If you at all follow UFC goings-on (or even just follow someone on Twitter who accidentally watched a UFC card at a bar once), you’ve probably heard about the Biblical drama storm currently following Conor McGregor. This week McGregor “retired” from MMA over the UFC’s refusal to give him a slightly lighter promotional schedule. It’s been a confusing mess of whispers and speculation, so here’s some clarity: the UFC is absolutely being idiotic right now.
Here’s where things are at: after McGregor sauntered onto Twitter, picked up a microphone as if to say something, and then dropped it and walked away, UFC president Dana White claimed the whole spat arose because McGregor refused to fly to the US to do a press week for his fight at UFC 200 in July. McGregor was silent for a while, leading to rampant speculation about whether he actually retired, or if this was some kind of ploy to squeeze more money out of the UFC, or even if he’d been rattled by recently witnessing an MMA fight in which one of the combatants later died.
Yesterday, however, McGregor broke the silence, explaining that he requested a lighter press schedule ahead of UFC 200 because he’s pretty much been doing nonstop press for the UFC since the start of last year. He’s also jumped in and pulled the UFC’s ass from the fire multiple times, taking on last-second fights against top fighters like Chad Mendes and Nate Diaz. The latter fight, which saw McGregor jump up two weight classes to fight a guy heavier and taller than him, ended with McGregor’s first UFC loss.
“I am paid to fight,” McGregor wrote on Facebook, saying that he asked for a “slight adjustment” to his promotional duties for one event. “I am not yet paid to promote. I have become lost in the game of promotion and forgot about the art of fighting. There comes a time when you need to stop handing out flyers and get back to the damn shop.”
He even said he’d fly out to New York for the day of his biggest media obligation of the upcoming press week (which would kick off in Vegas this weekend) and then return to training in Iceland after that. “It is time to be selfish with my training again, “McGregor added. “It is the only way. I feel the $400 million I have generated for the company in my last three events, all inside 8 months, is enough to get me this slight leeway.”
This is a man who’s gone above and beyond when it comes to promotion for years. It’s not like he’s been slacking in this department. Oh, and that whole faux-retirement thing? McGregor said it was his way of showing the UFC that he didn’t need to attend a few press conferences and do some interviews to justify the $10 million they put into marketing this event. In a single tweet, he grabbed the entire sporting world by the eye stalks.
So far, it seems that the UFC disagrees. Shortly before McGregor released his statement, Dana White continuously said things like, “You can’t not show up to promote your fight. You can’t do it.” He also referenced the time Nick Diaz (Nate’s older brother) no-showed a press conference and had a title shot against then-welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre yanked away from him. Now outlets like TMZ are reporting that the UFC has flatly refused McGregor’s offer. Unless somebody does something drastic, McGregor will not be fighting at UFC 200.
What the UFC is doing here is so categorically stupid that my brain feels like it’s been repeatedly concussed by Alistair Overeem during his steroid-fueled days of being part-man, part-horse torso. Let’s break this down:
At the heart of this whole fiasco is Conor McGregor’s unprecedented popularity, born of his notorious flare for self-promotion. Unlike many other fighters, he’s become a singular entity, responsible for some of the UFC’s highest earning pay-per-views to date. After a tough time during which the UFC lost stars like Brock Lesnar and Georges St-Pierre, McGregor (along with Ronda Rousey) helped put the UFC back on the map, gave it a larger chunk of cultural landmass than ever before. McGregor generates mindshare and conversation. People who don’t give a shit about the UFC do give a shit about Conor McGregor. My dad sometimes texts me about Conor McGregor. I’ve been following MMA for more than a decade. That’s a first.
The UFC, however, continues to be an operation that is first and foremost focused on The Brand. If a fighter dishonors or tarnishes The Brand—if they fail to dance the company dance in the company mandated Reebok ballgown—they’re on The Shitlist (also a Reebok product) in a heartbeat. The UFC has an abysmal track record when it comes to putting fighters first. See also: the fact that fighters are all contractors (not employees with benefits and bargaining power), the aforementioned Reebok deal, which drastically reduced the amount of money fighters could make while lining the UFC’s pockets and giving them a nice little prestige boost to match, letting go of beloved figures for bad-mouthing the Reebok deal, etc.
