When UFC Featherweight Champion Conor “Notorious” McGregor announced his retirement on Twitter, everyone smirked and wondered what the popular Irish fighter was up to now. If you thought that tweet was authentic the first time you read it, good for you, but it’s with almost 100% certainty that both UFC and MMA fans had more than a hint of skepticism that McGregor was just being, well, McGregor.
You may love or hate the guy, as their really is no in-between, but there is no denying, that Notorious is the UFC’s biggest star and losing him now would be a huge blow to the company. A company that has lost its fair share of major stars, over the past 5 to 8 years, that had crossover mainstream appeal (more on that in a bit). Plus, this would fly in the face of all McGregor ever talks about: making money. Why would he just leave all that cash on the table to pursue an early retirement? I don’t believe for a second that McGregor decided he has enough money. That is like me deciding I’ve had enough Reece Peanut Butter Cups for my lifetime, it just isn’t very believable.
As we were all waiting for McGregor to tweet “Gotcha”, UFC President Dana White appeared on ESPN’s SportsCenter and announced that McGregor had been pulled from his rematch with Nate Diaz, who made the Irishman submit in his last fight, at UFC 200. The reason was that McGregor refused to participate in promotional tours and advertising for the event because he didn’t want to leave Iceland where he was currently training, which proves the reports of McGregor being laser focused on avenging his loss to Diaz to the point of putting the actual fight in question (which may be a good reason not to come, but you at least have to show up. Even Marshawn Lynch was able to pull that off). Here is White’s quote from SportsCenter yesterday:
“He didn’t want to. He’s in Iceland training and he felt leaving right now would hurt his training and getting ready for this fight. But every other fighter on the card was coming. I get accused of coddling Conor all the time, but at the end of the day I respect Conor … but it doesn’t make you exempt for showing up for the press conferences and all the promotional stuff that we have to do. We spend a lot of money with this stuff, and you have to do it, man.”
And if White wouldn’t have pulled him from the fight we would have never heard the end of it from Nate Diaz, after White pulled his brother, Nick, from a title shot against then Welterweight champion, and one of the true greats, George St. Pierre in 2011 for the very same offense. Nate would have roasted White in the press without any mercy and, unlike the majority of the Diaz brothers’ weed fueled conspiracy shouting and psychobabble, he would have been right. And the last thing White wants to do is make either Diaz brother seem even a small bit coherent. And don’t think for a minute that the irony of a fight being put in jeopardy by someone other than a Diaz refusing to show up to do press is lost on me. The one time a Diaz brother acts professional, and McGregor has to go and ruin it. And for the record, I like the unprofessional Diaz brothers and would like to personally think Notorious for keeping them that way. I would really miss the Diaz brothers being the Diaz brothers.
One could assume that this is what prompted the tweet earlier in the day and in, possibly, this order of events: McGregor was informed by White he had to participate or he would be pulled from the fight, he refused to take part and White notified him he was pulled from the event, and Conor tweets his retirement in the most Conor way possible and putting White in a tough position on national television.
When questioned about Conor’s retirement declaration, White said “Only he can answer that question. I don’t know.”
If McGregor’s decision to call it quits is legitimate it puts the UFC in a tough spot. Besides Ronda Rousey, McGregor is the biggest mainstream star the organization has and his ascension helped soften the blow of Rousey’s knockout loss to Holly Holm earlier in the year. His brash bravado and artistic trash talking sold fight after fight. The man literally talked himself into a Featherweight title fight with one of the greatest UFC champions of all-time in Jose Aldo, and then proceeded to knock him out in 16-seconds, thus putting more coal in the engine of his hype train. The UFC found its new face and now that face has decided to, possibly, call it quits and taking all that hype (and money) he generates with him.
The biggest issue that faces the UFC now is that it has no viable mainstream stars. And before anyone starts naming all the great fighters still left in the UFC, I’m not implying that McGregor or Rousey were the only talented figures in the UFC, that would be ludicrous to say. The UFC still has a ton of talented and skilled fighters that to MMA fans, myself included, still enjoy watching compete. In fact, there is an argument to be made that McGregor isn’t even the most talented fighter on the current roster and instead is the best self promoter. Not taking anything away from him as an MMA artist, he is still a highly skilled fighter, as he did knock out a over zealous Aldo, but one would have to wonder if he would have got the title shot with Aldo if he didn’t jump the fence after beating Dennis Siver on live television to confront the former featherweight champ. He basically put the UFC in a position where they had no choice but to book that fight whether he deserved it or not. However, McGregor gave the UFC that mainstream appeal as he racked up appearances on everything from Sportscenter to Conan O’Brian. You can’t deny that, other than Rousey, McGregor helped put the UFC in a position to make new fans and grow their viewership. No one on the current roster has that appeal, at least at this moment in time. You even have to wonder if White pulled any fighter not named McGregor if the UFC would just put out a press release like they did on Lyota Machida instead of making an announcement on SportsCenter.
