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It has been 14 months since Conor McGregor last stepped foot in the Octagon and decimated Eddie Alvarez to win the undisputed Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight title, and it feels like a lifetime ago. Back then, Barack Obama was still in the Oval Office, Harvey Weinstein was still a respected member of Hollywood’s elite and the idea that Georges St. Pierre’s return fight would come against Michael Bisping for the middleweight championship was still safely languishing in when-pigs-fly territory.
Times have changed. While McGregor’s notoriety has risen outside the UFC, courtesy of his boxing escapades and increasingly questionable conduct involving Bellator MMA officials and pop star Rita Ora, members of the UFC’s lightweight and featherweight divisions and a growing cadre of MMA fans have had no choice but to move on in his absence. His display at UFC 205 has been supplanted by more recent, equally impressive performances, and fighters have no interest in begging to fight someone who appears more concerned with product endorsements and reminding us all how rich he is on social media.
At no time was that more clear than in the wake of UFC 219, where Khabib Nurmagomedov brutalized one of MMA’s most dynamic strikers in Edson Barboza before calling out interim lightweight titleholder Tony Ferguson. Just as featherweight champion Max Holloway brushed off the possibility of fighting McGregor after his first title defense at UFC 218, Nurmagomedov was dismissive of the suggestion he could face “The Notorious” Irishman next. He reasoned that Ferguson had the “real belt” and that McGregor would return if and when he had run out of money. “I don’t think about this guy,” Nurmagomedov said wryly at the post-fight press conference, before moving the dialogue on to other, non-McGregor-related topics.
At least for now, UFC President Dana White does not appear to share the same resignation as the Dagestan native. Despite attempting to downplay the potentially devastating effects of the Irishman’s retirement from the UFC, White has openly expressed hope that he will return in the summer and somewhat comically defended his failure to defend his title in an interview with ESPN in December. In a more recent interview with Yahoo! Sports’ Kevin Iole, White did suggest McGregor would be stripped of his title in March if he did not accept a fight before then. However, given that the GSP-Bisping fight that took place in November was technically announced a full eight months before the event took place, that’s hardly a reliable timeline for the bottleneck of lightweight contenders.
Much of White’s uncharacteristic delicacy when talking about McGregor can be traced back to the UFC’s precarious position as it enters 2018. Just as the Irishman significantly boosted the value of the sports franchise before it was sold to Endeavor in 2016, his absence has correlated with a decline in television ratings and an underwhelming 2017 in terms of pay-per-view buys. As the promotion heads into the New Year, it faces reportedly shaky negotiations with potential TV partners to succeed Fox Sports, omnipresent debt, the possibility of the antitrust lawsuit moving to trial and the spectre of business-model-busting federal regulation in the form of the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act. In other words, it’s not a great time to play hardball with your most bankable -- and most unpredictable -- star. With that said, what’s the game plan here?
Back at UFC 205, McGregor warned that he would need to be enticed to return to the Octagon: “Who owns the UFC now? Where’s my share? Where’s my equity? You want me to stick around? I want ownership.”
That was before his fight with Floyd Mayweather in August, an event which was only put together after McGregor acquired a boxing license in California and publicly threatened to invoke the Ali Act to invalidate his contract with the UFC. White’s initial mob-boss response -- he stated that if McGregor sued the UFC, it would lead to his “epic fall” -- did not bear fruit, and after a groundswell of support on social media for the mega-fight, the UFC had no choice but to tag along for the ride and take a cut of the proceeds as co-promoter.
The rest, as they say, is history. The fight, which Mayweather won by 10th-round stoppage, catapulted McGregor further into the mainstream psyche and netted him an estimated $100 million in the process. Somewhat fanciful hopes that he would return to the UFC by the end of 2017 were decisively dashed after he assaulted referee Marc Goddard at Bellator 187, and since then, the only fight McGregor has picked is allegedly with the Irish mob.
Granted, McGregor’s Twitter feed indicates the attention that Nurmagomedov, Ferguson and Holloway have received for their recent performances is a source of discomfort. However, his confidence that he would vanquish the aforementioned names in the cage is matched only by his belief that the UFC is not willing to appropriately compensate him for the privilege. With a bloated bank balance, an ever-growing legion of Irish fans and an apparent willingness to continue fielding offers on the free market without the UFC’s blessing despite still being under contract, McGregor may well prove to the first fighter that White can’t bully.
Where exactly does that leave us? As fans of MMA, the answer is probably not very happy. The path of least resistance for McGregor if he wants to compete outside of the UFC’s control is to continue his career in the squared circle, where the Ali Act likely prevents the UFC from enforcing its contract with McGregor in court. Theoretically, he could also seek a full release from his contract on the grounds it contains unconscionable terms -- a legal argument that has been entertained by labor lawyers, including professor Zev Eigen -- but that could take years to resolve, and all of the most marketable fights are with guys currently under UFC contract anyway.
Of course, there’s also the option that the UFC could agree to McGregor’s demands by giving him equity in the company or the opportunity to co-promote the events he headlines and he returns sometime in early 2018 for a unification fight with Ferguson or, God forbid, a “money fight” against GSP. In an era characterized by short-term decision making and Band-Aid solutions, it would be foolish to write this off as impossible. However, my intuition is that even with McGregor this is a line in the sand that the UFC isn’t willing to cross.
Only time will tell whether the UFC can thread the McGregor needle and get him back in the Octagon, but make no mistake, hopes for a resolution in the near future are misplaced. For once, time is not on the UFC’s side.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. His work has been published widely, including on Fight News Australia, LawinSports, LowKickMMA, MMASucka De Minimis and Farrago. 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.