Conor McGregor Returns as the Villain, and Savior, of the UFC
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The outcome of UFC 229 could shift the tides of MMA’s most powerful promotion.
By Matt Foley and Sean Culligan
It was easy to forget how eerily empty midtown Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall felt once the brash, magenta-suited Irishman arrived — fashionably late, as is customary for Conor McGregor. A palpable energy follows the former two-division Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) champion and trash-talk kingpin turned boxing circus fighter, whiskey entrepreneur and human stun gun wherever he goes. At this, the first press conference for UFC 229, headlined by McGregor (21-3) and Khabib Nurmagomedov (26-0), dozens of police officers also followed McGregor.
Small police presences are normal at press conferences. This was different. Maybe it was partly for show, but UFC President Dana White also wanted to avoid an incident. He said as much when asked why Radio City was closed to the public: “Because I don’t want to piss off New York City.” You see, McGregor was last in New York in July, accepting a plea deal from a Brooklyn assistant district attorney to avoid jail time after his April arrest for attacking Nurmagomedov’s bus days before UFC 223. McGregor has always broken the rules, and he long ago mastered the art of verbal sparring, but the tension at this presser was real. Vitriol filled the air, and some serious personal insults were hurled. But if you thought, even for a second, that the UFC was actually concerned with keeping the peace, think again. Every racist and religious taunt, every accusation of money laundering and political cowardice that McGregor spewed at the stone-faced Nurmagomedov, was good for business. With McGregor inked to a new eight-fight deal, UFC brass has made clear that, much like Vince McMahon’s WWE, theirs is the business of entertainment. Controversy sells.
Need proof? Just watch the UFC 229 promotional video.
— UFC (@ufc) August 3, 2018
White said “it was an easy decision” to include footage of the April bus attack in the fight promo. “That’s part of the storyline. It is what it is.”
It is also blatant disrespect for some of the UFC’s other fighters and former champions. McGregor infamously attacked Nurmagomedov’s bus after a heated hotel confrontation between the Dagestanian fighter and McGregor’s training partner, Artem Lobov. Fired up and ready to save the day, McGregor — with his team of Dublin ruffians behind him — went after Nurmagomedov, who chose not to exit the bus. “I thank the Lord that man didn’t have the balls to get off that bus,” McGregor chirped at Radio City. “[Nurmagomedov] would be dead right now. He’d be in a box and I’d be in a cell.”
But there were other, less famous fighters on that bus too. Both Michael Chiesa and Ray Borg were forced to pull out of their respective UFC 223 bouts due to injuries sustained from broken glass when McGregor launched a dolly at a bus window. Chiesa is now suing McGregor. Former women’s strawweight champion Rose Namajunas was also on the bus. In early September, her coach, Trevor Wittman, called White’s decision to use the footage of the attack in the promo video “in poor taste,” and told ESPN’s Ariel Helwani that Namajunas suffered severe emotional trauma from the attack. “She doesn’t leave her house except for training,” said Wittman. “She doesn’t go in public places.”
Clearly, the fight game is not for the faint of heart. As president of the UFC, White can’t be expected to monitor the emotions and comfort of his expansive roster of fighters. But the decision to embrace this controversy — one with real victims and consequences — in an effort to sell pay-per-view buys is proof that mayhem moves the needle for the promotion going forward.
I am going to truly, truly love putting a bad beating on this little glass-jawed rat.
“Dana White knows that the fights are, ultimately, not the only thing that matters,” says former UFC champion–turned–ESPN analyst Chael Sonnen. “The storyline matters. That’s the only way to sell a fight.”
So, what happens now? With the announcement of his new eight-fight deal, McGregor won’t be leaving the UFC anytime soon. While his 2017 boxing match against Floyd Mayweather Jr. made him wealthy enough to never have to fight again, he’s done with that sport. Instead, McGregor returns to the Octagon “for the love of war,” he says. “And I am going to truly, truly love putting a bad beating on this little glass-jawed rat.”
No matter how many insults McGregor hurls, or how much the UFC needs “Notorious” to win, the biggest box-office draw in company history may be in trouble come Saturday night. At 30 years of age, Nurmagomedov holds the longest undefeated streak in mixed martial arts history. He is a world-class wrestler with two world championships (2009, 2010), and he’s a master at establishing the pace. Khabib is hardly a knockout artist, but, with his unmatched endurance, strength, tenacity and wrestling prowess, the Russian mauls opponents and breaks their will to continue. McGregor has, thus far, tried to intimidate Nurmagomedov by way of verbal sparring, but that won’t do the trick. The guy grew up wrestling bears, for God’s sake.
Likewise, McGregor is the best fighter that Nurmagomedov will have faced to this point. He’s the most dangerous striker in the world and equally adept at destroying opponents via pace. This fight will either end in a McGregor victory by knockout or Nurmagomedov via unanimous decision, and the UFC certainly hopes it’s the former. Oct. 6 is McGregor’s best chance to catch the usually stoic Nurmagomedov emotional and unprepared for his striking expertise. That won’t be the case in a potential rematch. A loss, and subsequent losses to Nurmagomedov, would send McGregor spiraling, reliant on wins over less notable opponents to maintain his reputation. He may be the most electric champion in UFC history, but he has yet to defend his belts like other great champions.
A win, however, would allow McGregor to defend the belt and set into motion a rematch — and potential trilogy — of the biggest fight in company history. As it stands today, White claims UFC 229 is expected to sell a record-shattering 2 million PPV buys, if not more. The current record, for Nate Diaz vs. McGregor 2, is 1.6 million. And as we know, the badder the blood, the better the business in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.