out Poirier in 2014, and Poirier knocked out McGregor in January. In the buildup to UFC 264, McGregor took a hostile approach. He tried to kick Poirier during the news conference before the fight, and he insulted Poirier's wife, Jolie. Poirier said that he welcomed a fourth fight with McGregor, and that he would do it "in the octagon or on the sidewalk." He also wanted a conclusive result, he said.
"It's not a good feeling," Poirier said. "I won, and I feel like what happened was because of something I did, but it's not like I submitted him or put him away. There's going to be so many voices and so many people saying, 'Oh, you didn't win.'"
Poirier certainly won the round, displaying sharp attacks.
But the biggest star of the sport remains McGregor, who rose to prominence because of his stout performances and his brash trash talk. He became the first athlete in UFC history to hold belts in two weight classes simultaneously.
But his focus began to shift away from mixed martial arts.
In 2017, he participated in a crossover boxing match with Floyd Mayweather, a global spectacle that earned McGregor a guaranteed US$30 million. This year, McGregor sold his stake in an Irish whiskey brand he founded for a reported US$600 million. Forbes named him the highest-paid athlete in 2021.
But the UFC stripped McGregor of both of his belts because of inactivity, and he has faced legal trouble.
McGregor pleaded guilty to assault for punching a man in 2019 at a bar in Ireland, and he accepted a plea deal for throwing a hand cart at a bus carrying UFC fighters in Brooklyn in 2018. In January, McGregor was sued in Ireland by a woman who said he raped her in 2018, an accusation he has denied. (The Irish law enforcement authorities also declined to pursue criminal charges against him.)
Poirier said that he took offense to McGregor's antics this week involving him and his family, and that the loss reflected his lack of sportsmanship.
"He got what he had coming to him," Poirier said. "Karma is a mirror."
Still, fans overwhelmingly favoured McGregor. They cheered for the Irishman while booing Poirier, a native of Louisiana. Las Vegas fed off the energy, too.
The city has lost US$34 billion during the coronavirus pandemic, according to data from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. But the economy fully reopened on June 1, and UFC 264 presented one of the first major live events as restrictions ease.
The event generated about US$15.8 million in ticket sales, the third-highest revenue total in the company's history. After not hosting a UFC event in T-Mobile Arena in over a year, 20,062 people attended, a record for a sporting event in the venue.
Performances by comedian Dave Chappelle and country music singer Garth Brooks, as well as a US men's basketball team exhibition game, also occurred in Las Vegas over the weekend.
With McGregor off the fight scene for now, other athletes with star potential could rise in mainstream interest.
Flyweight Brandon Moreno last month became the first Mexican-born UFC champion. Bantamweight and featherweight champion Amanda Nunes has established herself as the best female fighter of all time. Welterweight champion Kamaru Usman and middleweight champion Israel Adesanya have also defended their belts multiple times.
And then there is Poirier.
Regardless of McGregor's star power, he said he would be ready.
"He's just a man," Poirier said. "He bleeds just like me."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Emmanuel Morgan
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