It’s always awkward when you know a fight promoter has a rooting interest.
In the case of Saturday’s UFC 189 main event between Conor McGregor and Chad Mendes, it doesn’t take a lick of guesswork to figure out what ownership wants to happen. We know it for a stone-cold fact, because the UFC’s first preference had already been on the books for months: to have McGregor fight Jose Aldo in a high-profile grudge match for the featherweight title.
The fight company had booked that fight, put it on billboards, produced a documentary series about it and bankrolled at least one stunning and pricey television commercial to advertise it.
In all, UFC President Dana White said the company spent $10 million promoting the fight. The more conspiracy-minded might even tell you the UFC had orchestrated it from the beginning, feeding McGregor a series of overmatched, stand-up-oriented opponents for the express purpose of quickly and publicly building him into the division’s top contender.
Aldo was replaced by Mendes, and now the organization’s best hope rests on a series of dominoes falling in precise order: McGregor wins this weekend, Aldo heals quickly, and they all put together a do-over in time to repurpose some of those pricey TV ads.
Of course, there is one obvious fly in the ointment.
It’s the 5’6”, 30-year-old wrestler from Northern California.
Mendes is no domino. He’s not a fall guy or a patsy. He’s one of the best 145-pound fighters in the world, with a 17-2 record and five T/KO stoppages in his last six victories. His only two professional losses are to Aldo, and even though oddsmakers are giving a slight edge to McGregor, Mendes is as live a dog as perhaps we’ve ever seen in the Octagon.
We already know who Aldo is pulling for, as he tried to rally his fans behind the American on social media Wednesday:
So, what if Mendes wins?
What if he pulls it off?
What if he comes in on two weeks' notice and rolls through the unproven McGregor like he rolled through Ricardo Lamas three months ago? Like he rolled through Nik Lentz in late 2013? Like he rolled through Clay Guida two summers ago?
As Sherdog.com's Patrick Wyman wrote this week, that's not outside the realm of possibility:
Even on short notice, Mendes presents a much different stylistic puzzle (than Aldo). His crisp lateral movement will make it difficult for the pressure fighter (McGregor) to back him into the cage, and he remains the strongest and most technical wrestler in the division, with the takedown acumen to seriously trouble McGregor and disrupt his rhythm. ... The pick is Mendes by close decision in a fun, back-and-forth fight.
Well, for starters, everybody calm down.
Even if McGregor loses to Mendes on Saturday—even if he loses badly—it won’t be the end of the world or the end of the road for him. If we’ve learned anything from the last several years in the fight business, it’s that a good-looking suit and an impressive way with words will keep you relevant far, far longer than it should.
No matter what happens against Mendes, the UFC isn’t going to let its investment in McGregor just go up in smoke. I wrote about the strange bromance between the Irish dandy and Zuffa bosses as far back as last October, and things certainly haven’t gotten any less cozy between them since then.
One of the last times we heard from McGregor before the UFC 189 tornado really started churning, he was living in Las Vegas and training every day at the UFC-owned The Ultimate Fighter training center. He told MMAFighting.com’s Ariel Helwani that he wouldn’t rest until he’s co-promoting MMA events alongside the owners of the UFC:
We will continue to grow and grow and grow until eventually it will be me in association with Zuffa. That’s where I feel I am going. ... Essentially I see Dana and Lorenzo (Fertitta) as business partners. I don’t see them as employers, I see them as business partners, and business is phenomenal. So, I feel as it grows up and grows, eventually we will become legit partners, in association...a progression, that’s the way I see things going.
The vast majority of McGregor’s big talk can be shrugged off as exaggeration, but it’s clear the UFC sees star power in him and wants to nurture it.
This bout against Mendes is an undoubtedly huge signpost along that road. It’ll be McGregor’s first pay-per-view main event, his first chance to taste UFC gold and his first opportunity to get acquainted with competition at the elite levels of the featherweight division.
If he wins, then no one can question his fitness as an opponent for Aldo or accuse the UFC of treating him with kid gloves.
Losing, on the other hand, would be a significant setback, but it wouldn’t ruin him. His bosses wouldn’t abandon him, and neither would his legion of Irish fans. McGregor would still be a guy who can make any media appearance sing. He’d still command a fair amount of attention from the public. At 26 years old, he’d still have plenty of time to make good on his own championship prophecies.
In fact, we would probably all be shocked at the speed with which the UFC could rehabilitate his image. All it would take would be a win or two against a few more Dennis Sivers or Diego Brandaos and he’d be right back where he is today.
For Mendes, the same is probably not true. Even under disadvantageous circumstances, a loss to McGregor would be sort of a disaster. Suddenly, his three total defeats might start to seem career-defining. In other words, he's arguably taking the highest-risk gamble of all here, though it comes with the chance of a huge reward.
This is more than just an opportunity for Mendes to play spoiler.
After two previous losses to the champion, this is a chance for him to once again become an essential part of the 145-pound puzzle. A win over McGregor makes him the interim champion and means nobody can move forward with any plans until he fights Aldo one more time.
Once again, the weight class will have to run through Mendes' backyard.
The UFC’s decision to make this fight for an interim title felt like one born more of pure promotional need—if not out-and-out spite—than anything else. Aldo will no doubt be ready to go again in a couple of months, but once he returns, there will be no option for him besides a unification bout with whoever emerges victorious from UFC 189.
You can’t overstate what a tremendous bargaining chip that would be for Mendes. As he transitions into his 30s, already a two-time loser in championship chances, it’s unclear how many future bites at the apple he would get. He recently signed a new, long-term deal with the UFC, and stepping up on short notice will earn him some cache with his bosses, but if he means to spend the rest of his career on the short list of top contenders, this would be a good one for him to win.
For the UFC’s part? Well, it’s easy to speculate that perhaps it knew exactly what it was doing when it tabbed Mendes as the injury replacement. Perhaps it occurred to the fight company that Mendes had already lost twice to Aldo and—even if he beat McGregor on Saturday—wouldn’t be anybody’s pick to unseat the champion in a third fight.
As far as worst-case scenarios go, Mendes beating McGregor but then stumbling against Aldo once again wouldn’t be all that bad. It would put us right back where we started, awaiting a do-over between McGregor and the Brazilian champion.
Because, make no mistake—a do-over is coming, and it’s coming as fast as the UFC can possibly make it happen.