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After nearly a year of trash talk, a bizarre media tour and more twists and turns than anyone could have predicted, the fight that was meant to be impossible is now less than a week away. UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor (21-3 MMA) will make his professional boxing debut against the undefeated, 15-time world champion Floyd Mayweather (49-0) at T Mobile Arena on August 26th, in what will likely be the biggest combat sports event in history.
The fight marks a turning point for the UFC, who have broken convention in allowing McGregor to compete outside the octagon.
In the past, when champions wanted to ply their craft in other promotions, or try their hand in other combat sports, the UFC has responded swiftly and with force. When then heavyweight champion Randy Couture retired from the UFC in 2007 to pursue a superfight with Fedor Emilianenko, the UFC wasted no time in filing for an injunction to prevent from doing so, eventually forcing him to re-sign with the promotion after spending half a million dollars in legal fees. Likewise, when Anderson Silva expressed a desire to venture into boxing to fight ageing legend Roy Jones Jr, the UFC made sure it didn’t happen.
But that was then, and this is now. In the WME era, the UFC is motivated by short-term financial gain more than anything else, and McGregor is used to defying the odds both in and outside of competition. When his kryptonite was supposed to be wrestling, he TKO’d former NCAA All American Chad Mendes on three weeks notice. When incumbent featherweight champion Jose Aldo was supposed to chew him up with leg kicks and deadly counterpunches, the Irish sensation left him stiff on the canvas with the first punch he threw. When the UFC ordered him to defend his featherweight belt against Frankie Edgar, he instead took a detour to fight Nate Diaz twice at welterweight before beating Eddie Alvarez for the lightweight title at Madison Square Garden – holding the entire 145lb division in limbo for over a year while doing so.
So in one way, this is all par for the course; McGregor does what McGregor wants to do, and he wanted to fight the greatest boxer of his generation and make US$100M in the process. In all likelihood, he gets handed a loss by “Money”, and then laughs all the way to the bank before returning to defend his 155lb title in the octagon. Everyone including the UFC makes a killing, and everything goes back to the way it was. Right?
Wrong. That’s not how McGregor works, and the UFC know that.
If the “Notorious” does the unthinkable and upsets Mayweather, he will have no reason to return to the UFC and fight for 10% of what he could make in the boxing ring. Unless Dana White & Co finally accede to his demands for an equity stake in the promotion, it’s likely he negotiates a mammoth pay rise – one that could destroy the current revenue sharing model of 85/15 (in favour of the promotion) – or stays in the boxing ring, where the coverage of the Ali Act likely prevents the UFC from enforcing their contract with him.
If he loses, there are more variables, but in my view the result is still the same. Unless he gets KO’d – unlikely given Mayweather’s risk averse style and lack of stoppage victories – a “grudge match” against former sparring partner-turned-media-critic Paulie-Malignaggi is still likely to sell many more PPVs than McGregor vs the winner of Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee (who fight for the interim lightweight title in October). As the A-side, McGregor will be pulling in over 50% of that revenue, and although he might feel the itch to return to an environment where can throw spinning head-kicks again, I’d bargain that it’s not enough to make him walk away from a $50M payday. The UFC will be faced with the same decision: exponentially increase his fight purse or PPV share, or watch their most valued asset sell out stadiums without their involvement.
Of course, it’s possible that McGregor is paving the way for his own combat sports promotion to eventually begin putting on MMA shows and representing fighters – at which point the Irishman may choose to retire from competition win or lose. I don’t think it happens just yet, but McGregor’s flirted with retirement before, and has no intentions of competing where the physical risks outweigh the monetary rewards. With $100M in his back pocket, and a myriad of other business endeavours that don’t come with the risk of head trauma, it’s not beyond the pale that the next time we see McGregor after the fight it’s as the president of “McGregor Promotions”.
Either way, the days of Conor McGregor being just another guy on the UFC’s roster are long behind.
There’s just no coming back from May-Mac.