If McGregor goes through with this retirement, the UFC can only hope that Rousey returns to her dominating ways and puts the UFC back out into the mainstream media’s glare. If she can’t, the organization maybe stuck in a stasis like hold, they can still sustain their current level of success built by Notorious and Rowdy, but without a mainstream face they can’t move upward and grow their fanbase. The UFC has some great fighters, but none of the current champions have even punctured the mainstream bubble. That isn’t taking anything away from their accomplishments and, again, to a MMA fan all those guys are incredible to watch, but how many of them are going to put the UFC in a position to grow like McGregor or a return-to-form Rousey would. I love watching the technical wizardry of Flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson or the aggression of current Welterweight champion Robbie Lawler. I enjoy the storyline of two rivals that despise each other in a rubber match like we have with Dominick Cruz defending his Bantamweight title against Urijah Faber. And we can’t forget about Jose Aldo and Frankie Edgar, two of the greats, fighting for the interim Featherweight title. All of those are great for MMA fans. We, as MMA fans, know all these fighters are just as exciting to watch as McGregor, but the public at large does not. Even big sports fans usually don’t know much about MMA minus who they see on ESPN’s Top 10 or the guy sitting in the interview chair, which McGregor found himself in a lot. They just don’t know, or in some cases, care about anyone other than fighters they see crossing over into other media they consume, whether it be wrestling their kid watches on Monday nights or the morning show they watch while getting ready for work. It’s the way of the sports world and the UFC needs to be part of the cycle to grow their viewer base. We as UFC and MMA fans may not like that realization, but it’s not going anywhere and without a top flight mainstream ambassador for the sport the casual McGregor fan isn’t going to find other fighters to bring them back when there isn’t a Notorious to watch. The stars bring them in, but it’s the remarkable fighters those casual fans see for the first time thanks to big mainstream star that makes them true MMA fans and ordering fights without the top star even being on them. It also doesn’t help that the sport is now welcomed in New York, the last major market that outlawed MMA events, without a top star to set up a card around until Rousey’s possible return. However, a fight in Madison Square Garden, no matter who is on it, is a big enough deal by itself and could help lure that mainstream spotlight for a little bit longer.
The UFC does have one hope, other than Rousey, in returning former Lightweight champion Jon Jones. At one point he was the golden boy of the UFC and its next star that was poised to enter the mainstream sports conscience, but fell from grace after a brief stay in rehab due to cocaine use and following that up with a hit-and-run that involved a pregnant woman. Jones is now poised to be the interim champion if he beats Ovince Saint Preux at UFC 197 after champion Daniel Cormier dropped out due to injury. If Jones can win and set up a title fight against Cormier when he returns, the UFC has a story of a guy that lost his way and found his way back to the title in a division he once dominated. That is a story that mainstream media would eat up, but this all depends on Jones winning (which, as much as I love my former Tennessee Volunteer Saint Preux, Jones should be able to win) and truly proving he has his vices under control. I don’t know if the UFC can trust Jones to behave himself while he works himself into another long run as champion and pulling the mainstream spotlight back towards him. I never want any human being to have their life destroyed by addiction or behavior that is detrimental to realizing their full potential, but White has to be a bit nervous about the possibility of Jones being his key to a more mainstream audience. At this point, the UFC can only hope that Jones can return to his superstar status and find a way to stay in orbit this time.
This all returns us to whether or not McGregor is actually going to retire and take his popularity with him to relax on a tropical island. My vote this is all part of the McGregor Show. If it is indeed true, the UFC is going to survive without McGregor, just like it did with Chuck Liddell and GSP retired, Brock Lesnar going back to WWE, and Anderson Silva testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. And you can argue that all of the above achieved even more mainstream notoriety when they left the UFC than McGregor. Dana will find a new star or one will emerge while the UFC remains in traction as far as mainstream growth.
If all else fails, you could take some of the money that would have been used to pay McGregor and invest it in a Diaz brothers reality show.