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The Question: Was UFC Right to Strip Conor McGregor of the Featherweight Title?

Chad Dundas@@chaddundasMMA Lead WriterNovember 30, 2016

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 12:  UFC lightweight and featherweight champion Conor McGregor of Ireland celebrates after defeating Eddie Alvarez in their UFC lightweight championship fight during the UFC 205 event at Madison Square Garden on November 12, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Conor McGregor’s reign as the first man to hold UFC titles in two different weight classes simultaneously lasted all of 14 days.

McGregor’s fight company bosses trumpeted his historic accomplishment to the masses at UFC 205 on November 12 when he defeated Eddie Alvarez by second-round TKO to add the lightweight title to the featherweight belt he had held since late 2015.

Two weeks later, the UFC unceremoniously stripped the 28-year-old Irishman of the 145-pound title—announcing the move on Fox Sports 1 during a low-profile Fight Night event broadcasting from Melbourne, Australia.

So that was that.

If and when McGregor returns to the Octagon, he’ll soldier on with only the 155-pound championship slung over one shoulder.

While not necessarily a surprise, the speed with which the UFC relieved its biggest star of half his gold and the offhand way it broke the news caught some viewers as hinky.

Was the UFC right to move so quickly to strip McGregor? And what does it say about the validity of the organization’s championship belts if they can be taken and given so willy-nilly?

Bleacher Report’s Mike Chiappetta joins me to break down what it means that the UFC so willingly cut its once and future king off at the knees.

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McGregor socks Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205.
McGregor socks Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Chad Dundas: I have to admit I have some mixed feelings here, Mike.

Since McGregor slipped out of Las Vegas with the featherweight title after a 13-second knockout of Jose Aldo at UFC 194, I’ve suspected we had already seen the last of him at 145 pounds. I wasn’t alone in that assumption, obviously. His longtime coach has left a featherweight return up in the air, and our former colleague Jeremy Botter had adamantly gone on record saying McGregor was no longer going to fight at that weight.

In my opinion, he held onto the 145-pound title only as long as he did so he could use it as a bargaining chip in his negotiations with the UFC. Also, because becoming the first dual-division champion in the promotion’s history was part of his very specific personal vision quest. It was just something Mystic Mac had to do.

But if McGregor had no serious intention of ever fighting at featherweight again, then you can’t very well let him remain the champion in that division. The UFC was going to have to take the title away from him at some point, and I’m not sure it would have done any good to wait any longer.

On the other hand, there’s no denying how much McGregor has meant to that weight class. During his two-and-a-half-year march to the title, he provided the featherweight division with basically the only intrigue it had ever known.

The fact that McGregor has fashioned himself into the UFC’s biggest star while fighting predominantly in two of its lighter weight classes is remarkable. With him in it, the 145-pound class finally had some sizzle and some drawing power. Without him, it will no doubt quickly recede into a thing only hardcore fans care about.

So, in that sense, it’s a shame to see McGregor forfeit the title.

The trickle-down effect will no doubt be felt far and wide. So far, the UFC’s attempts to have the 145-pound division move on without him seem underwhelming.

What do you think, Mike? Did McGregor need to give up the belt? And can featherweight thrive without him?

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - NOVEMBER 19:  UFC lightweight and featherweight champion Conor McGregor attends the UFC Fight Night at the SSE Arena on November 19, 2016 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Imag
Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

     

Mike Chiappetta: There are many layers to this situation, spanning two divisions, a host of fighters and the balance of power between a superstar and the company that holds his contractual rights. But the last of them is the most interesting to me right now.

Because deep down, we all realize that it wouldn’t be fair to let McGregor hold onto the UFC Featherweight Championship without ever defending it. The rest of the division works too hard to have no prize to shoot for. In that sense, stripping him of the belt is just.

On the other hand, on what grounds did the UFC strip him? For refusal to defend the belt? Can the UFC prove it ever offered him a featherweight title defense? Sure, McGregor made his preferences known, but the fact is he’s always been an active fighter who took the best available fight the promotion would offer.

Doesn’t the promotion bear as much of the blame?

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 12:  Conor McGregor of Ireland celebrates after his knockout victory over Eddie Alvarez in their UFC lightweight championship fight during the UFC 205 event at Madison Square Garden on November 12, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by
Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

From the timing of this move, it seems clear it was motivated only by the need for a main event elsewhere. If that’s true, McGregor was stripped through no fault of his own but was instead a victim of the UFC’s circumstances.

That’s a problem. We’ve seen in the past the UFC is willing to use its belts as both an enticement and a cudgel. In this case, it stripped McGregor in order to create an interim belt to try to draw some fans to its UFC 206 event. But in other cases (see Randy Couture and the champion’s clause), the promotion has been hellbent on using that belt to keep a fighter in the fold, even if that fighter wants to leave.

