The UFC Can’t Afford to Punish Conor McGregor
That McGregor would unleash real-world violence shouldn’t entirely come as a surprise.
Five years and one day ago, Conor McGregor, the former UFC champion who last was seen in August pretending to be a boxer and helping refill Floyd Mayweather’s bank account, made his UFC debut, defeating featherweight Marcus Brimage in a mere 67 seconds by knockout. He celebrated his anniversary on Thursday by taking on a bus, injuring multiple fighters and leading to his eventual arrest.
That McGregor would unleash real-world violence shouldn’t entirely come as a surprise. For years, his racist taunts, over-the-top, braggadocious persona, and propensity for boundary-pushing stunts have have been given a wide berth by the UFC, to say the least. It’s worked, too, earning both them and McGregor countless riches, brought in a legion of fans, and made McGregor the sport’s biggest and, for the moment, only star attraction.
The UFC could not have anticipated this insanity, but to a certain degree, they share in the blame. Because of McGregor’s financial clout and the absence of another fighter who could match his ability to headline a multi-million dollar pay-per-view event, the UFC has coddled McGregor time and time again, refusing to discipline him or set any boundaries after he crossed all manner of moral and ethical lines, a freedom from responsibility that no other fighter has been afforded.
As Patrick Wyman, who covers mixed martial arts for the Washington Post and Deadspin, told The Daily Beast via Twitter direct message, “[The UFC] created this monster, and now he has the leverage to do pretty much whatever he wants. Legal consequences aside, he's the one calling the shots here with the UFC.”
Here’s what he wanted to do on Thursday night. McGregor and and a reported 20 members of his entourage unexpectedly showed up a media event for UFC 223 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. McGregor was not on the card, but protege Artem Lobov was. Per Deadspin, Lobov had previously been spotted barking at Khabib Nurmagomedov, a lightweight scheduled to compete for the lightweight title formerly held by McGregor. According to multiple reports, the loss of his belt is the reason why McGregor was so irate.
Though he hasn’t fought an actual human in mixed martial arts since November 12, 2016, when McGregor easily dispatched Eddie Alvarez in the second round, it took until earlier this week for the UFC to strip him of the lightweight title. Following the announcement, McGregor responded as only Conor McGregor could: “You’s’ll strip me of nothing you’s do nothing cunts.”
Later in the afternoon, he was surreptitiously allowed into the building by another member of Team McGregor who had been credentialed. Following a brief, unscheduled appearance at the media event, McGregor and his cohorts decided to storm the loading dock. There, McGregor began hurling all manner of heavy objects, including a guard rail, various chairs and a hand truck, at the bus containing Nurmagomedov. He smashed a window, attacked a security guard, and demanded that Nurmagomedov leave the bus and fight then and there. TMZ got its hands on multiple videos of the incident, and it’s as unhinged as you might imagine.
Released from custody on Friday after posting a $50,000 bail, he’s been hit with three counts of misdemeanor assault and one count of felony criminal mischief.
When all was said and done, UFC 223 had been thrown into complete chaos. Two fighters suffered cuts from the smashed bus windows and they’ve been removed from the card; Lobov was also told to stay away; and Nurmagomedov will be taking on a relative nobody for the title.
In a statement, the UFC said that McGregor’s conduct was “completely unacceptable,” and promised to levy some manner of disciplinary punishment. UFC President Dana White expressed the appropriate amount of indignation, calling McGregor’s exploits “disgusting,” speculating—without offering any evidence—that he may have been under the influence of a controlled substance, and promising that Thursday’s events will cost McGregor all of his fans.
“I don’t think anybody is going to be huge Conor McGregor fans after this. I don’t know if he’s on drugs or what his deal is, but to come and do this and act like this?” he asked.
McGregor’s hardcore fans won’t abandon him—and White knows it. More to the point, if they did walk away, it would be devastating for the UFC, which remains heavily dependent on McGregor to sustain their bottom line. If that means refusing to act or levy a suspension, as was the case when McGregor pulled a similar circus stunt in November, jumping into the cage and attacking at referee at a Bellator event in Dublin, so be it.
For Karim Zidan, an associate editor at Bloody Elbow who has extensively covered the intersection between combat sports and politics, McGregor’s November antics proved precedent. “The fact that nothing happened whatsoever? That just extends his leash or tells him, 'you know what? maybe there are no boundaries. Maybe I can go further,’” he said.
Even if White were to bring down the hammer, there's an entire worldwide market that will be ready to snap McGregor up. Meaning, the UFC really can’t jettison McGregor even if they wanted to.
“A McGregor-headlined pay-per-view is worth at least $50 million more than [the UFC’s] next-best card,” said Wyman. “If he fights twice in a calendar year, that's at least a sixth of their total revenue for the year.”
“It's not just that McGregor is a huge draw, though he's by far the biggest in the history of the sport at this point,” Wyman continued, “it's also that they genuinely don't have any other consistent performers who can pull eyeballs.”
That degree of influence is why the UFC received a significantly smaller percentage of the pay-per-view windfall for the Mayweather-McGregor fight. McGregor wanted to cosplay as a boxer, and so the UFC was forced to accede to all of Mayweather’s financial demands.
"He's got their hands tied because they don't have any other major stars right now. Not a single other major star," Zidan said, echoing Wyman’s assessment. Bringing back Brock Lesnar, who's been pinging back and forth between stints in the UFC and WWE wrestling matches only confirms their degree of desperation, and Lesnar’s ability to serve as the centerpiece of a pay-per-view event has fallen off dramatically from his heyday, as have his skills as a fighter.
The UFC dithered for so long when it came to whether McGregor would lose his title at all for this same reason. They’ll stoke rumors and offer non-committal statements, if only to string along McGregor’s unswayable followers, and have been happy to play along when it comes to a potential Mayweather-McGregor sequel. Naturally, Mayweather has been more than happy to add fuel to the speculative fires.
As such, McGregor has come to the conclusion that when it comes to the UFC, he’s invulnerable. (The New York City Police Department however, may not offer him similarly favorable treatment) Still, McGregor believes that the “normal peasant rules don't apply to him, and that a slight against him or anyone in his orbit is a transgression against a god,” Josh Tucker, who covers mixed martial arts at Deadspin, said via email.
He is far from the only fighter or even athlete to think they can’t be held to account, but combat sports in particular instills the idea that “the solution to all their problems is overwhelming force,” said Tucker. “This just gets amplified when the have the clout and backing of their employer to run absolutely free.”
But the UFC tying its fortunes to McGregor isn’t sustainable. The inability to develop anyone that might match his wattage is partially due to an unexpected dearth of talented prospects, according to Wyman, and partially thanks to the McGregor’s gravity- and attention-warping prominence. White has claimed that 2017 represented “[the UFC’s] best year by a long shot,” but even those who don’t have access to their private bookkeeping records say that’s simply not true.
The Mayweather-McGregor bout certainly helped their bottom line, as did the return of star middleweight George St. Pierre and the $55 million in payroll cuts that were enacted followed their $4 billion acquisition by WME-IMG. “From that perspective, yeah, they had a successful 2017,” Wyman explained, “but it was WAY down from 2016 and 2015, and their TV ratings were also down.”
Wyman, Zidan, and Tucker all are of the belief that McGregor suspension will be a token one at best, or that White will demur, allowing the legal process to take its course until the media heat fades. But eventually, McGregor will be welcomed back into the UFC fold.
After all, the UFC tolerating his repugnant behavior is a feature, not a bug. Or as Wyman put it, when it comes to McGregor, “They don't really have a choice.”