Like him or not, Conor McGregor transcended the UFC like no fighter ever has. And don’t be surprised if he’s the last to do so.
McGregor is “The Notorious” unicorn of mixed martial arts in the 2020s. He’s the only man UFC president Dana White and the rest of the brass will confidently book to headline a pricey $69.99 pay-per-view event these days, without the added hook of a championship belt up for grabs.
When the Irishman steps into the octagon on Saturday night to face Dustin Poirier for a third time, as the centerpiece of UFC 264 (ESPN+ pay-per-view) from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, it will mark the fifth time he’s done so in a non-title bout, going all the way back to the first fight against Nate Diaz in March 2016.
Take those away, and you have to go back 6 ½ years to find the last time the UFC went forward with a planned pay-per-view headliner without a belt to fight over: middleweight legend Anderson Silva against cult MMA icon Nick Diaz — Nate’s big brother.
Sure, there was that time Yoel Romero missed weight for his scheduled middleweight title challenge against Robert Whittaker in June 2018, plus the February 2019 event when Whittaker was hospitalized hours before he was to defend the belt against Kelvin Gastelum that forced Silva and current 185-pound king Israel Adesanya to step into the headlining spot. (Does Whittaker have rotten luck or what?) But it’s not like the UFC got what it wanted on those nights.
And forget that BMF championship fight at Madison Square Garden two Novembers ago. Yeah, the belt was made up, and it holds about as much value as those interim titles that occasionally add the missing gold atop a premium-priced event, but they served their purpose of adding superfluous stakes.
A McGregor fight, though, needs no artificial sweeteners. Even when he’s gunning for a belt, he’s the center-ring attraction at the combat circus. Sport comes secondary to spectacle, even as he’s attained some highs on his own merit in the octagon.
But McGregor can’t keep this going forever. More likely, he won’t. The man’s got enough cash to buy a sizable stake in the UFC after selling his piece of the Proper No. Twelve whiskey brand in April he launched three years ago, reportedly for up to $600 million. It’s a wonder why he bothers with this face-punching hobby at all, so credit him that much that he’s even bothering to compete against arguably the best 155-pound fighter in the world just five months after Poirier put his lights out at UFC Fight Island.
If Poirier stops McGregor again and emerges the 2-1 winner of their trilogy — the Irisman won the first one in 2014 when both were up-and-comers at 145 pounds, a division down from Saturday’s contracted lightweight bout — you gotta wonder what would motivate the former “champ champ” of both the lightweight and featherweight divisions to put himself through another long training camp away from his life of luxury.
Does a third bout with Nate Diaz get him off the yacht? What would he even gain from another win against him? Would he really want to risk being the loser at the completion of both of his most noteworthy fight series?
Would you, if you had more than half a billion bucks?
Whenever McGregor walks away or loses enough drawing power — it happened to Mike Tyson’s pay-per-view pull eventually too, you know — that might be it for the UFC trusting a single man or woman to sell an event on charisma alone. Not unless YouTuber-turn-boxer Jake Paul goes from antagonist to partner in the UFC machine.
It’s just not as necessary to the UFC’s bottom line to create and promote megastars like McGregor anymore, not when ESPN pays the promotion a license fee up front for just the rights to exclusively sell the pay-per-view events. The UFC gets paid no matter how many or few fight fans pony up, according to John Nash of Bloody Elbow. Granted, they reportedly and expectedly make extra revenue for bigger events, like UFC 257’s McGregor-Poirier II in January that garnered 1.2 million purchases plus 400,000 internationally, according to Sports Business Journal’s John Ourand.
That’s gravy to the UFC in 2021. It’s delicious, decadent gravy, to be sure, but they already had the meat and potatoes. And that is what makes the UFC a consistent financial success that no longer worries much if its headlining champion isn’t resonating with casual fans like McGregor does.
Clearly, that’s a factor regarding the UFC’s inability to lock in the only heavyweight fight anyone in MMA really wants this year: champion Francis Ngannou vs. light heavyweight GOAT Jon Jones. In the leadup to Ngannou’s impressive March finish of Stipe Miocic to usurp the crown, the hype train for Jones’ long-awaited move to heavyweight was building steam. But once Ngannou won, all of a sudden Ngannou-Jones morphed into Ngannou-Derrick Lewis.
Money, and Jones’ apparent desire for more than the UFC wants to offer, looks to be a prime factor. So the masses grumbled about the missed opportunity while implicitly accepting that Ngannou-Lewis would happen later this year.
And then came last Monday’s bombshell report that, three months after winning the belt and the champ targeting a totally-normal, five-month gap between defenses, the UFC was moving forward with an interim title fight between Lewis and Ciryl Gane, who had won his ESPN+ event headliner just two days earlier.
It’s hard to read that as anything other than them needing Houston native Lewis to fight for a title in his hometown in August, with or without the actual champion there. That raised the tally to two title fights, with bantamweight queen Amanda Nunes defending against Julianna Pena, so it wasn’t even a case of an event lacking sparkly gold to promote.
Lewis-Gane is a quality fight. Plenty of fight fans would tune in to watch the hilarious, hard-hitting Lewis alone as he takes on one of the brightest prospects the division has seen in years, with or without an essentially-meaningless belt at stake. And there was a time when the UFC might have gone ahead without manufacturing a promotional trinket and put forth UFC 265: Lewis vs. Gane as a non-title headliner.
But that ship has sailed. And when McGregor casts off in his yacht, leaving the sport and the UFC behind, there won’t be any more such ships in the harbor.