Conor McGregor: Good for business or bad for business?
"I'm open to whatever he's considering doing. I mean if he wants to fight at 170 and he wants to fight Robbie Lawler, Conor is tough to deny these days."
That was UFC president Dana White's response when asked Thursday at the UFC 196 press conference what could possibly come next for featherweight champion Conor McGregor, who was originally scheduled to challenge for the lightweight title on Saturday, but instead with face Nathan Diaz in a no stakes, high interest fight slotted after the women's bantamweight championship bout between Holly Holm and Miesha Tate hits the cage.
From a business standpoint, why wouldn't White go with whatever the Irish superstar wants to do and allow him to keep calling his own shots? He produces massive numbers at the box office and has become a bankable pay-per-view draw, lining the UFC coffers every time he steps into the cage and bringing in new fans with each pre-fight scuffle and shouting match that runs on ESPN.
Investing in Conor McGregor is a wise decision for the UFC as a company as "The Notorious" is as close to a sure thing as the UFC has at this point.
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Whenever the 27-year-old talent is on a fight card, you're guaranteed to see a greater media turnout and a different subset of fans showing interesting in the event. Casual fans don't get hyped for Demetrious Johnson. Celebrities don't tweet their support for Dominick Cruz in droves. They do for McGregor.
When news broke that lightweight champ Rafael dos Anjos was injured and would not compete this weekend, there was no question that the UFC would keep McGregor on the fight card and in the main event. The greater question is whether or not they would introduce an interim title in a veiled attempt to justify keeping its biggest star atop the marquee?
Thankfully, that step wasn't taken and instead the organization simply acknowledged that despite there being a championship on the line in the co-main event, this show was built around the tattooed Irishman that spits venom and strikes with precision.
And being part of a Conor McGregor fight card is a financial windfall if you're his opponent or a fellow champion earning drawing pay-per-view points.
Chad Mendes got paid handsomely for stepping up to face him at UFC 189 last summer and Diaz will undoubtedly be well compensated for doing the same here, while the women's bantamweight champion Holm can sit back, let McGregor and his foe handle the lion's share of the press obligations and know that she's getting a much bigger payday setting the table for John Kavanagh's standout student than if she were headlining an event of her own or leading off for anyone else.
For Zuffa LLC, McGregor Inc. and a couple of others each event, the burgeoning mega-stardom and "ride it 'til the wheels fall off" approach being taken in regards to the featherweight champion and his future in the cage are great.
As far as that small group is concerned, McGregor is good for business.
"This dude, they were going to let this guy hold the 145-pound title, go up to 55, now two weight classes are being held up. And now they're saying he's going to go up to 70. This is a circus. The 'C' in UFC stands for Conor. This guy runs the show."
Those are the words of Frankie Edgar, speaking with Chuck Mindenhall of MMAFighting.com late last month when the bout with Diaz was announced.
The former UFC lightweight champion and top-ranked featherweight earned his fifth straight victory back in December when he knockout out Chad Mendes midway through the first round of their clash the night before McGregor claimed the title from Jose Aldo at UFC 194.
Sitting at the dais following the event, White said Edgar could have whatever he wanted next, but the only thing "The Answer" wants is a chance to face McGregor for the featherweight title and that doesn't look like it's going to happen any time soon.
As good as McGregor is for business and the bank accounts of his opponents and whatever champion competes before him on pay-per-view, his ascension and free reign to pursue whatever fights pique his interest is detrimental to innumerable others.
The featherweight division is effectively on hold while its champion moonlights as a lightweight welterweight this weekend, while worthy contenders in the lightweight ranks watched as someone without a single victory in the division skipped to the head of the line and was handed a title shot.
Rather than getting a crack at Rafael dos Anjos, a surging contender like Tony Ferguson was instead matched with the returning (fingers crossed, knock on wood) Khabib Nurmagomedov, while consecutive victories over Gilbert Melendez and Anthony Pettis still weren't enough to get Eddie Alvarez a shot at the title.
Given White's comments on Thursday, the same could happen at welterweight too if McGregor is successful on Saturday. His aim has been to hold two championships simultaneously, as he did during his Cage Warrior days, but there is nothing that says it has to be the featherweight and lightweight belts.
If he beats Diaz, a date with Robbie Lawler in the main event of UFC 200 this summer seems like a no-brainer, which means another several months where the featherweight belt isn't being defended and a handful of 170-pound title hopefuls have to continue waiting and keep fighting to maintain their place in the pecking order while McGregor marches in and fights for the belt straight away.
While that's great for the UFC as a business, it's problematic for them as a fight promotion that has more than 500 other fighters to worry about and several contenders spread across multiple divisions that want the opportunities they've earned and in some cases been promised prior to McGregor being handed the keys to the castle.
Personally, I can see it from both sides and am torn because on one hand, McGregor's ambition and eagerness to push the limits and test himself are compelling and make for brilliant stories, but at the same time, it's hard not to feel for the athletes that are being overlooked, overshadowed and swept aside in his wake.
The trouble is that there is no good answer that satisfies all parties.
McGregor wants to keep calling his own shots and isn't particularly concerned about how his ambition impacts anyone else, not that he has to be, nor does he have any interest in being told who he has to fight next.
The UFC probably isn't overly concern about whom he fights, just that he keeps fighting, but Dana White & Co. aren't in a position to force McGregor to defend the featherweight strap against Edgar either, so catering to the wants and whims of its biggest superstar means thumbing its nose at numerous other contenders whose careers are stunned and altered in the process.
And the fighters already in line for title shots or closing in on that position have little choice but to keep fighting and watch as championship opportunities are served up to McGregor because he does record-breaking numbers at the box office.
It's a tricky dichotomy for the UFC to deal with and one that is only going to get more volatile as McGregor continues collecting victories.
Never has one fighter been so good for business, while being bad for business in another way at the exact same time.