Elephant in the Room: How the UFC Deals with Legal Issues

By Patrick Auger Oct 29, 2019


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On Oct. 19, the New York Times reported that Ultimate Fighting Championship superstar Conor McGregor faced a second sexual assault investigation in Ireland, stemming from an alleged incident outside of a Dublin pub the previous week. The news came nearly seven months after the Times reported that the Irishman was arrested back in January as part of an investigation stemming from an alleged event in December at a hotel in the same city. Although “The Notorious” has not been charged in either case, both investigations are ongoing.

The 31-year-old has vehemently denied that the reports are tied to him, however, albeit indirectly. A publicist who works for the former “champ-champ” stated that he was “frequently the subject of rumors,” and “emphatically denies any report accusing him of sexual assault.” When asked about the allegations during a media scrum back in August of this year, UFC President Dana White stated that in conversations with McGregor, he was led to believe the accusations were a case of mistaken identity.

“I know zero about that,” White said after an episode of Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, “To be honest with you, the back-and-forth that I’ve had with him about that is that it’s not him, it’s somebody else, so I don’t know.”

To add to his legal woes, it was reported on Oct. 4 that “Mystic Mac” would be charged with assault as a result of punching a man in a pub who apparently refused a glass of McGregor’s Proper No. 12 Whiskey. A video of the attack went viral in mid-August of this year, and prompted McGregor to issue an apology during an interview with ESPN’s Ariel Helwani, in which he expressed remorse for his actions and stated that he would “get his personal life under control.” In the same Contender Series media scrum where he discussed the sexual assault allegations against the Irishman, White stated that he thought the MMA star “needed to do that,” and was happy McGregor addressed the issue on his own accord.

While McGregor may be the latest superstar to run into legal trouble while contracted by the promotion, he’s certainly not the first. UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones was famously involved in a hit-and-run incident of a pregnant woman back in April of 2015 that saw the youngest ever 205-pound champion stripped of his title and suspended nearly 15 months. This past year, after allegations of domestic violence and multiple viral videos of street fights, UFC legend B.J. Penn was pulled from what was supposed to be his final match in the company against Nik Lentz, with White saying, “he won’t fight again. That’s it. That’s a wrap.” Penn was officially released from the organization this past September.

It’s not just top-billing fighters that the UFC has to address either. Back in 2014, light heavyweight Thiago Silva was released by the company after he allegedly threatened his estranged wife with a gun and had a four-hour standoff with a SWAT team outside his home in Florida. In June of this year, UFC lightweight contender Desmond Greene was charged after he allegedly caused a 5-car pile-up that killed two women back in August of 2018 while being under the influence of alcohol and drugs. The promotion has even dealt with legal issues from its ring card girls, as Arianny Celeste was arrested for assault after allegedly kicking her then-boyfriend in the face back in 2012.

For the most part, the UFC has consistently maintained an “innocent until proven guilty” approach to these issues. Greene was allowed to fight in his hometown of Rochester, New York, this past May while the investigation of manslaughter charges was taking place, though the company has not released an official statement on Greene’s status with the UFC since his arrest. After charges were dropped against Celeste due to insufficient evidence, White stated that she was a good girl and the promotion “had her back 100 percent” in the matter. While promotional newcomer Greg Hardy has faced added scrutiny ever since signing with the MMA behemoth, given his past conviction of domestic violence against an ex-girlfriend in 2014, the charges were dropped and expunged from his record on appeal, with White stating that “ [Hardy] deserves to make a living…He’s paid his dues.”

If there is compelling evidence against the fighter or if they have been convicted of a serious crime, the UFC generally takes a hard stance of releasing or suspending them. In the cases of Jones and Silva, the promotion was swift in suspending and releasing the fighters respectively, making those decisions with little hesitation given the nature of the crimes. In Penn’s case, the company took a quieter approach by confirming his release to the media rather than announcing it as they had other situations, possibly in part to White’s personal relationship with the UFC hall of famer.

By following these strategies, the UFC is able to get the most out of their fighters’ notoriety. In the eyes of the law, Hardy has technically never been convicted of a crime, due to expungement, which gives the company plenty of ways to defend his signing. Jones’ antics have also caused a subset of fans to root against the light heavyweight champion, often making him the villain in compelling rivalries between Daniel Cormier and Alexander Gustafsson. McGregor throwing a dolly at a bus full of UFC athletes may have cost UFC 223 two bouts, but it helped further an immense hype behind the Irishman’s match against Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229.

As the UFC now looks how to handle McGregor’s most recent troubles, they know they will have to tread carefully. On Oct. 24, McGregor announced that he would make his Octagon return on Jan. 18, 2020, against an unnamed opponent. Whether that announcement is simply McGregor attempting to draw attention away from recent allegations and force the UFC’s hand, or the promotion actually has a bout lined up for the former featherweight and lightweight champion, remains to be seen. If McGregor does end up being charged in either case the UFC will be put in a tough spot, but rest assured they’ll have a plan, and may already be trying to prepare for that eventuality -- by focusing on the new lightweight kingpin. Advertisement

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