“I’VE decided to retire young. Thanks for the cheese. Catch ya’s later”. In less than 140 characters via the medium of Twitter, Conor McGregor sent the world of MMA into meltdown with his shock ‘retirement’ announcement. The Ultimate Fighting Championship then announced it had pulled him from UFC 200 for failure to commit to promotional events and a battle as old as combat sports – promoter versus fighter – had begun again.
Few believed McGregor’s announcement and the very next day he un-retired. This behaviour only serves to fuel my long held suspicion that McGregor is modelling his MMA career on that of boxing megastar Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather. And who can blame him?
The UFC is by far the world’s leading, biggest and richest MMA promotion. No one else comes close and if they ever do, the UFC just snaps them up, closes them down and takes the cream of the fighters. For fight fans this is fantastic; it means that they have an alternative to boxing in which all of the top fighters fight under the same banner, there is only one genuine world champion per weight class and the best are forced to fight the best. There is no Mayweather–Pacquiao style contractual nonsense. It is this business model that has made the UFC so popular and financially successful.
For the fighters though, the single dominant promotion is not always a great thing. Because the UFC are the only genuine option if you want to be considered the best (and therefore pick up the most money); it means the UFC have a monopoly on the market and can set their own pay structure. It is hard for fighters to negotiate because what is the alternative? The case of the Reebok sponsorship deal highlighted this as many fighters were forced to give up more lucrative deals to fit into the company policy; it was either that or find somewhere else to fight.
This brings me back to Conor McGregor and how he might just be able to – and perhaps is already planning to – break the mould by following in Floyd’s gold plated footsteps (a path he has already started to tread). In Floyd’s early career, whilst exceptional in the ring, he fought to half empty crowds and picked up good, but not exorbitant, purses. Then Floyd got smart, transformed from fairly innocuous ‘Pretty Boy’ to trash talking braggart ‘Money’, he left his promotional comfort blanket (Top Rank), took control of his own destiny and his levels of fame and earning power went into another stratosphere. This was despite the fact that he actually became less exciting to watch.
Conor McGregor has used Mayweather inspired trash talk, financial boasting and backed this up with stellar performances in the Octagon to make him the number one attraction in the UFC. He draws bigger crowds than anyone else, makes more money than anyone else and has done it in a short space of time and in a weight division that is not usually considered glamorous. His only genuine UFC rival in terms of fame and fortune is Ronda Rousey. In terms of popularity and pay per view numbers, McGregor’s bad boy persona has been equally as important as his fighting skills. As good as he is inside the Octagon, Conor McGregor is not as good as Jon Jones is or Anderson Silva was, yet he has eclipsed both when it comes to the ‘cheese’. The UFC pay him so much because he makes them so much but, in truth, his popularity means he probably deserves even more.
So what of the retirement announcement, followed by hasty change of heart? There is a suggestion that McGregor’s initial decision to ‘retire’ comes following his attendance at in MMA event in Ireland recently where a fighter, Joao Carvalho, tragically died. I do not think this is strictly true but I do think it may have played a part in his thinking. Conor already knew how dangerous a sport like MMA could be and the risks it presents – every fighter, be it in boxing or MMA, knows. I therefore do not think that McGregor was suddenly worried about his safety and therefore quit.
My view is that Conor McGregor has really started to realise his worth and he wants the UFC to also recognise this and pay him more. Seeing another man die inside the cage would have hammered home to McGregor even more why he needs to make as much money as he can, as quickly as he can and reinforced his opinion of a fighters worth; fighters do risk their wellbeing and their lives and therefore they should make the most money, not the promoters. McGregor, who was in training for UFC 200, clearly felt the UFC were pushing him into doing promotional work that he didn’t need to do and refused. Whether he then quit first or the UFC dropped him from UFC 200 first is a little unclear, but what is clear is that the ‘retirement’ was a protest against his perceived poor treatment from the UFC. In his un-retirement statement, Conor made it clear he wasn’t happy with what he was being asked to do but also did state he would fight at UFC 200 if the UFC bowed to his demands.
As a protest/negotiation tactic/publicity tool, the retirement trick is one that Floyd Mayweather has pulled twice (and there is still speculation that his current third retirement will not be permanent). The idea is fairly simple; the biggest draw in the sport ‘quits’ prematurely, the fans clamour for a return, the promoters, TV companies and advertisers etc. miss their cash cow and they know a triumphant return will bring in more money than ever before. A negotiation dance then takes place and the fighter comes back for an even bigger purse than he otherwise would have got.
Conor McGregor will be banking on the fact that the UFC will miss him and his star power. He will hope the UFC comes back to him and either drops its promotional obligation demands or offers him more money. Maybe both. The problem that McGregor has that Mayweather didn’t is that there isn’t really a viable alternative at this stage to the UFC, but the UFC do have alternatives to McGregor. So far the UFC have held firm and McGregor is not slated to fight at UFC 200. By un-retiring so quickly it seems Conor has blinked first.
Yet there is perhaps another Mayweather inspired solution for McGregor. McGregor is, like Mayweather was in boxing, the biggest draw in MMA. Mayweather got himself some good advisers, brought himself out of his promotional contract, backed himself, promoted himself, picked his opponents himself and became the richest sportsman in the world by some distance. What if McGregor did the same? Conor McGregor could easily sell out an open air stadium in Ireland and probably in the UK fighting almost anyone, whether in the UFC or not. McGregor could sell the fight to a TV company of his choosing in the UK and America, he could pay an opponent and some undercard fighters more than they’d get in the UFC and he could pocket the profits instead of the UFC. Would it be a risk? Of course. Does this solution have it’s drawbacks? Without doubt – and as a fan, I would not want to see it happen. But would it allow McGregor more freedom and earning potential than he currently has? Yes.
In his meteoric rise through the UFC ranks, Conor McGregor has taken risks and backed himself. For the most part this strategy has worked brilliantly. The retirement announcement, change of heart and making demands of the UFC may have been done in a fit of pique or it may have been a calculated gamble by the flamboyant Irishman. My money (and I believe Conor’s) is on the new ‘Money’ making more money. By the end of 2016 Irish eyes will be smiling. Dana White might not be…