Opinion: MMA Stardom and Conor McGregor’s Angle on the Future

By Danny Acosta Dec 3, 2015

Editor's note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

Cash is king in prizefighting: the bigger the purse, the bigger the star seizing it. That is UFC 194 headliner Conor McGregor’s ethos ahead of challenging featherweight champion Jose Aldo on Dec. 12 in Las Vegas, and the brash Irishman is making sure everyone knows he’s cash’s king.

It’s not a new approach to the fight game, but McGregor being the most poised and innovative talker in the Ultimate Fighting Championship has powered his star to unprecedented heights before he meets Aldo in their highly anticipated fight at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. His 6-0 record inside the Octagon has been characterized by feverish promotional fare thanks to his naming Aldo as chosen enemy from day one. Advancing to 7-0 and becoming the second featherweight champion in UFC history would set the stage for the most riotous post-title fight moment and serve as a marker for what spoils combatants can earn from that point forward. It might be true for Aldo, too, but McGregor stands out as the loudest about it already.

The 27-year-old McGregor claims his acquired stardom lines the silk pockets of his custom suits with more money than even the most established legacy champions. He cashed in his comprehensive sell most recently at UFC 189 on Fourth of July weekend. He was meant to face Aldo but ended up stopping late replacement Chad Mendes with punches in the second round, bringing in a stateside MMA record 7.2 million gate through 16,000-plus fans. According to the promotion, the event cleared one million pay-per-view buys, making McGregor the top male draw in the sport. Thus, the UFC’s uptick in numbers for 2015 can be attributed in large part to McGregor, who will fall in that range or above for the upcoming Aldo showdown. It has been the best UFC year in roughly a half decade -- enough time for the sport’s dynamics to rush toward the evolution McGregor is observing in his bank account.

Perhaps nothing suggests this more than McGregor’s decision via Instagram to post financial details surrounding his upcoming title bout opposite Aldo, a champion who has not lost a fight in more than 10 years. McGregor not so subtly declares he is the UFC and bigger than the UFC all at once. Stars draw money -- that’s why they’re held in high regard -- so McGregor forges ahead touting that his star is unlike any other. From Tito Ortiz to Jon Jones, the UFC has shunned top fighters eclipsing the organization’s three-letter brand. The Instagram post seems to be a pre-emptive pushback at that.

If McGregor topples Aldo, it seems feasible that he will see his demand as significant enough for a “McGregor Promotions”-type entity, forcing the UFC to work with him rather than the other way around. He points at the numbers -- win or lose -- and declares they don’t lie. Citing 200 million dollars in six months is no joke, if he’s anywhere in that ballpark. It’s deliberate. It at least demonstrates to all other fighters how much the UFC stands to profit from them, allowing them to decide for themselves if they believe they aren’t getting their proper share, because McGregor is obviously self-aware about his worth. All of that is in McGregor’s rearview mirror, though. He views himself as the pack leader, and until this point, he has hijacked the promotion enough to prove right about it.

Winning is a prerequisite for negotiating power. Everything in McGregor’s grand vision of drawing equivalent to Floyd Mayweather Jr. or Manny Pacquiao money per fight -- as he stated at this week’s UFC 194 media luncheon -- depends on it. McGregor has a crackerjack box belt for an interim title, but if he becomes undisputed champion, his refusal to wear Reebok following UFC 189 carries more weight, especially if his defiance continues going forward. Like a true shot caller, he’s trying to acquire enough money to call his own shots.

McGregor’s success stems from his me-against-the-world mentality. That’s why he’s drawing lines in the sand before there’s a backlash against him. What fighters earn related to the company was a heated subject for former light heavyweight champion Ortiz. It reared its head when UFC President Dana White said Jones and his coach Greg Jackson “murdered” UFC 151 in 2012. What value a fighter provides the UFC compared to what the organization believes fighters owe it has been specifically cited by former welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre as a reason why he’s not currently doing business with White. Aldo discussed it in his Reebok deal critiques and media back-and-forth with White. That means three of the four greatest champions in UFC history were recently involved in significant public squabbles. Few, if any, are immune to run-ins with the brass; McGregor is simply standing his ground to become a juggernaut should it ever turn against him.

The most impressive part of McGregor’s money train is that its trajectory is equivalent to a Julio Cesar Chavez or Oscar De La Hoya small-statured, outsized pay-per-view draw. That’s his contribution to elevating the lower weights from the establishing status set by Aldo, B.J. Penn and Urijah Faber. Former titleholder and current no. 1 bantamweight contender, Dominick Cruz, watched boxer Tyson Fury upset Wladimir Klitschko on Nov. 28 and tweeted some interesting thoughts on the subject of prizefighter pay when comparing boxing to MMA.

Already the most profitable draw below 170 pounds in MMA history, McGregor is upending all the sport’s current notions about what MMA fighter pay should look like. As a lower-weight fighter, he’s pushing for the heavyweight paydays to which Cruz alluded.

McGregor’s Instagram post is the largest drop in the bucket of fighters pressing monetary issues publically in a time where more alternatives for them are popping up. It’s no coincidence. Viacom-backed Bellator MMA under Scott Coker’s regime has reignited the landscape’s potential to court name fighters away from the Octagon. It came to mind immediately once Benson Henderson fought out his UFC contract on Nov. 28 in Seoul, rendering him the biggest free agent in the sport. He has vowed to test the free agent market. Should he defect from the UFC to Bellator, it advances free agency: Unlike perennial contender Phil Davis, Henderson is a former UFC champion. If Henderson remains with the UFC, he will at least have had the opportunity to test his market value with various organizations. Korean promotion Road Fighting Championship publically offered Henderson an unspecified contract worth $200,000, per an MMAJunkie report.

Singapore-based One Championship and Japan’s newest promotion, Rizin Fighting Federation, have also emerged as options. Muhammad Lawal, a Bellator light heavyweight, will competing in a Rizin grand prix later this month, and should he emerge from the eight-man tournament as the winner, he will be half a million dollars richer for it. That monetary grab drastically alters the landscape, even if it requires more output in a rougher environment. Plenty of fighters would like the option to do so and also prefer the ability to pursue sponsors, as opposed to looking into which Reebok pay tier they fall. This all amounts to leverage for fighters when negotiating -- something they have lacked in recent times.

If the UFC wants to maintain its industry-leading standard, McGregor’s money-driven actions posit he must be compensated like a top athlete in all sports, the way Mayweather is in boxing, and not just the top UFC fighter.

The specter of Mayweather’s Money Team looms over MMA now. According to Jones’ recent MMAFighting.com interview with Ariel Helwani, Mayweather has broached the idea of Jones involving himself with TMT. If Mayweather sponsors or manages MMA fighters, he has enough combat sports clout to fundamentally alter how MMA’s elite operate in relation to the UFC. Factor in Al Haymon, Mayweather’s adviser and the architect behind Premier Boxing Champions, in a wild card role and it shifts even further.

The reason McGregor’s active role in MMA or Mayweather’s potential entry into it is so important is the fact that the rules are still being written. The sport is still up for debate and fighters can decide how much of a say they want in how it operates.

McGregor’s fast-living, luxurious persona seemingly started more than two years ago when a YouTube video surfaced of his trip in White’s Ferrari. The questions on this side of his ascent: Is McGregor in the league commissioner’s Ferrari or that of a team’s -- Team McGregor -- co-owner? Is he along for the ride or waiting for his chance at the driver’s seat?

Danny Acosta is a SiriusXM Rush (Channel 93) host and contributor. His writing has been featured on Sherdog.com for nearly a decade. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @acostaislegend.

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