What Will It Take for the UFC to Cut Ties with Conor McGregor?

By Jacob Debets Oct 25, 2019


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For the second time this year, the New York Times is reporting that Conor McGregor is being investigated over a sexual assault allegation.

This time, the former Ultimate Fighting Championship featherweight and lightweight titleholder is alleged to have sexually assaulted a young woman inside a car outside of a West Dublin pub on Oct. 11. An article published in the tabloid The Irish Sun about the same incident -- it does not mention McGregor by name due to Ireland’s privacy laws -- reports that the “sports star” was stopped by police after the alleged victim reported him for rape. His car and items of clothing were seized and are being forensically examined. McGregor is reportedly yet to be questioned. This is the fifth time in the last two years that McGregor has been charged with or connected to serious criminal activity.

Among numerous speeding citations and a deplorable incident at Bellator 187 in which he jumped into the cage and assaulted referee Marc Goddard in the course of celebrating a teammate’s victory, McGregor has attacked a moving bus full of UFC fighters and staff during UFC 223 fight week, leading to assault and criminal mischief charges that were eventually quashed through a languid plea deal; come under investigation for another sexual assault, which allegedly occurred in December 2018 at a South Dublin hotel; been arrested and charged with strong-armed robbery and criminal mischief for smashing a fan’s smart phone; and attacked an old man in Dublin pub for refusing a shot of whiskey.

At the time of the aforementioned bus attack, there seemed to be a genuine motivation to reprimand and rehabilitate McGregor, or at the very least force him to tone down his antics so there were fewer physical casualties. UFC President Dana White called the saga “the most disgusting thing that has ever happened in the history of the company,” whereas the media and fans were scalding in their assessment of his behavior and, more worryingly, his lack of contrition. There was speculation that the promotion would part ways with McGregor, whose violence not only led to two fights on UFC 223 being pulled and a lawsuit courtesy of Michael Chiesa but also had a lasting effect on then-strawweight champion Rose Namajunas in the form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It was sincere, if naive.

Conversely, 18 months after the incident, with McGregor having only fought once in a blowout loss to arch-rival Khabib Nurmagomedov -- the target of his bus attack -- and instead spending his time adding to his rap sheet, there has been a near total lack of action on the part of MMA’s stakeholders to punish or even address McGregor’s death spiral of self-sabotage.

The UFC, who gleefully used footage from the bus attack to promote the eventual grudge match between McGregor and Nurmagomedov a year ago, has seemingly elected to ignore the reports entirely, failing to put out an official statement even acknowledging the existence of active police investigations. For his part, White has briefly weighed in on McGregor’s assault on the old man and the first sexual assault allegation, downplaying the first as something that happens “every weekend” at pubs in Ireland and claiming to know nothing about the second, except that McGregor had implied to him that it was a case of mistaken identity.

By the same token, the MMA media has been content to enable McGregor and his promoter to act like these allegations do not exist or are otherwise unimportant footnotes to the more important narrative of his eventual comeback. In McGregor’s lone appearance with American sports media in 2019, a 40-minute interview with ESPN in August, access reporter Ariel Helwani failed to raise the sexual assault allegation -- at that time, there was only one -- and characterized McGregor king-hitting-a-pensioner as “an altercation” in which the Irishman was “involved.” Throughout the segment, which was more of a PR-image-rehabilitation spot than a legitimate interview, McGregor spoke at length about his regret for punching the old man, his enduring love for MMA, fantasy matchups across multiple weight divisions and the state of his health. Afterwards, Helwani tweeted a sycophantic public thank you to McGregor, calling it an “honor” to talk to him.

Equally unsettling is that of the tens of interviews White has done this year, it appears that only MMAJunkie and TSN have directly asked him about McGregor’s legal problems, and even then, it was in categorically inoffensive terms. Whether to curry favor, preserve access or simply because McGregor is good business for click-heavy sites, there is a marked reluctance to interrogate what a conviction or convictions for sexual crimes would mean for the sport and one of its most impactful figures.

In light of the UFC’s links to Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov and its conspicuous and unapologetic embrace of domestic abuser Greg Hardy, its determination to ignore and obfuscate McGregor’s criminality seems increasingly like business-as-usual approach. However, it bears mentioning that there was a period of time when the UFC seemed poised to buck the lowest-common-denominator trend of combat sports promotion.

Way back at UFC 113, where Paul Daley struck Josh Koscheck after the bell rang in their co-main event, White swiftly brought the axe down on his Octagon career and jettisoned him from the organization. “I don’t care if he becomes the best and everyone thinks he’s the pound-for-pound best in the world,” White said. “He will never fight in the UFC ever again. Done.” When lightweight Jason High shoved referee Kevin Mulhall after his fight with Rafael dos Anjos at UFC Fight Night 42 ended? “You touched a referee. Done. Over,” White said. When Miguel Torres made a rape joke in 2011? He was temporarily cut from the promotion. When Matt Mitrione made transphobic comments about Fallon Fox? He was suspended. When Travis Brown was alleged to have assaulted his wife? He was suspended while the promotion conducted an investigation. When Anthony Johnson was alleged to have abused his wife and children? He was suspended until the civil suit against him was dropped.

Back then, the UFC was still fighting for legitimacy. It had policymakers and a skeptical public to appease, making action against misbehaving athletes -- albeit largely symbolic -- imperative to the UFC’s business. Now, with those battles behind it and massive guaranteed revenue from its broadcast and streaming partnership with ESPN locked down, it appears content to live in a consequence-free world where the only question the UFC has to consider is “Can this make us even more money?” and moral dilemmas like “Should I promote someone who attacks fellow athletes and is connected to multiple rape investigations” are left to other sports.

That’s devastating, because the UFC is hardly hurting for cash. Publicly addressing McGregor’s legal situation and putting his return -- apparently scheduled for Jan. 18 in Las Vegas -- on ice unless and until he’s cleared of sexual assault investigations would be the right thing to do for a sport that is almost singularly defined by the conduct of its market leader.

Don’t hold your breath, though. All signs point to the UFC and McGregor linking up for his comeback tour, and you can bet that active investigation and court dates won’t impede the promotion’s march towards another pot of gold.

Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com. Advertisement

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