Conor McGregor is not retiring. He is flexing his muscles. Not his literal skeletal muscles of course, but the muscles of fame, fortune, notoriety, and top-draw status. He is involved in a run-of-the-mill contract dispute with the UFC. I know what the sources say, I know that they are well connected, but they are being misled. I know that yesterday, and today, and even for the foreseeable future, the Notorious camp is dug into their “pay me or I won’t fight” foxhole. Probably with serious plans to stay there for as long as it takes. But the stalemate will end eventually. Conor McGregor has not fought his last fight for the UFC. He certainly hasn’t fought his last MMA fight. He’s too good, too brash and egotistical, and most importantly, has too much earning potential, for himself and for the company.
The 27-year-old saw his meteoric rise finally stalled by a loss to Nate Diaz, but in the grand scheme of things that fight didn’t mean all that much. It was at a weight neither really belongs at, had no title implications, and did nothing to diminish the intrigue for potential rematches (like the original UFC 200 main event) or even bookings against other high-profile opponents. It was a fun fight that sucked more casual fans into the ranks and appealed to the die-hards for the fact that it was a nod to the past where title pictures and weight-classes meant less than great competition did. While Conor McGregor lost the fight, it was a huge win for the UFC in that everybody was talking about the perceived “upset”.
Fast forward to yesterday, and in a somewhat cryptic tweet, Conor McGregor announces his “early retirement” his coach co-signs with a “that was full while it lasted” of his own and the MMA world is whipped into a frenzy trying to figure out what was going on. Dana White went on Sportscenter and acknowledged that there was indeed some trouble with the favorite son of Ireland, and that he’d been pulled from the main event of the UFC’s historic 200th PPV show. Of course this is a less-than-ideal situation for the organization, but I can hardly think of a better scenario for Conor and the other fighters on the UFC roster. Instead of just one man getting all of the attention and marketing dollars, now the conversation centers on any of a half-dozen potential replacements. The subtext of fighters getting more money and demanding what they are worth is unavoidable, and while it likely won’t effect anybody on MY personal pay-scale, it encourages yet another look at sharing a fair slice of the huge financial pie.
For Conor himself the move is controversial, maybe foolhardy, but ultimately, it’s just another extremely noteworthy moment in a career that has already created quite a legacy on the MMA scene. No such thing as bad publicity. The adage is true in nearly every area of life, but nowhere is it more prevalent than in the entertainment business. Conor will get his money, he will be paid what he is worth at some point. The fact that he has the gall to demand it now and potentially bypass five-million (ish) dollar pay day is remarkable. Conor is one of a VERY select few in the industry who could actually even think about doing something like this. The harsh fact is that most fighters in the biz need the money, so they have to fight for what they are offered. Conor’s earnings have likely outpaced his lavish spending for now. It won’t always be that way, so he will be back, but in the meantime a very important line has been drawn in the sand.
For the UFC, this is not as disastrous as some might think. In McGregor, the UFC raised an aggressive breed of dog, rewarded that dog for barking loud and for biting. All the while ignoring the possibility that at some point the teeth might be turned on the hand that feeds, so to speak. Now there is dissent between the brass and the man that they handed the keys to the kingdom. The company hasn’t gotten where it is today with stupid people in charge. They will learn from this and perhaps stop putting all eggs in only one or two baskets. They will see what happens when too much faith and financial stock is placed in just a select few commodities. There are plenty of stars ready to shine in the UFC. The brightest one right now, despite a recent loss, is burning extra hot. The UFC is feeling the effects, but it’s all a short term problem. In the end, the company, Conor, the entire roster, and the sport will be better for this. A fighter’s union is not likely to ever happen, but somebody this important taking this kind of stand can only create a positive outcome for the fighters that want and need better compensation.
Nobody is a victim of the UFC’s thrifty spending on contracts, we all sign them willingly and agree to fight for what is offered. The UFC is not a victim of Conor McGregor’s ego or greed, they’ve been willing participants in building him up and turning him into a self-proclaimed fight god. Conor is taking a very personal stand that could and should have a much broader effect on the way the UFC handles its marketing, its negotiating, and its handling of fighters as commodities. I believe it’s going to work out in the end, as a benefit to all parties. And the fans will win too, because they’ll see Conor’s “comeback” fight sooner than later. Hopefully in his true weight-class at 145. Hopefully with a belt on the line. And hopefully on a fight card where everyone top to bottom has been compensated more fairly and that has been marketed as more than just the McGregor show.