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.
I’ll admit it: The title of this column has a bit of hyperbole involved. The Ultimate Fighting Championship can definitely afford to see Conor McGregor lose at UFC 202. It’s not like the ship will sink if McGregor loses his second fight in a row against Nate Diaz on Aug. 20. The sport has survived far worse.
McGregor remains the last superstar standing at this point, with the world’s largest MMA promotion having recently sold for a whopping $4 billion. Whether the UFC wants to admit it or not, the sport is about the stars, not the fights. The fights are what the hardcore fans come for, and the stars are what draw in outsiders. They are the reason the UFC had so much value over the past year, and the short lifespan of stars in the UFC is the reason why the Fertitta brothers were compelled to sell in the first place.
This has been a tough year for the organization’s biggest stars. From Jon Jones’ indiscretions and Brock Lesnar’s return being overshadowed by a pair of failed drug tests to Ronda Rousey’s extended hiatus and the title picture being as unpredictable as ever, the UFC has to hang its hat on one man as its biggest draw. McGregor is the reason why people have called UFC 202 the real UFC 200. His unique blend of personality and in-cage ability has seen him take the sport to new heights, while his bigger-than-life persona has landed him on talk shows and magazine covers. When “Mystic Mac” talks, everyone listens, which is why another loss to Diaz would be a tough pill for the UFC to swallow.
This is no knock on Diaz whatsoever, but McGregor’s brief run as the sport’s biggest attraction has overshadowed everyone not named Rousey. To be completely honest, Diaz only became bigger because of McGregor. Obviously, part of this can be blamed on the UFC and how it chooses to push its talent. Diaz has a unique personality that completely fascinates onlookers. For whatever reason, the UFC has yet to figure out how to push the Diaz brothers further into the mainstream. They deserve it, but I digress.
McGregor may be the featherweight champion, but a second loss to Diaz will drastically hurt his stock. Although he’ll still have the title, the fact remains that “money fights” reign supreme, and the money will go right out the window with another loss to Diaz. The ripples throughout the UFC would be felt through multiple divisions. How much stock do you put into a featherweight champion who has been thumped twice by a fighter not ranked in the top three in the lightweight division? Make any excuse you want, but a loss is a loss and the wind will be out of McGregor’s sails if he falls to Diaz again. With those stakes comes a lot of mainstream exposure. The UFC isn’t a sport that is covered regularly by media outlets. Even sports outlets pay the UFC little mind, unless one of the champions or a star is competing. McGregor has held court even when he’s not fighting.
Should McGregor fall, would he still be considered the biggest star in the UFC? If not, to whom does that title go? Don’t say it doesn’t matter because stars bring attention to the sport. McGregor and Rousey have brought more widespread attention to MMA in the past two years than just about anyone else has during the sport’s lifespan. One of them is on an extended hiatus that has us questioning if she’ll ever be back. The other is McGregor.
Although losses in MMA don’t hurt a fighter as much as they do in boxing, McGregor’s bombastic but short-term legacy can’t afford to take another hit. His rise has been built on a massive ego, well-played trash talking and, most importantly, winning. No matter how you slice it, if the Irishman loses, he won’t carry the same amount of clout he did when he tore through the featherweight division and took a man who had been undefeated for over a decade and put him to sleep in 13 seconds. He’ll just be another guy with a title.
The UFC needs superstars. The superstars have always dictated eras in combat sports. Boxing came and went on the back of its biggest star. The UFC will do the same, and without McGregor ruling the sport, its mainstream exposure will take a hit.
Andreas Hale is the editorial content director of 2DopeBoyz.com, co-host of the boxing, MMA and pro wrestling podcast “The Corner” and a regular columnist for Sherdog.com. You can follow on Twitter for his random yet educated thoughts on combat sports, music, film and popular culture.