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Mixed martial arts fans got an extra helping of dessert this Thanksgiving when it was announced that Conor McGregor would make his Octagon return against Donald Cerrone at UFC 246 on Jan. 18 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The matchup comes after weeks of speculation that the former Ultimate Fighting Championship two-weight king would make his return to the cage against “Cowboy” in early 2020 when the Irishman announcement he’d be fighting in January at a press conference in Moscow this past October. Reports surfaced earlier this year that the pair were originally set to square off at UFC 239 during the promotion’s international fight week, however the bout never materialized. Although both men are staples of the 155-pound division, the contest will take place at welterweight, where Cerrone secured a first-round submission win over Mike Perry last November and McGregor avenged his loss to Nate Diaz in August of 2016.
“Mystic Mac” will return to the UFC following a year filled with numerous legal issues, both at home and abroad. In March of this year, the New York Times reported that the 31-year-old was under investigation for sexual assault in relation to an incident at a Dublin hotel in 2018, an accusation the MMA star has vehemently denied. In April the Irish superstar made headlines after being arrested for destroying a man’s phone in Miami, although charges related to that incident were dropped. On Oct. 4, McGregor was charged with assault over another incident in April where he punched an elderly pub patron who refused a glass of the Irishmen’s Proper No. 12 Whiskey. Less than two weeks later, “The Notorious” faced another sexual assault allegation, this time relating to an incident outside a Dublin pub.
Cerrone, on the other hand, has been quite busy in the cage. Since the rumored UFC 239 scrap with McGregor, “Cowboy” has gone 1-2 in the UFC’s lightweight division, securing a win over Al Iaquinta in May before losing back-to-back bouts against Tony Ferguson in June and Justin Gaethje in September. Living up to his mantra of “Anytime, anywhere, anyone,” the Jan. 18 fight with “Mystic Mac” will be Cerrone’s fifth bout in a 12-month time span, marking the fourth time the 36-year-old has accomplished such a feat. According to his manager Josh Jones, when the fight McGregor was officially announced, “Cowboy” stated, “Finally, I get my hands on him.”
Although Cerrone will, in fact, get to throw leather with the Irishman, it’s unlikely he’ll get anything close to the type of payday that used to come with that distinction. Since the UFC inked a new deal with ESPN this past May to make ESPN+ their exclusive pay-per-view provider, the buy rate for the promotion’s cards have supposedly taken a substantial hit, though confirming PPV buy numbers has become increasingly difficult following the switch to a lone distributor. While there is no doubt that a McGregor headlined card will still pull in bigger numbers than most other shows, UFC 246 will be a big test to see how much of a barrier to entry there is for ESPN+ when it comes to the casual fan.
Another factor to consider is that from fighters’ own admission, the dream of a big payday seems to have died. After an in-cage run-in with then-new heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier at UFC 226, Brock Lesnar was all but confirmed to compete one last time and challenge “DC” for the belt. That deal fell through, however, when Lesnar wanted a guaranteed flat fee for the match due to the drop in PPV buys caused by the new ESPN deal and the UFC refused to accept. It’s not just Lesnar who believes that pay-per-view percentage points generating life-changing income are a thing of the past, as even Cerrone himself has stated that he doesn’t expect a big check in his bout against McGregor.
“I don’t know about this payday talk,” Cerrone said in an interview with MMAJunkie this past May, “Everyone thinks you fight Conor, you get paid. We’re under contract, man. Now with the ESPN thing, the pay-per-view buys are already done…so it’s a big misconception. Conor might get paid. ‘Cowboy’ might get a little bump, but it’s not a $10 million night for me by any means.”
Cerrone’s assessment is most likely spot on. Even though fighters with bigger names will still bring in significant buys, how much of that goes to whoever steps inside the cage with them is unknown outside each individual athlete’s contract. As noted in new information discerned from the UFC anti-trust hearings this past August, these contracts can vary widely depending on the relationship the fighter has with the promotion, their perceived drawing power and how long they’ve been with the organization. While one could reasonably expect UFC 246 to surpass a million PPV buys, there is no telling how much of that will go to Cerrone and he will certainly make less money than before the new UFC/ESPN deal was in place.
As “Cowboy” goes on to mention in the interview, he believes that the real money now comes with a UFC title. The majority of fighter contracts have guaranteed pay bumps once an athlete becomes champion and given the higher probability of individual sponsorship and marketing spotlight that comes with the belt, he may very well be right. As the UFC stabilizes their income and the era of “money fights” seemingly comes to an end, it will be interesting to see where the promotion and its contracted fighters go from here. As Cerrone candidly puts it, he believes all roads lead to one thing -- a fighters union.