There aren’t many awkward silences during Conor McGregor press conferences.
The Irishman sees to that himself.
When McGregor is at the dais, he appears to fill every inch of available space. He draws every eye, occasionally seeming to suck up all the air in the room. His steady stream of bombastic proclamations makes it tough for anybody else to get a breath, let alone get a word in edgewise. McGregor interrupts, he interjects, he talks over everyone, all while making absolutely clear we know whose show we’re watching.
This is Conor McGregor’s show.
It occurred just before the midway point of this first media event for his upcoming superfight against lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos. A reporter stood up and asked the most concise and best question of the day.
“Conor, where’s your belt?”
“That’s what I just noticed,” McGregor replied. “Where is my damn belt?”
Dos Anjos had his belt on the table in front of him. New women’s bantamweight champion Holly Holm—who will fight Miesha Tate at UFC 197—had hers. Yet here was McGregor, the freshly minted UFC featherweight titlist, with nothing besides his $1,200 Versace shirt, sunglasses and skin-tight white jeans.
It was a small detail of an otherwise big day. We might have missed it entirely if the press conference hadn’t begun with MMA Junkie’s John Morgan asking UFC president Dana White to comment on rumors of a rift between McGregor and the promotion.
At the time, as he so often is, McGregor was running late and the promotion had started the press conference without him.
“We were cool until this,” White joked of McGregor’s tardiness, and then said, “No, we’re good.”
White’s answer was interrupted by McGregor’s arrival, and as the fighter came on stage White turned back to Morgan and said, “Ask him, I don’t know.”
McGregor then summarily dodged the question. He talked about 2015 as a banner financial year for both himself and the UFC, but said nothing about his feelings or personal relationship with company executives.
So that exchange had already put us on high alert for more weirdness. When the issue of McGregor’s belt came up, we seemed to get it.
Here, watch it for yourself, starting from the 28:22 mark:
There, did you see that? What happens in this clip is that McGregor wonders why no one in the UFC thought to bring his belt to the press conference, then complains at length—and justifiably—about the official UFC 197 poster, which gives Dos Anjos top billing and doesn’t even mention the fact that McGregor is the organization’s 145-pound champ.
“This is a superfight,” McGregor says. “Where are all these historic images? These are posters that will be looked back on long after it’s all said and done and then you’ve got to look back on that absolute garbage? I feel someone’s sleeping on the job in that [UFC art] department and I will have to dip my nose in there and find out who and eliminate them.”
Afterward, White gives his own halfway-plausible reason why McGregor wouldn’t need his belt at the press conference: because only Dos Anjos' title is on the line in this fight, McGregor's championship isn't up for grabs.
That seems logical enough, except that White himself began the press conference by reading a prepared statement about UFC 197's dual title fights and, saying, "Two fights, three belts."
McGregor unhappy that his belt isn't on the UFC 197 poster, White doesn't have a very good explanation for it https://t.co/IUNeqzYmsA— Anton Tabuena (@antontabuena) January 22, 2016
When White finishes his explanation, he waits while the mic is passed to another reporter to ask the next question. That's when an uncharacteristic silence descends.
And it stretches on for roughly 14 seconds.
Fourteen seconds where nobody says a word. For McGregor, that has to be a record.
White braces both hands on his podium and stares into space. McGregor shifts his weight around in his chair. He adjusts the front of his shirt. He tips his head to the side and sucks in his lips. It looks for all the world as if there is a lot he wants to say, but doesn’t. For the time being, he keeps his mouth shut.
It’s another small moment, but it seems significant if you assume that this silence isn’t only about whether some UFC lackey remembered to toss McGregor’s belt into a bag on the way to the press conference. It’s also about how the company is treating him right now and how—at least so far—it’s choosing to promote this fight.
On the surface, the answer to the question of how the UFC is treating McGregor, of course, is that it’s treating him quite well. Reports indicate he just signed the richest contract extension in the history of the sport, and the organization is breaking with its normal policy by allowing him to move up in weight to challenge Dos Anjos without having to give up his featherweight title.
