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No such thing as bad publicity for UFC as McGregor makes swift return from long hiatus

The MMA organisation should spare us the lip service about codes of conduct when their stars step out of line.

IN THE AFTERMATH of his attack on a bus carrying UFC fighters back in April, an imminent return to mixed martial arts for Conor McGregor seemed a remote prospect.

Having already been absent from the octagon for a year-and-a-half, the potential implications of McGregor’s transgression looked likely to relegate MMA to the bottom of his list of priorities.

Boxing: Mayweather vs McGregor-Weigh Ins Dana White with Conor McGregor at the weigh-in for McGregor's boxing bout against Floyd Mayweather. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

As his star pupil was led from a New York Police Department precinct in handcuffs, UFC president Dana White cut a forlorn figure when addressing the issue publicly.

With fighters sustaining injuries as a result of McGregor’s rampage, the UFC fight card scheduled for later that week was robbed of several bouts. White could justifiably feel aggrieved.

“This is the most disgusting thing that has ever happened in the history of the company,” he assured us.

But Dana White has been in the business long enough to ensure that the bigger picture is never obscured.

Instead of minimising the international coverage of such a seemingly embarrassing episode, White appeared in front of every microphone and camera in his vicinity in a vain attempt to convince the audience that the future was uncertain for McGregor and the UFC.

White’s media ubiquity would have been akin to Joe Schmidt granting one-on-one interviews to everyone from RTÉ TV to Connemara Community Radio if a member of the Irish rugby team fell foul of the law.

“Was just with Dana White,” ESPN’s Brett Okamoto tweeted at the time. “[He] called it the most despicable thing in UFC history. I asked him if he wants to be in business with Conor McGregor anymore, he said, would you?”

Lo and behold, just four months later McGregor is back in the game. After escaping from Brooklyn Criminal Court with a slap on the wrist, his punishment for apparently bringing shame on the UFC was to be catapulted straight into what the organisation is (again!) describing as the biggest fight in its history.

When it was announced at a press conference in Los Angeles on Friday night, the big screen on the stage behind White displayed a promo video which centred around footage of “the most disgusting thing” in UFC history. Presumably the UFC’s video production team were sacked en masse afterwards for bringing the organisation into disrepute.

While they were never likely to show McGregor the door, his value to the company has evidently allowed him to operate under a different set of rules to the one that saw Paul Daley ejected from the UFC for punching an opponent after the bell in 2010.

For those who possess a genuine passion for the sport of mixed martial arts, the return of one of its greatest exponents can only be a positive development. Strip away the superfluous extras that are attached to the McGregor phenomenon and you’re ultimately left with a fighter of outstanding ability whose MMA bouts remain unmissable.

However, the scheduling of his fight against lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov for 6 October raises a myriad of questions over the authenticity of the UFC’s claims to covet mainstream acceptance for a sport which continues to suffer from an image problem in the eyes of the many observers who doubt its legitimacy.

Such abandonment of ethics isn’t confined to McGregor. Last month, Brock Lesnar was welcomed back to the octagon as a returning hero after a two-year absence. That the result of his last fight — a win over Mark Hunt — was later overturned due to Lesnar testing positive for a banned substance was a minor detail in the UFC’s narrative.

It has proven to be a significant inconvenience for the current ownership that Conor McGregor has only fought twice for the UFC since the company changed hands two years ago. Having to contend with their biggest asset remaining dormant for so long hasn’t been conducive to their plans to recoup the $4.2 billion they handed over in July 2016.

In that context, successfully portraying itself as a sporting organisation to be taken seriously is merely a bonus for the biggest show in MMA. Credibility only matters once profitability isn’t compromised.

The UFC are free to look after their affairs as they see fit, but ideally they’ll spare us the lip service about codes of conduct being adhered to when their stars step out of line.

It may have been a long hiatus for Conor McGregor, but the swiftness of his return since the bus attack tells you everything you need to know about whether there really is such a thing as bad publicity for the UFC.

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About the author:

Paul Dollery

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