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McGregor Promotions may never exist, even though it’s as if we’re already living it every time Conor McGregor speaks into a microphone.
It’s no wonder the UFC 196 press conference is still at MMA’s forefront after a full week. The McGregor Show dominates everything in its sphere. The Ultimate Fighting Championship has notoriously been anti-co-promotion since it sent Chuck Liddell to Japan, saw Quinton Jackson stop Liddell and then never hosted Pride Fighting Championships star Wanderlei Silva in return, as promised. Yet from within the UFC’s ranks, the “Notorious” Irishman seems to be forcing the UFC’s hand at co-promoting with him rather than the UFC promoting him like it does every other fighter in the company.
It’s easy to read between the lines during McGregor’s shtick and see the specific strokes he paints with his brilliant verbal brush.
“Business is phenomenal,” said McGregor, who was fashionably late to the presser. “All you have to do is look back at the last year for myself and the company.”
It’s no mistake the 27-year-old star put himself before the organization. He does it with every move. McGregor continued painting himself as a partner with the UFC rather than an employee or independent contractor, with references such as “our Brazilian TV partners Globo and Combate Sport.” Later, he lambasted UFC lightweight champ Rafael dos Anjos for allegedly turning his back on Brazil: “We have to book you a hotel room in your own country.”
The featherweight champion treats himself being a UFC partner like a foregone conclusion. It’s an expert move the UFC sometimes employs on its own -- assert something is true in public until the public believes it to be true. Rather than showing deference to the UFC, McGregor is in his own way defiant of the promotion. Make no mistake, if he topples dos Anjos and holds both the featherweight and lightweight titles, he’ll have two of the eight men’s championships in the UFC -- good for more bargaining power than ever before. It would be an unprecedented siege. Even in defeat to dos Anjos, McGregor is still the 145-pound titleholder and biggest pay-per-view star in the sport, and he will have plenty of space to call his own shots the way he is now.
Once the noise died down from McGregor’s loud UFC 196 press conference dress shirt, what stood out most was not his consistently beating dos Anjos to the verbal punch but a criticism that actually went much further. The poster for UFC 196 is not up to King Conor’s standards.
“This is a super fight,” he said. “Where are all the historic images? These are posters that will be looked back on long after it’s all said and done, and you have to look back on that absolute garbage.”
McGregor went on to claim he has the power to dip his head into the marketing department and axe whoever was responsible for it. UFC President Dana White standing at the lectern next to McGregor’s seat has the final say for posters and virtually everything else in the company. Why McGregor as interim featherweight champ at UFC 194 in December had that belt featured on that poster when UFC 197 undisputed featherweight champion McGregor does not is up to interpretation. White claimed it was because the featherweight title isn’t on the line against dos Anjos. True, but it’s cutting off the nose to spite the face. The selling point for McGregor versus dos Anjos is that it’s a champion-versus-champion showdown. There’s no way around it. The only other fight like it in UFC history, B.J. Penn-Georges St. Pierre at UFC 94 in January 2009, featured both belts on multiple posters. McGregor addressed it as an unacceptable oversight, and he’s right. The artistic representations for the UFC’s main events on its posters are not the attention grabbers they can be. They are standard fare, and these title fights deserve better.
The reason it’s such an important critique is because McGregor is peacocking to be promoting better than his promoter. The UFC’s biggest stars, from Ronda Rousey to McGregor, are self-made in that they would be stars regardless of who was promoting them. As a result, what many are expressing in the UFC’s Reebok Era is that they would rather be tailor-made than pre-packaged. Who’s to say Alistair Overeem, Josh Barnett or Aljamain Sterling couldn’t draft up better posters for their fights? Fighters are vying for better control of their brand as the market has shrunk around them because their window for earning potential is narrow. Big fights don’t grow on trees, and when it’s time to spearhead one, fighters are taking the initiative rather than being passive agents.
Otherwise, they end up “running around begging,” reeking of “desperation,” the way McGregor described potential adversary Frankie Edgar -- a quintessential good guy who can’t catch the title-shot break he has been verbally promised but never contractually granted on multiple occasions. It’s a promotional purgatory that reminds us that the UFC is concerned with McGregor and Rousey, and the drop off from there is vast. McGregor’s control highlights the situation for remaining fighters; they might get that control or at least better treatment elsewhere.
