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Will we ever see Conor McGregor return to the UFC?

Conor McGregor is the UFC
Conor McGregor is the UFC's biggest star - but will he ever return to the Octagon?
Scott Newman
SENIOR ANALYST
Modified 07 Oct 2020, 01:25 IST
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Conor McGregor is undoubtedly the UFC’s biggest-ever star. ‘The Notorious One’ has headlined six UFC pay-per-views that have drawn over a million buys, and that’s without even discussing his 2017 boxing match with Floyd Mayweather, which reportedly drew in excess of five million.

However, it’s safe to say that right now, there are more questions around McGregor’s future with the UFC than ever before. So will the brash Irishman ever step into the Octagon again? And how has the relationship between McGregor and the UFC – one that once seemed so strong – become so strained?

It seems hard to believe now, but we’re only nine months removed from the last time McGregor stepped inside the Octagon. One effect of the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be that anything that happened before March in 2020 feels like a different year entirely. And that’s definitely the case with McGregor’s fight with Donald Cerrone at UFC 246.

The fight largely came from left field in the first place, particularly when you consider that it was fought at 170lbs – a weight class that McGregor had only ever fought in twice before, for his 2016 fights with Nate Diaz. Before agreeing to fight Cerrone, it felt like the Irishman was simply willing to wait on the shelf for a potential rematch with UFC Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov to materialize.

For those who’ve forgotten, of course, today marks two years since that fateful fight. Built up as the biggest fight in UFC history, it pitted the man who never lost the title (McGregor) against the man who claimed it in his absence (Nurmagomedov). And naturally, it featured more bad blood than perhaps any other fight that the UFC had promoted.

Had McGregor won the fight – or even been competitive – then a rematch would’ve been the natural path, particularly as the show headlined by the fight – UFC 229 – drew a record 2.4m buys on pay-per-view.

But the Irishman simply wasn’t competitive at all. Nurmagomedov beat him from pillar to post in all areas before forcing him to submit. And so, when he returned to fight Cerrone in January, there were plenty of questions about exactly how he’d look.

As it happened, McGregor looked great. Sure, Cerrone might’ve choked in the moment a little, but ‘The Notorious One’ still destroyed him in just 40 seconds in what was one of McGregor’s most impressive performances in the UFC.

At the time, of course, everyone expected that Cerrone win to set up something bigger for the Irishman. Maybe not the Khabib rematch, but perhaps another big fight like the trilogy fight with Diaz. But that was before COVID-19.

Can we blame the pandemic for the impasse that’s taken place between McGregor and the UFC since? It’s definitely a thought worth considering. After all, McGregor’s fight with Cerrone drew a live gate of just over $11m, and his fight with Nurmagomedov blew even that number away by drawing a gate of $17m.

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Were the UFC to promote a McGregor fight under the current COVID-19 restrictions – essentially a behind-closed-doors event – they’d obviously draw plenty of money on pay-per-view. However, the promotion would miss out on the huge gate payout, and that would impact the finances of both the UFC and of McGregor.

With that in mind then, it simply seems unlikely that ‘The Notorious One’ will return to the UFC before fans are allowed back into venues. And given that we could be deep into 2021 before that becomes possible, it’s safe to say it’ll be a while before McGregor will be back.

That would probably explain the incident that saw him supposedly “retire” via a Twitter announcement in June. It was the third time that the Irishman had supposedly hung his gloves up. And like the other times, the idea was simply hard to take seriously.

But is it simply a case of waiting for the pandemic to die down before a return, or is there something more that points to an issue between the fighter and the promotion? That would certainly appear to be the case when you look into the recent back-and-forth between the two parties.

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Essentially, in mid-September, McGregor decided to share screenshots of an Instagram discussion between himself and UFC president Dana White. The exchange appeared to show McGregor asking White for a fight with Diego Sanchez – pre-COVID, of course – and the UFC president shooting the idea down.

McGregor then claimed that he’d attempted to arrange multiple fights with White but was unable to come to an agreement, and was “boxing Manny Pacquiao next in the Middle East."

Of course, White was quick to shoot the claims down, seemingly furious that McGregor had published a private conversation between the two, only for the Irishman to immediately respond, accusing White of numerous lies.

More recently, meanwhile – after a story broke out suggesting that White was looking to book a rematch between McGregor and Dustin Poirier – the Irishman quickly responded by sharing a poster for a fight between the two. However, this wasn’t a UFC poster. Instead, McGregor suggested that the two could have a “sparring match in aid of charity” in Dublin.

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Naturally, that’s never going to happen. The UFC simply wields too much power in terms of its contracts with both McGregor and Poirier for them to embark on such a fight in Dublin without the promotion’s say-so.

And that, in a nutshell, is the crux of the problem. The UFC and White see McGregor as just another fighter on their roster, no more, no less – albeit with far more drawing power than the majority of their roster. On the other hand, McGregor knows his drawing power and knows that he holds a strong hand.

But does he, when it comes down to it? The UFC’s deal with ESPN to distribute its pay-per-views through the ESPN+ streaming service means that suddenly, even the drawing power of McGregor doesn’t mean what it once did.

Reportedly, the UFC now gets the financial equivalent of a 500k buy-rate from ESPN for each of its pay-per-views before they even begin. So where the promotion would’ve relied on someone like McGregor to bump a buy-rate after a run of lesser-drawing shows, essentially, they no longer need that kind of reliance.

So for the UFC, is McGregor really worth the hassle at this stage? Well, yes and no. On the one hand, simply moving on from the Irishman as the promotion’s poster-boy would make things much easier for White and company.

However, allowing his contract to run down while he sits on the sidelines is also a huge risk. The UFC has never truly feared fighters unionizing to claim more of the “pie” in terms of finances. What the promotion truly fears is a fighter becoming bigger than their brand, and thus being able to promote themselves, ala Floyd Mayweather.

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McGregor is undoubtedly the closest thing that MMA has to a Mayweather-type figure. He’d certainly draw by promoting himself. And by establishing ‘McGregor Promotions’ a few years back, he’s already shown his intentions. The UFC, therefore, are more likely to at least attempt to keep him onside – or hope that he simply fades into irrelevancy or perhaps even finds himself in legal difficulty again.

So will we see McGregor back in the UFC anytime soon? If I had to guess, I’d say by 2021, a return will be announced – assuming fans are allowed to attend events at that stage. When it comes to Conor McGregor, though, nothing is for certain. And so for fans of ‘The Notorious One,’ the waiting game continues.

Published 07 Oct 2020, 01:25 IST
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