The only time that’s ever happened before was at UFC 94 in 2009, when lightweight champ BJ Penn jumped up to try to wrest the welterweight crown from Georges St-Pierre. Even then, it was known that if Penn defeated St-Pierre (spoiler alert: he didn’t) he would have to vacate the 155-pound championship.
With McGregor, that’s not the case, and as White explained during one of the press conference’s friendlier moments, it’s because McGregor’s word has been as good as gold for the UFC so far.
"When everybody asks me why I would let Conor hold two belts when we’ve never done it before, [it’s] because Conor has kept his word and done everything that he said he would do since the day he set foot in here," White said. "He said he will fight four times a year, he really likes money and I believe he will do it."
McGregor nodded along, signaling everybody was on the same page on that front.
When it comes to how to package UFC 197, however, so far the fighter and the fight company appear to disagree.
It’s early yet, but the UFC seems to be promoting Dos Anjos vs. McGregor the same way it would any other main event fight. There, McGregor has an understandable gripe. It is weird that the poster identifies the bout as simply for the lightweight title and makes no mention of any champion vs. champion storyline.
After McGregor pointed it out, the omission—both on the poster and at the presser—was suddenly a glaring one, as Severe MMA's Sean Sheehan noted:
They are really missing a step by not having McGregor with a belt. This is a superfight. Should be promoted that way.— Seán Sheehan (@SeanSheehanBA) January 20, 2016
We should note here that the UFC recently made a big deal about updating its logo, changing the graphics on its television broadcasts and standardizing its posters. These days, the fliers for UFC events all look—as play-by-pay man Mike Goldberg might say—virtually identical.
Still, if McGregor is supposed to be the UFC’s biggest star, it looks stubborn to the point of folly to insist on giving Dos Anjos featured billing. If you were Conor McGregor and saw the existing poster for UFC 197, realized they started the press conference without you and then didn’t bring your championship belt, what would you think?
You couldn’t blame the guy if he figured the UFC was trying to send him a message.
In the wake of McGregor's win over Jose Aldo at UFC 194 and the news of the contract extension that followed, there has been a fair amount of talk about where his career is going. We've wondered aloud if McGregor is that rare fighter who has the charisma and smarts to be bigger than the UFC.
If you take all this stuff together—the poster, the absent title belt, the press conference, the rumors of a chill in their relationship—maybe it adds up to the UFC subtly trying to tell McGregor he's really just another fighter.
And maybe McGregor has been trying to send a message back.
In recent times, he's made a noticeable shift in how he talks about his relationship with the UFC. Early on, McGregor made the fight company sound like family. He spoke of White and UFC co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta like his partners, noting he someday wanted to co-promote events with them in Ireland.
Anymore, that talk has mostly stopped. When the UFC confirmed reports of the Dos Anjos bout with a press release on January 12, McGregor sent out a cheeky release of his own. It purported to be from “McGregor Promotions” and, aside from naming the lightweight title, made no mention of the UFC at all.
Throughout Wednesday’s press conference, he continued talking about his business dealings almost entirely in the first person. “I made this fight,” he said of the Dos Anjos bout. Then later, “I am running the fight business.” (Emphasis added.)
Do you buy the idea of a rift between Conor McGregor and the UFC?
Occasionally McGregor would drop a “we” while talking about the UFC, and he made one allusion to “our Brazilian television partners.” It was unclear, though, if he meant this to imply solidarity, or to leave the impression he and the fight company are of equal importance and have equal power.
So what does it all mean? Is this evidence that he and the UFC are growing apart as McGregor's star continues to rise?
Perhaps it’s best to let the man hint at that one in his own words.
When Yahoo Sports’ Kevin Iole asked him if the increased pay-per-view buyrates the organization enjoyed during 2015 were “the new normal for the UFC,” McGregor responded by saying, “It’s certainly the new normal for me.”
He followed that remark by reiterating his belief that he’s the biggest, most important thing going in MMA right now. This time when he said it, he didn’t seem to limit his comments to other fighters.
“Not one single individual in this company is on my level,” McGregor said.
After that, maybe there was nothing left to say.
Chad Dundas covers MMA for Bleacher Report. His debut novel Champion of the World is available for preorder. All quotes obtained via UFC 197 press conference unless noted otherwise.