Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor’s staredown ahead of UFC 264 (Louis Grasse/PxImages/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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UFC 264: Conor McGregor Isn’t a Champion—He’s the Championship

Saturday night in Vegas, the Notorious and Dustin Poirier will fight it out for something far bigger than a UFC belt.

Some athletes entertain with their abilities in competition. Their dominance is what brings copious amounts of fans to watch them. Then in addition to that ability, some athletes provide a level of showmanship that adds to the draw of watching them.

Conor McGregor is the latter. He knows it. And he makes a point out of ensuring you know it, too.

Look no further than his Twitter handle: @TheNotoriousMMA. McGregor doesn’t “fight” as much as he produces global, cross-platform spectacles. And while may not totally agree with all of his tactics, his bank account speaks for itself with an earth-shaking voice.

Most athletes prefer to be the hero. The babyface. Particularly in mixed martial arts, everyone has to lose eventually, so it’s natural that adoration after a hard-fought victory would be preferable to playing the part of the bad guy all day long. But every epic narrative needs a villain, and McGregor doesn’t just fulfill that role; he cherishes it.

And he’s ridden that wave all the way to becoming the single biggest star in combat sports and the past year’s single highest-earning athlete in the world.

In fact, “The Notorious” has lived up to his name so unavoidably that scoring a victory against him is bigger business than winning an actual UFC championship belt. Just ask Dustin Poirier, who’s facing McGregor for a third (and presumably) final time in the main event at UFC 264 Saturday night.

Poirier, an MMA good guy if there ever was one, has received plenty of verbal abuse from his opponent over the years, but even he can understand the gravity of what it means to share billing with the Irish striker. A Conor McGregor fight card in Vegas is the biggest ticket in town — as Hypebeast notes, a suite at the Red Rock Casino can cost upwards of $6,000 a night

With that in mind, it’s not a surprise that Poirier turned down a chance to fight for the UFC lightweight title earlier this year in order to earn a far bigger bag on an inevitably far, far more popular pay-per-view.

Nor is it a surprise that this is the moment the UFC chose to put on its first Las Vegas show with fans in attendance since March 2020 — or herald its record-setting $175 million deal with Crypto.com.

Conor does numbers, period. And beyond driving up the prices of Vegas hotel suites or topping Forbes’ annual list of athlete earners after selling his stake in Proper No. 12 whiskey for a reported $155 million, consider that the five biggest UFC pay-per-views of all time all featured his name atop the marquee.

EVENTHEADLINERDATEPPV BUYS
1. UFC 229Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor6 October 20182,400,000
2. UFC 202Diaz vs. McGregor 220 August 20161,600,000
3. UFC 257Poirier vs. McGregor 223 January 20211,600,000
4. UFC 246McGregor vs. Cerrone18 January 20201,353,429
5. UFC 196McGregor vs. Diaz5 March 20161,317,000
The five most-bought pay-per-views in UFC history

(For good measure, his 2017 boxing match against Floyd Mayweather did an incredible 4.3 million buys in the US, making it the second-biggest combat sports event of all time.)

He’s not a UFC champion; he’s bigger than any belt. In fact, in terms of the legacy on the line for Poirier if he can make it two wins in a row against his foe, Conor is the championship.

In order to secure your status as either a hero or a villain, you have to be great. This is especially true for villains, as cutting a braggadocious promo every now and then is a must — every baddie must be able to soliloquy about just how bad they are, particularly in the Hurt Business of combat sports. Right on cue, McGregor is a serious talker, and supporters and detractors alike have a habit of latching onto his ludicrous insults and grandiose predictions in the run up to a fight.

But just about no one would care to listen if Conor McGregor wasn’t any good, which reveals another reason why Poirier was smart to sidestep a UFC title shot and fight for the McGregor Championship instead: The Irishman has a 22-5-0 MMA record with 19 knockouts, and is the first-ever UFC fighter to hold simultaneous belts in two different weight classes. His legacy is sealed. But he’s also lost three of his last six MMA bouts and two of his last three. He hasn’t won at 155 pounds, Saturday night’s contested weight, since he first became double-champ in November 2016.

Poirier doesn’t just have a chance to get seriously paid and go 2-1 in his career against Conor — he has a chance to knock the MMA king off his throne forever.

Charles Oliveira may be the UFC’s 155-pound champion, but nobody’s saying all that much about the guy heading into UFC 264. The McGregor Championship is infinitely more valuable, and not just in monetary terms. There’s a historic and a symbolic dimension there that has no equal.

McGregor has done something few athletes could ever manage to do: become the biggest draw in his sport on such a level that it’s not even clear who’s No. 2 because it doesn’t even matter. Serena Williams, Floyd Mayweather, Tiger Woods, Lewis Hamilton, and Simone Biles may be the only contemporary comparisons. Conor (and the rest of the MMA establishment) knows that merely existing on a fight card can vastly outpace the value of a “real” title fight.

Knowing this, while Saturday’s winner gets the glory, even the loser gets to say he helped make some history.

For both of Saturday’s combatants, that’s the kind of date with destiny you can’t put a price on — or fit a belt around.

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