There should be defined guidelines for the use of an interim title to keep these kinds of things from happening; otherwise, fighters are prone to the UFC’s whims, whatever they might be.

While McGregor seemingly had no intention of defending the featherweight belt, there should still be a procedure for stripping him of what he won. Instead, we get fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants booking, which in no way helps the division. Jose Aldo is a legend, but to suddenly call him an “undisputed” champion is a misnomer. Meanwhile, the winner of Max Holloway vs. Anthony Pettis will seem more worthy of a title shot by virtue of winning a fight, not by wearing a belt with no meaning behind it.

The featherweight division was always doomed to a certain standing without McGregor lifting it up. That time is now. While the outcome would have likely been the same, at least it could have moved on in a decent way instead of through reactionary panic.

Am I being too harsh here?

McGregor watch Jose Aldo vs. Frankie Edgar at UFC 200.
McGregor watch Jose Aldo vs. Frankie Edgar at UFC 200.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

    

Chad: No, you're right on, though so far the UFC has been careful to say McGregor has "relinquished" the belt rather than to say the organization stripped him. To know whether that's true, we'll have to wait for McGregor to go on record one way or another. So far, he's been mum on the topic.

My best guess is that the different language is merely an end-around designed to get the UFC a title fight it can use to main-event December 10's UFC 206.

Daniel Cormier's getting injured and dropping out of his scheduled rematch with Anthony Johnson left the UFC in a tough spot. It naturally exacerbated the problem of letting one man hog two titles at once. The organization's live event schedule is so relentless that it needs all 10 of those belts in heavy rotation, especially when the dual-champion just announced he's going to take time off to begin 2017.

Daniel Cormier.
Daniel Cormier.Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

However, you're also right to point out that the people who are going feel the brunt of any backlash against this move will be, sadly, the rest of the featherweights.

Like Cormier before him, Aldo being named "undisputed" champion so soon after a crushing loss to the previous champ isn't going to help his reputation. He was once the most dominant 145-pound fighter in history, but now he'll largely be seen as a paper champion, artificially propped up in the wake of his 13-second loss to McGregor at UFC 194.

And putting Pettis into an "interim" title fight when no "interim" title is actually needed? The same Pettis who is 1-3 in his last four fights and has one win at featherweight? That's just sad. It makes the division seem like an empty husk without McGregor.

Oh, and the fighting Irishman himself? Well, he somehow comes out of this smelling like a rose. Taking away one of his titles—and using the weird terminology that he "relinquished" it—only gives him more verbal ammunition to launch at his opponents in the future.

Ironically, if and when he does ever feel the need to return to featherweight, this situation actually makes the move even more marketable. Suddenly, McGregor would be returning to reclaim the title the UFC and Aldo "stole" from him. That's far better than the storyline would have been otherwise.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 12:  UFC featherweight and lightweight champion Conor McGregor of Ireland speaks to the media during the UFC 205 post fight press conference at Madison Square Garden on November 12, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Z
Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

   

Mike: True, but I’d just like people to consider the unreasoned nature of the UFC’s action. It essentially stripped McGregor—and his coach John Kavanagh confirmed to Irish radio station Cork's RedFM that it did indeed strip him—because of Cormier’s injury. It had nothing to do with McGregor except for the fact that his clear preference for the higher weight classes made the featherweight belt an easy target.

An injury in another weight class led to McGregor losing his belt, and so the UFC robbed Peter to pay Paul. Is that right or just? No. At least if there was a process in place, everyone would know what to expect. Instead, it’s just arbitrary booking.

In the grand scheme of things, this is not an especially cruel decision. McGregor is living large, making millions and still has one championship belt to sling over his shoulder. He can afford the involuntary donation. But what the UFC fails to realize or admit is that these kinds of moves serve to devalue the very belt it attempts to sell.

Quite soon, it will put a belt on the Pettis-Holloway winner and try to tell us that means something. But who is buying that? For Pettis, a win over Holloway will mean more than the belt. For Holloway, his win streak will remain intact, and that would mean more than the interim title. It is a placeholder, a chunk of not-so-precious metal that doesn’t signify a damn thing.

And when a belt means nothing, how does that help the person holding it?

Years ago, UFC President Dana White was ranting about fighter pay and said something that seems relevant here.

Speaking to media including MMA Fighting, White said: “We’re getting to where we are in a society now where everyone wins a trophy. No, everyone doesn't win a f--king trophy.”

White should heed his own words. In the UFC, everyone doesn’t get a trophy, but the promotion is all too quick to create new ones to hand out whenever it needs them.

In the end, Holloway-Pettis is an excellent matchup with or without this belt. Aldo is still an all-time great, and McGregor is still the best featherweight on the UFC roster. There is a sense of order to all that which can’t be ignored, even in the face of shiny objects.

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