By now everyone who even casually follows Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), has a take on UFC Featherweight Champion Connor McGregor. Fans of the sport inevitably fall into two camps: you embrace the entire McGregor persona in and outside the Octagon, or you loathe it. Love him or hate him, one thing is not debatable, as UFC 202 approaches Conor McGregor is the only cross-over superstar the UFC has left, that is actively fighting on their roster. A year ago “The Notorious” one, was one of a few superstars that was able to achieve name recognition outside of the MMA community. However, a recent string of events has changed the UFC landscape and all of the other remaining superstars have disappeared for a variety of reasons. Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) got Brock Lesnar & Jon Jones, a soul kicking knock-out sidelined Ronda Rousey, and father time caught up with UFC legends: George St. Pierre and Anderson Silva. Even the one non-UFC crossover star: Fedor Emelianenko has reached a point in his aging career, where even MMA’s biggest fans no longer really care about his fights against sub-par competition in non-UFC events. The sport has never been more popular, but it’s also never been more main stream star depleted since its early fledgling days. The real question is does the UFC even need superstars to continue to grow? Does the outcome of their current biggest Pay-Per-View (PPV) draw’s next fight at UFC 202 even matter to their long-term health & growth of the sport?
MMA ‘purists’ and ‘zealots’ will argue the sport is just fine with our without superstars. They will likely scoff at the idea that the sport needs superstars to grow; believing the UFC brand and competitive fights is all they need to promote growth within the mainstream. The ‘purists’ certainly have a lot evidence to bolster their theory with the recent string of events involving the UFC. Only a few decades ago MMA was an underground sport that had the public perception somewhere between ‘bum fights’ & ostrich racing. The ‘Fertitta Brothers’ & Dana White would change all that when they would acquire the floundering promotion in 2001 and turn a few million dollar investment into the pre-eminent MMA promotion; culminating in a 4 billion dollar sale of their empire this year. The UFC now has partnerships with major television networks (FOX) and apparel companies (Reebok). These big corporate brands bring credibility and financial stability, which leads to growth of the UFC brand. The league recently had one of its milestone events, UFC 200, which did over 1 million PPV buys, another sign of the sport’s health. All major sports networks and publications now cover MMA and in particular the UFC regularly. It is huge in the key 18-34 year old demographic in television ratings and ad revenue that executives crave. Add in UFC video games, UFC fighters appearing in Hollywood movies, and thousands of kids flocking to join mixed martial arts gyms and the purists have a pretty convincing argument that the UFC as a whole is the attraction not any one fighter. All of these events have put MMA and its premiere league the UFC into the main stream conscience like the other niche sports of Boxing, Golf, NASCAR and even Hockey within the United States. Overseas in places like Japan and Brazil, the sport is on par with their country’s biggest sports if not their biggest draw. The sport has never been more popular. However, UFC president Dana White did not predict the sport would be a permanent “niche” sport in America, he once hyperbolically claimed the UFC would supplant the National Football League (NFL) in popularity in America. The new ownership group, who just invested 4 billion dollars to acquire the league, absolutely expects that the sport will continue to grow in appeal and dollars. You do not invest that type of money and look to plateau profits and growth. The new owners now must make popular sport even more popular, and to do that they’ll need superstars. In a league dominated by individuals and not teams or cities, you need superstars to bring the public into the circus tent; enter ‘The Notorious’ Conor McGregor and UFC 202.
