The UFC is not super kind to fighters. Don’t get me wrong: some champs and popular up-and-comers make decent bank, but they have little leverage. A few ugly losses, ill-advised words, or hell, a uniform violation can leave them jobless—or at least on the UFC’s shitlist. So it’s crazy to see a fighter making the UFC kowtow to nearly all of his demands.
If you follow the UFC even casually, you probably caught wind of the recent news that UFC 197 in March will feature two completely bonkers fights: Holly Holm vs Miesha Tate for the women’s bantamweight title (the one Ronda Rousey lost when her invincibility hack finally stopped working) and Rafael dos Anjos vs Conor McGregor for the men’s lightweight strap. Most overtly, the latter is noteworthy because—up until this point—McGregor’s UFC fights have been at featherweight (145 lbs), not lightweight (155 lbs). He’s not knocking on the gate of a new division so much as he’s teleporting directly to the throne room and attempting to decapitate the king.
These so-called “super” fights almost never happen in the UFC. Sometimes the UFC’s not on board with the idea, other times the champs in question spend months talking big, but never actually sign their names on the vaunted “You can now legally reduce each other to vaguely human-shaped meat patties” contract. On top of that, the UFC’s recently become insistent that super fights come with the following stipulation: one champ must vacate their belt—essentially leave behind the division they fought so hard to rule—to go fight another. On some level, it makes sense: a single fighter can only fight so many times per year, and one person holding multiple belts slows down multiple divisions. But it also stops a whole lot of titans from clashing, and that’s a damn shame.
Faced with the prospect of leaving his shiny new belt at the peak of Featherweight Mountain to scale Lightweight Doom Spire, McGregor essentially said, “Nah, fuck that. I’ll do both.” And ol’ Papa UFC was like, “Well I don’t know about that, you crazy Irish whippersnapper [spits into spittoon, and also on a baby]. There are, of course, Rules.”
Typically, the UFC gets its way in disputes because it’s a massive corporation strong-arming its way through a field of contractors (UFC fighters are not regarded as full-time employees, barring them from all sorts of tax, healthcare, and unemployment benefits) with little in the way of contractual rights and no union. As I said earlier, fighters—especially all by themselves—have very little leverage. Even the biggest stars eventually roll over, as they have for things like the UFC’s garbage deal with Reebok, in which basically everyone took big pay cuts (except, of course, Reebok and the UFC). In the UFC-fighter relationship, the UFC has almost all the power, and they often wield it in ways that hurt fighters and other employees.
And yet, one month after McGregor officially set his sights on lightweight, it sure seems like he once again got his way: he’s jumping the line to fight for the lightweight belt, and it doesn’t seem like he’ll be abandoning his featherweight belt to do so. This after he got to be front-and-center in one of the UFC’s biggest marketing pushes ever—one in which he reportedly had more influence than most UFC fighters would—and signed a contract that, again, puts him in a more powerful position than most UFC fighters. “I am changing this sport,” he told GQ. “I am signing a new contract the likes of which there has never been. Share of ticket sales, share of pay per view, I am rewriting the rules.”
Knowing McGregor, some of that is just hot air, but so far the results speak for themselves. McGregor does what he wants, says what he wants, and the UFC follows along, lapping up the cash that trails in his wake. Conor McGregor is making the UFC hundreds of millions of dollars with his relentless barrages, both verbal and fistic. They say that money talks. So does McGregor. The two have a lot in common.
On paper, this is a great thing for fighters. Finally, somebody’s shifted the balance of power a bit. Finally, there’s someone the UFC can’t seem to push around. The question is, will these rewritten rules—McGregor’s holy creed—trickle down to everyone, or does McGregor alone get special treatment due to his burgeoning superstardom?
Moreover, what happens when McGregor’s arrangement with the UFC is actually tested? So far, everything has been exceedingly convenient. McGregor keeps saying (mostly) the right things and winning. He hasn’t (publicly) pissed off any execs or gotten popped for cocaine or plowed one of his 35 sports cars into a nursery for baby people and babier piglets yet. On top of that, he fights frequently, suggesting that it wouldn’t slow down divisions all that much if he held two belts. I’m sure the UFC considered that when letting him hold onto his featherweight belt. So really, at the end of the day, how much power does he actually have? We don’t really know yet.
I want this to be a good thing for UFC fighters—who get beaten, run through the promotional ringer, and cast aside like wounded racehorses on a regular basis (despite limited career prospects in the aftermath)—but I can’t help but feel like this is all some temporary fever dream. Once things get rough, I worry that the UFC will resume its old tricks.
Maybe, if nothing else, this will teach the UFC that individual fighters can be hyper-valuable—that the company isn’t always more important than the individual. Maybe, in other words, McGregor’s example will raise the standard a tiny bit for everybody else. But forgive me for not being super hopeful. The UFC looooooooves throwing fighters (and their pay and their reputations and their rights) under the bus when it suits them, and let’s face it: McGregor is kind of a selfish asshole. I doubt he’ll leverage his influence and go to bat over larger issues like, say, Georges St-Pierre did with drug testing back in the day.
Oh, and before any of that even has a chance of transpiring, McGregor has to get past Rafael dos Anjos, the guy who’s flattened multiple lightweight legends with ease. Beating him is no small order, and I’m not sure even McGregor is up to the task.
Update: In an interesting twist, recent reports suggest that McGregor is demanding more money before he signs the contract to fight Rafael dos Anjos. Again, he’s not just basking in his newfound position of power; he’s milking it for all it’s worth. It will be interesting to see whether or not the UFC capitulates, and if so, how much. These are precedents in the making.