The return of the man the UFC couldn't afford to live without

Conor McGregor doesn’t need the fight game. But the fight game needs him, writes Jeremy Botter.

DESPITE WHAT DANA White trumpeted in public during his absence, Conor McGregor’s return to the world’s biggest mixed martial arts promotion was never a foregone conclusion.

UFC McGregors Return Conor McGregor, who fights Khabib Nurmagomedov in Las Vegas this Saturday night. Source: Seth Wenig

There were some (ahem) who believed he wouldn’t come back at all, especially after he collected an estimated $100 million payday for his boxing match against Floyd Mayweather a year ago.

And if he’d gone that route, who could blame him? $100 million is probably enough money to last McGregor a lifetime; his penchant for collecting things that are expensive might’ve eventually run the well dry.

But the savvy business moves McGregor began making early in his UFC run would’ve ensured a steady income for the foreseeable future. He didn’t need to come back. He doesn’t need the fight game. But the fight game needs him. The UFC needs him.

When Endeavor (then called WME-IMG) purchased the UFC for an eye-watering $4 billion in 2016, they were essentially gambling that the UFC’s next television deal would be a lucrative one. It seemed like a safe bet.

Live sports broadcast deals have skyrocketed in recent years, and are expected to continue trending upward as streaming platforms like Facebook and Amazon play larger roles in the live sports landscape. Endeavor borrowed heavily to purchase the UFC, and they had astronomical payments to make.

In order to secure a lucrative new TV contract, the UFC needed superstars. They needed the kind of box office attractions that reach beyond the casual UFC audience and draw in the viewers who only tune in a few times each year.

But the stars began vanishing. Ronda Rousey was beaten around the face and neck area by Amanda Nunes and summarily drummed out of the UFC. The promotion attempted to turn Cody Garbrandt, neck tattoos and all, into their Next Big Thing, but TJ Dillashaw put an end to that notion.

McGregor won the lightweight title on the UFC’s first event at Madison Square Garden in New York City in November 2016. The win made him the first UFC fighter to hold two divisional championships at one time.

It was a moment that catapulted McGregor to stratospheric levels of stardom; it also gave him a level of power and control unmatched by even the biggest stars in UFC history.

MMA 2016 - UFC 205 - New York McGregor made UFC history in his most recent bout in the octagon. Source: Jason Silva

The UFC has never taken a back seat to one of its stars. It is a promotional model lifted directly from World Wrestling Entertainment and used to great effect over the past 15 years: the UFC brand always came first. Fighters are disposable. New stars can always be created.

But McGregor was different.

For the first time, a fighter on the UFC roster was completely in control of his career. McGregor, sensing a life-altering moment in the offing, began a promotional mating dance with Mayweather.

Historically, when one of his athletes starts talking about crossing over into boxing while under UFC contract, Dana White would quickly and publicly put the kibosh on the idea.

He tried to do the same thing with McGregor, but nobody believed him, partially because White’s relationship with the truth has become a running joke and partially because everyone knew the UFC needed McGregor in a bad way. If he wanted to fight Mayweather, he was going to fight Mayweather.

The August 2017 loss to Mayweather did nothing to tarnish McGregor’s value to the UFC, especially after Jon Jones — the man considered the promotion’s biggest star with Rousey gone and McGregor on the sidelines — was busted yet again by USADA and suspended.

At that point, the UFC had no true box office attractions. They had stars, but they didn’t have the kind of superstars that light up the box office.

They needed McGregor, and they needed him badly.

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Nothing could get in the way of their attempts to bring him back into the fold; they would acquiesce to demands they used to laugh off. They’d make him a promotional partner. They would give him a pass on that whole bus incident thing in New York City. They’d feature his whiskey as the title sponsor of events he headlined.

Whatever Conor McGregor wanted, he got.

UFC McGregors Return Khabin Nurmagomedov, Dana White and Conor McGregor at a recent UFC 229 press conference. Source: Seth Wenig

And now, he’s back. McGregor faces Nurmagomedov on Saturday night in Las Vegas. He’ll make far more money than any other UFC fighter has ever made for a single fight. He’ll make more in one night than all but a tiny handful of fighters have made in their entire careers.

There’s a good chance McGregor will find himself under Nurmagomedov on the canvas for 25 minutes and lose badly. Win or lose, he may never fight again. But it doesn’t matter, because for at least one night, the biggest star in the sport is back. MMA is exciting again. There’s something to genuinely look forward to.

And the UFC is disrupting their entire business model for one man. What choice do they have? When that one man is Conor McGregor, you do everything you can to get him back in the fold. You move heaven and earth to make it happen.

You swallow your pride and give him what he wants, because even at his most difficult and demanding, McGregor is still the king of the sport. Nobody else is even close.

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