McGregor now holds two (UFC 194 1.2 million buys & UFC 196 1.5 million buys) of the top three all-time UFC PPV buy records along with his featherweight championship belt. The only UFC PPV to draw better than McGregor was the legendary UFC 100 card, barely holding on to the top spot with 1.6 million buys. Boxing legends like Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, and most recently Floyd Mayweather gave the blueprint for MMA fighters on how to monetize their time in the “fight game”. They laid the foundation for how you can make lucrative fight careers if you add a little personality and persona to go with their real gifts in the ring or octagon. It did not matter if they cheered for or against you, as long as they paid to see fight. Chael Sonnen was the first UFC fighter to really embrace the “heel” or larger than life persona. Sonnen made himself a regular PPV fighter and draw with his mouth in post-fight interviews, turning a decent fight career into a lucrative one. McGregor knows that despite how impressive he is in the ring, if no one cares when you enter it, you can easily end up being a broke former champion that only the “purists” talk about. Thus, McGregor very early in his UFC career embraced the role of the lovable trash talking villain. He is the super confident bad guy, who the movie-goer secretly roots for to win, while they hang on to his every word. He impressively through the featherweight division paired with his ability promote his fights with his quick tongue, press conference antics, and flashy style put him in the place as the lone supernova left in the UFC universe. His star is so bright he raises the profiles of his opponents just by facing them in the Octagon. He made the normally stand-offish, brash, man of few words: Nate Diaz, become a lovable underdog prior to their first fight. Diaz just played off McGregor’s personality in the lead up to the fight yelling a while timed expletive or lobbing a steroid accusation giving the Irish champ more material. Fans and the media ate it up, the fight press conferences had hundreds of thousands of online viewers, and sound bites were all over national media platforms in the lead up to the fight despite Diaz being a last second replacement, in a non-title fight. Diaz would go on to submit McGregor in the second highest rated UFC PPV of all-time. Fighting Conor McGregor put Diaz into a position to make seven-figures as a fighter and be well-paid on the back half of his career, no matter the result of their rematch. Diaz’s brand appeal like the UFC’s grew simply by being around McGregor’s orbit.
Being the only remaining active superstar (barring the long rumored George Saint-Pierre return), McGregor has all the leverage going forward with the UFC. This is likely how McGregor wants it, due to his past disagreements with the promotion over press commitments and money, leading to his removal from UFC 200. The new UFC ownership group and MMA purists know it even if they will not publically admit it; McGregor is the only active fighter who moves the needle with the general public. Take every other current UFC champion not named McGregor and put them next to LeBron James in a mall, and most people wouldn’t be able to tell you their names let alone what sport they compete in. This does diminish their talents as fighters, but it does speak to the UFC’s dearth of stars in the eyes of the public. The MMA purist base (which I am a definite part of) will always follow the sport, tune-in, and buy tickets. We will consume the sport whether it’s McGregor fighting in the Octagon or if it’s an Eddie Bravo Invitational (EBI) jiu-jitsu competition between two unknown prospects. In an individual sport devoid of “teams”, superstars are the bridge to the casual fan or public; and for now McGregor is it. Casual fans in all sports need something to identify with; the NFL, NBA, and MLB represent cities & fan bases, the fight game needs superstars. Tyson, Mayweather, St Pierre, Rousey: names the public knows when you say them. You cannot sell fights to a broader audience without headliners; this is not up for debate. With no new superstars in the immediate future, the UFC and McGregor’s fates are now intertwined whether the league wants to admit it.
A 4 billion dollar league needing you is a great place for McGregor’s bank account and agent to reside. All he needs to do to stay there, is to keep winning & have his antics continue to remain fresh; no small feat. McGregor already has a legitimate case that he is the biggest superstar in the history of the UFC. However, to truly transcend the sport he needs to avenge his sole UFC loss to the larger Diaz and regain his aura of invincibility, which plays to his marketability. Another loss to Nate Diaz and McGregor will be in a “must win” situation. He’ll have to return to the featherweight division to defend his title or risk pursuing a title in a Lightweight division that has many monsters in it. It is no secret the fight game is the cruelest sport to try to make a living in. A single blow can turn an icon into ‘a former champion’ or even end a career if it’s devastating enough. Personality without the winning just makes you a sideshow and sideshows do not grow sports. McGregor needs to beat Diaz for his legend to continue to grow, and the UFC needs McGregor’s legend to grow if they hope to keep pushing their sport into mainstream “Big 3” (NFL, MLB, NBA) leagues in America.
The outcome of Diaz vs McGregor 2 at UFC 202 on August 20th is uncertain, but there the result will have short & long-term ramifications on the future of the UFC & McGregor’s brands. Fans of the sport and many who are just tuning into the sport to see this if this fast talking Irish superstar can back up his ‘tough talk’ will be fixated on Conor McGregor, and that is exactly how he wants it.
*Stats provided by UFC.com, tapology.com, and USAtoday.com