This has led to some moves in the past almost as baffling as the current McGregor situation. Remember when Dana White publicly threw Jon Jones under the bus for UFC 151's cancellation, even though it was the UFC’s decision and Jones had every right to turn down a last-second opponent switcheroo? At the time, Jones was the UFC’s star on the rise, their next great hope. But he put himself before The Brand, and that simply would not do. So the UFC put its foot down on Jones’ head and shot through its own foot to hit him. It was petty. It was short-sighted. In the long run, it didn’t help anybody, least of all the UFC.
What makes the McGregor situation unique is that the UFC actually helped McGregor prove a point they’ve been kicking and screaming to deny: McGregor is bigger than the UFC. See, the UFC wants to build superstars, but only to a point. If they don’t need the UFC anymore—if they won’t kowtow to the UFC’s demands—that’s a nightmare scenario. If a fighter gains that kind of leverage, why, that might slightly detract from money the UFC could make! The horror!
Meanwhile, for some time McGregor’s expressed interest in running his own fight promotion and co-promoting in partnership with the UFC. The first time McGregor said this, I imagine an alarm that sounded like a thousand banshees wailing in unison went off at UFC HQ, and a flock of ravens thick and black as coagulated blood devoured Dana White, forcing the UFC to release his sixth clone.
So, for the most part, the UFC just sort of gives McGregor whatever he wants at this point. Wanna win a belt and then jump up a division to fight for a different belt? We’ve expressly forbade other champs from doing it, but sure! Go ahead! Wanna continue to put the featherweight division on hold so you can avenge a loss to a guy at welterweight, a division you have no business beating your head against? Haha yeah do that I guess! Also here are some the biggest paydays in UFC history. Please don’t go.
It’s telling that this is how the UFC attempts to reassert dominance. They didn’t do anything of actual consequence. Oh no, that would be too risky. This is posturing, mean mugging for the camera, plain and simple. They could’ve (and at this point probably should’ve) taken away McGregor’s featherweight championship. They could’ve suspended him. They could’ve fired him.
But in their heart of hearts, they know they need McGregor more than he needs them. The tweet heard ‘round the world just drove that point home. This weekend, the UFC is putting on one of its biggest shows of the year. Disgraced ex-light heavyweight champion Jon Jones is making his big return on a card that’s stacked with quality matches, including the most intriguing flyweight title fight in eons. Jones is, in all likelihood, the UFC’s third most popular fighter after McGregor and Rousey. But hardly anybody’s talking about that, especially in the mainstream sports world. It’s kinda hilarious, actually: A lot of outlets have posted videos and interviews in which they mostly asked people like Jon Jones and flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson about... McGregor. We’re on the verge of a marquee UFC event, but one tweet from McGregor is eclipsing it.
But OK, at the end of the day, the UFC is being self-interested. It’s a massive company, and massive companies are, by nature, self-interested. So, you might argue, they’re not being stupid at all. But even in the short term, ripping McGregor away from his throne atop UFC 200 is a moronic move. He just served them up a fantastic marketing angle on a silver platter, and they slapped it out of his hands, shoved his nose in it, and said, “NOW CLEAN IT UP.” For almost all of McGregor’s UFC tenure, we’ve known him as the guy with fancy suits, ridiculous bow ties, and ridiculous-er watches. Once upon a time, though, he was a poor Irish kid busting his ass and barely making ends meet. Now he’s going back to the basics to rediscover that part of himself, to train like a madman and shut out all other distractions.
So we have McGregor, this guy who’s been dominating airwaves, radiowaves, Internet waves, sine waves, and hell, probably even ocean waves (the UFC’s expansion into dolphin markets is doing better than expected), and suddenly, for a little while, he’s gonna disappear. Just as people were starting to get sick of hearing him talk and talk and talk, he... stops talking. To train for the biggest fight of his life. THAT IS ONE HELL OF AN ANGLE. COME ON UFC, HOW ARE YOU NOT GETTING THIS? You’ve got a built-in storyline, plus a rare quality you don’t find in modern marketing hype cycles: mystique. What will McGregor be like when he returns from his self-imposed exile? What will he say? How will he fight? As a fight fan, I would be out-of-my-mind excited by all of this! Thrilled! Curious! Unable to look away! It’s a perfect fucking storm.
But instead of promoting that, fight promotion company/lapse of judgement factory the UFC plans to pull the plug on McGregor’s UFC 200 fight entirely. It’s unbelievable. You’d think the UFC would’ve learned a lesson by now, but I guess their strategy of frequently stomping on fighters hasn’t led to a landmine yet. Maybe this will be it. Here’s hoping.