It was television that led William Morris Endeavor to purchase the Ultimate Fighting Championship. They believed there would be a wild bidding war for the UFC's television rights package that would lead to an improvement of anywhere from $250 million to $300 million per year over the current deal.
The engine powering that new contract, and perhaps the reason WME-IMG spent such an exorbitant amount with such confidence, was the presence of two galactic superstars: Ronda Rousey (a WME client for her nascent Hollywood career) and Conor McGregor, the brash and talented Irishman who forced his way to the top through visualization, hard work and a willingness to say and do just about anything in service of promoting himself.
At the time of the sale, McGregor was less than a month away from facing Nate Diaz in a rematch of his loss earlier in 2016. Rousey was a few months removed from her long-awaited return (which, of course, didn't go so well). To WME-IMG executives, it must have felt like one hell of a package deal: a sporting brand on the rise, a rich new television deal on the horizon and two athletes who had accomplished the feat of crossing from blood sport into the mainstream.
Now, less than 18 months later, one wonders if William Morris Endeavor could end up suffering from buyer's remorse.
I have long written, bolstered by speaking with sources close to him, that McGregor's days in the UFC were numbered. But as the distance between today and the Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight grows ever larger, there is still no indication that McGregor will return to the company he used as a launching pad. Dana White's promises that McGregor would return to fight in the UFC by the end-of-year December 30 card have proved to be as empty as any of his other recent guarantees.
The UFC has made attempts to return McGregor to the Octagon. According to sources close to both sides, the promotion began negotiations after the Mayweather bout with McGregor's side regarding a fight on the UFC 219 card. McGregor's side made unspecified contractual requests; they were described as the sort of demands that would have caused the old ownership group to place you on their version of Santa's naughty list. Most of them were "non-starters" under the old regime. But times have changed, and McGregor is perhaps the most vital piece of the UFC's puzzle in 2017 and beyond.
And so the UFC agreed to meet McGregor's demands. But after agreeing to the demands, McGregor's camp added more demands. One source said it "moved the goalposts" and that it appeared McGregor had no intention of fighting in December. After McGregor's outburst at a Bellator event in Dublin in November, the UFC decided to quell its efforts to squeeze him onto the December card, figuring it would be a bad public relations look to feature him so prominently after his actions that night.
And now, White has shifted the public narrative. He's publicly acknowledging for the first time what those close to McGregor have said for months: that the Irish superstar may never return to the UFC.
"Money changes everything," White said. "He may never fight again. He has got $100 million in the bank. It's tough to get punched in the face every day when you've got $100 million." White even shut down McGregor's demand for ownership in the UFC despite saying in August that he was open to the idea of giving McGregor points.
Dana does say he is working on a new deal with Conor, but doesn't sound like WME-IMG will budge on giving McGregor ownership stock. "Did Jordan get (ownership) points?"— Adam Hill (@AdamHillLVRJ) November 28, 2017
All this is leading somewhere, and if you've been paying close enough attention, none of it will surprise you. Back in January 2016, I reported on McGregor's eventual intention to venture out as either a co-promoter with the UFC or a promoter standing on his own.
I have been told by multiple credible sources close to the featherweight champion that McGregor's ultimate goal is to strike out on his own, to start his own promotion company and to either promote events on his own or perhaps co-promote with the UFC. It is not more McGregor bluster. He actually wants to do it.
McGregor's career path has been easy to read. Since signing with the UFC, every step he's taken has been one with upward momentum. And not just minimal upward momentum; most of his moves have involved giant leaps that confound logic and crash against the notion of fairness. The idea that McGregor, after making $100 million in a single night, would return to the UFC even for a quarter of that price (and at least a nominal ownership stake in his own fight) is a silly one.
Likewise is the notion that he would return to the UFC after serving as a co-promoter of one of the largest boxing matches in history, only to allow himself to be relegated back to the position of mere role player. Sources close to McGregor have told me for years that the fighter's dream is to promote his fights at the historic Croke Park in Dublin. It was assumed that it would need to be in conjunction with the UFC, which made it seem impossible given the UFC's need to time its broadcasts for a more convenient airing time in North America.
But now it appears McGregor's foray into boxing is just another step he is taking to put the UFC in his rearview mirror, to finally be the ultimate boss and the one calling all the shots. McGregor as both boxer and promoter of his own bouts (and perhaps the bouts of other hand-picked fighters) in the style of Mayweather is closer to reality than one might think.
McGregor would almost certainly be challenged in court were he to attempt to promote his own mixed martial arts fights outside of the auspices of the UFC. But as a now-professional boxer, he is covered under the auspices of the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, a piece of legislation the UFC is not chomping at the bit to combat, particularly since it is facing the prospect of the Ali Act being extended to mixed martial arts. For now, it's only a theory, but if McGregor has decided that he solely wants to pursue professional boxing and leave mixed martial arts, there does not appear to be much the UFC can do about it.
And for a man consumed with the idea of money and power, it is the only option. No more being forced to follow a schedule created by others. Nobody calling the shots and telling you what to do. And perhaps most importantly, no sharing the wealth with others who use your name to vault and keep the lion's share of the resulting enormous financial success.