Conor McGregor’s shadow continues to loom over MMA. As the UFC struggles to control him, one thing is clear: he’s a monster of the promotion’s own making.
There was UFC card in Houston this past weekend, though you’d be forgiven for not knowing that. It showcased the return of the Korean Zombie, which was a huge shot in the arm for the featherweight division. Yet all anyone was talking about heading into the event was Conor McGregor. Coming out of it? McGregor.
That’s not entirely true, but nor is it a complete hyperbole. Load up any of the usual suspects in the MMA media world in your web browser, and you’ll hear about how Conor McGregor is butting heads with the UFC. How he’ll fight Anderson Silva if the price is right. About him walking away from MMA if he can get the big money fight against Floyd Mayweather.
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Half the headlines circling what may as well be called “The McGregor Show” are probably bunk. That doesn’t matter. The reality is simple: hardcore MMA fans cared about UFC Houston, but the general public is more likely to be talking about what Conor McGregor is doing. Or isn’t doing. The lightweight champion gets more press for turning down the WWE and a Predator reboot than many lower profile fighters get when they’re competing.
The obvious issue here is that McGregor has now reached a point in his career where his name is arguably as big as the UFC’s. The promotion is in a power struggle to control him. Being frank, its financial aspirations in the short term rely on McGregor’s continued involvement. Four straight million plus buy pay-per-views underline that.
Rarely has this happened with fighters of years past. Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture, even Georges St. Pierre butted heads with the promotion. However, none were as critical to the success of the UFC as McGregor. His shadow looms over every division in the sport right now.
Yet McGregor’s money fights are money fights because he is in them. For the most part, his opponents have failed to register with casual fans, with the lone exception of Nate Diaz — the only man to beat McGregor in the UFC, and the perfect heel for him.
Beyond that, McGregor’s fights became money fights because the UFC took the leash off the brash Irish star. It helps that he has the gift of gab. It helps more that he backs up most of what he says come fight night. Most importantly? The UFC allowed him near free reign while his career was taking off.
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Throughout his meteoric rise, Conor McGregor could say what he wanted. He was pretty much handed what he asked for, though to his credit, he was more than willing to fight anyone, including on short notice. Still, it was free reign that allowed him to promote himself. His persona became an extension of his core being, blown up pro wrestling style. Conor McGregor himself is well aware of that symmetry — after all, he even admits to stealing his strut from Vince McMahon.
His persona is larger than life — and it has come close to outgrowing the promotion. Thus it’s no surprise that the UFC is having a hard time controlling their biggest star.
Is there really any wonder as to why? Simply put, the man is a monster of the UFC’s own making. When he counter-programmed UFC Denver with a PPV interview of his own, with 5,000 in attendance, it felt as if shots had been fired. Just warning shots, mind you. It would be irresponsible to claim Conor McGregor and the UFC were at war. They are, however, preparing for what could be a protracted renegotiation of the star’s contract.
It’s a battle that, in order to win, the UFC must resign itself to losing. A healthy dose of crow may be served alongside it, but the cold hard truth is that the UFC needs McGregor more than McGregor needs them.
The next Predator-style movie role will still be there if he never walks to the Octagon again. He has made millions. He would make millions more in boxing, and even were the UFC successful in blocking a jump to boxing, there’s still the wrestling world. Make no mistake, the WWE would pay a pretty penny to have the Irish star on their roster. He could very well be Brock Lesnar in reverse.
The UFC, meanwhile, needs Conor McGregor. They need him in an era where Ronda Rousey may never fight again, where Anderson Silva is on his way out of the sport, where Brock Lesnar may or may not be gone for good. St. Pierre is gone, and every day away, the chances of his return grow slimmer. Jon Jones will be back, but he never had the drawing power of Lesnar, Rousey, GSP, or McGregor.
The UFC also needs McGregor to retain legitimacy, which is an almost comical statement when considering the man has never defended a championship belt, but it’s the truth nonetheless. UFC fans are far from a simple bunch.
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The upside of being perhaps the largest “niche” sport around is that the core fanbase is educated on the sport and hip to its goings on. Few were happy that McGregor held up the featherweight division to avenge a loss to Nate Diaz, but handing Jose Aldo a belt he didn’t earn didn’t impress them much. Creating belts for the sake of floating PPVs didn’t sit well with the fans either, and no matter how awesome a fighter Max Holloway is, there’s some truth to the fact that in reality, McGregor is still the man to beat at 145-pounds. If the UFC would book him there.
The same situation is now playing out at lightweight, and a pretend belt has been cooked up for that division as well, to be contested at UFC 209 in March. It’s an attempt to add gravitas to a fight that would otherwise be called a number one contender’s match or title eliminator — nothing more. Maybe, had the UFC not cried wolf so often with title shot promises, an “interim” title wouldn’t be necessary.
Either way, Conor McGregor is necessary, as far as the promotion is concerned right now.
So their best bet is to work with McGregor — just as his best bet is to work with the UFC. McGregor himself noted that at his “Evening with” PPV event with Ariel Helwani. It would be so much easier for his plans to come through with the UFC in his corner. The same is true in reverse. In this case, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. The UFC would be wise to remember that when it comes to this particular union.