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Following Conor McGregor’s rampage on Thursday in Brooklyn, New York, a straightforward narrative emerged: The wild Irish superstar is spinning out of control, sinking his career and life. There is of course reason for McGregor and his fans to be concerned about the legal fallout from what he did. He will assuredly face repercussions in both civil and criminal proceedings, presenting a series of outside-the-cage obstacles to deal with in the short term. Make no mistake, however: The spectacle boosts McGregor’s marketability. Once he takes care of the legal peril in front of him, his career is stronger than it has ever been.
This is an uncomfortable truth. Those writing about McGregor’s downfall surely would prefer to view the world as a just one. The wanton disregard McGregor showed for the physical well-being of those in the bus should rightfully be a problem for his career and his marketability. However, we do not live in a just world. Often, people profit from their own misconduct. We should not let our hope that this be not so distract from our sober analysis of whether it is.
MMA remains a sport fueled by pay-per-view. Unlike television sports which only need to maintain a consistent level of interest in order to retain viewers, pay-per-view constantly needs to capture the public imagination. It’s a boom-or-bust business and that has become more of the case in recent years. McGregor did not rise to the heights that he did because he was a good public citizen or because he was viewed as a remarkably kind-hearted individual. It was because he made himself larger than life.
The display at the Barclays Center made McGregor seem more larger than life than ever. What kind of person gathers a mob of supporters to attack a bus with projectile weapons? It’s something so far out of ordinary that it’s hard for even those disgusted by it to turn away. It made for incredible video, as it was televised throughout the day and framed McGregor as somebody who could do absolutely anything.
The sense that a fighter is capable of anything and that you thus have to tune in whenever he fights is a proven formula. Mike Tyson most famously became an even bigger star and bigger draw as he became an out-of-control maniac. He could have meant even more at the box office if he weren’t deteriorating as a fighter while this was going on. This is a universal truth about stardom; it doesn’t apply simply to fighters. The wild spectacle of McGregor in New York was eerily similar to a friend of Tyson’s, Tupac Shakur, as he faced criminal charges in that city in 1994. Shakur ended up behind bars, but he exited jail as a far bigger superstar than he had ever been before.
McGregor is well aware of how this all works. It’s why he did it in the first place. McGregor certainly appears to have developed a stronger sense of entitlement over time, but he is also clearly aware that he can benefit from acting in a reckless manner. He didn’t attack the bus because he has lost his sanity; it was a gamble driven by hubris, ambition and of course a dislike of Khabib Nurmagomedov. McGregor has always been a risk taker and this incident was a gamble, just like the Floyd Mayweather boxing match was a gamble. McGregor’s risks have generally paid off, so he’s going to need to get burned to pull back.
After what McGregor did, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has received criticism in some circles for enabling McGregor. Certainly, the UFC’s willingness to bend its rules for McGregor in terms of matchmaking and the way it has handled titles has led the SBG Ireland superstar and other fighters to seek preferential treatment more often. However, McGregor’s wildness has been rewarded more by fans than by promoters. He knows he gets more media coverage and attention, which leads to fans taking more of an interest in him and tuning into his pay-per-views in larger numbers. He pushed the boundaries of what he can get away with by attacking the bus. The American legal system will bite back; fans are unlikely to. At worst, McGregor becomes more of a villain to some and they tune in to see him lose, just like McGregor’s backers tune in to see him win.
Of course, in order for McGregor to continue to thrive, he needs to be able to continue to focus on his fighting ability. If too many distractions develop and he deteriorates as a fighter because of that, it will eventually catch up with him at the box office. If, on the other hand, he can still fight at an elite level, the happenings before UFC 223 will work to his promotional benefit when he’s getting ready to return to competition. His detractors will have to seek solace in the courtroom because it’s not going to come at the gate.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.