There’s a difference between being a name filling in the frantic UFC schedule rather than a name around which the UFC schedule revolves. It’s why McGregor slighted dos Anjos as a “free-TV fighter.” He made a distinction: McGregor is a pay-per-view commodity of the highest order that will never appear on free TV again, as opposed to dime-a-dozen fighters who fill in the blanks on Fox Sports 1. Not that dos Anjos is one of those fighters -- he’s far from it -- but you get the gist.
Watching the UFC scramble for main event replacements for heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum and former champion Cain Velasquez on Feb. 6 highlights its current conundrum. The UFC’s value hinges on its stars just as much as its stars rely on the company’s worth. The stars and champions are questioning the size of their take-home pie because they have realized that truth. Instead of canceling the original UFC 196, the UFC shifted it to broadcast partner Fox Sports 1 and made it a UFC Fight Night event. It was a Hail Mary save that demonstrates how fragile putting together an entire pay-per-view event can be without the adequate star power and appropriate fallbacks.
Why should Werdum risk the most valuable mantle in the world and potentially his health to satisfy a UFC card that was being underplayed anyhow? The precedent was set at UFC 151 in September 2012 by Jon Jones, who in a roundabout way was called a “sport killer” -- his trainer, Greg Jackson, was named that directly by White. That precedent has matured into fighters watching out for their best interest, whether loudly like McGregor or silently in the kind of deliberations that led to Werdum pulling his heavyweight title off the table for UFC 196.
UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson recently told Submission Radio he wants $2 million to jump in weight and challenge Dominick Cruz for the bantamweight title. It would be only the third fight of its kind in company history and the price tag isn’t out of question for the “super fight” sell, but it’s all something new in the UFC sphere. These combatants are conveying a willingness to fight out their contracts and test free agency in a way that’s never been available in the modern era. What hinders them from doing so the perception that fighters are mute about issues that matter in the court of public opinion, so when they speak up, they often receive a deaf ear. They are just supposed to sell fights when it’s time and shut up for the rest of it. It’s too late for that now. The floodgates are open.
The floodgates are so open they are starting to drown out nonsense. Take Sage Northcutt’s recent attempt on MMAJunkie.com to explain monetary meritocracy. He finds himself in an unenviable position, attempting to explain why his contract is bigger than most others in the UFC. He shouldn’t have to explain his pay, and anything he says about it will likely catch heat.
Northcutt asserted that he brings something different to the table, and that’s why he’s being compensated so well. The sharks in the UFC water began circling, waiting to drag the 19-year-old under water immediately. The trouble: It’s a massive half-truth. Aside from his super front flip celebration, everything he brings to the table has been done before. He has promising talent and the looks to draw casual fans, but the idea that his two fights have justifiably beefed up his bank account ahead of top-10 undefeated marketable fighters like Sterling offends meritocracy’s sensibilities. There’s nothing wrong with Northcutt being groomed to be a future star. Of course, it’s not a meritocracy, which is probably the best stance to take on it. The problem is that it’s Northcutt’s offensive-to-no-one, happy-to-be-here vanilla stance that is being rewarded. At a time in which fighters are struggling to understand why their Reebok-sponsored bank accounts might be far less full than they were on the open sponsorship market, it’s worth moving on to weightier opinions.
Look no further than the UFC’s resident American rebel Donald Cerrone to understand how the tide is turning. Cerrone was one of few to be fined for Reebok fight kit (read: uniform) infractions. It seems the star might go the Michael Jordan route and continuously violate the rules and deal with the consequences until they are no longer applicable to him. Cerrone posted a gem on the subject via Instagram and Twitter.
Expect these messages from fighters to keep coming down the social media and media pipelines. It’s a perfectly crafted response to the monotony of Reebok’s black-and-white or white-and-black scheme, which has drawn the most anger. It also suggests fighters of Cerrone’s caliber might forge their own path with mega-companies like Nike if they aren’t sold off to Reebok without consent.
It was a post so well done, McGregor might have the UFC’s marketing department enshrine it on a poster.
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.