Conor McGregor Is a Problem of the UFC's Own Creation

Chad Dundas@@chaddundasMMA Lead WriterApril 6, 2018

Ultimate fighting star Conor McGregor, left, is led by an official to an unmarked vehicle while leaving the 78th Precinct of the New York Police Department, Friday, April 6, 2018, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. McGregor is facing criminal charges in the wake of a backstage melee he allegedly instigated that has forced the removal of three fights from UFC's biggest card of the year. Video footage appears to show the promotion's most bankable star throwing a hand truck at a bus full of fighters after a Thursday news conference for UFC 223 at Brooklyn's Barclays Center. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Now that the shards of broken glass have settled and the flying hand trucks returned to earth, the biggest question facing the UFC and megastar Conor McGregor is how they might coexist moving forward.

UFC President Dana White has been quietly livid with McGregor since Thursday's assault on the UFC 223 media day. In a display stunning even by MMA's wild standards, surveillance footage obtained by TMZ Sports appears to show the lightweight champion and a group of associates storming Brooklyn's Barclays Center and breaking the windows out of a charter bus carrying a group of athletes scheduled to compete on Saturday's fight card.

In the wake of that attack, police say McGregor has been charged with three counts of misdemeanor assault and one count of felony criminal mischief. The UFC has announced that three separate fights slated for UFC 223 have been canceled. And the once tight relationship between White and McGregor appears shattered.

"In the history of the UFC, this is definitely the worst thing ever that's happened," White said during a Friday morning appearance on ESPN's Get Up! show. "This is not the Conor McGregor that I know."

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While White's anger is understandable, the accompanying shock feels misplaced. Fact is, this is the Conor McGregor we've all known all along—and until this week, the UFC had been gleefully along for the ride.

The fight company has largely stood by and massively profited from McGregor, offering only the occasional slap on the wrist, throughout a slew of problematic behavior dating back nearly to his Octagon debut in April 2013.

That behavior, of course, has always been accompanied by huge box office success.

According to Tapology.com, McGregor owns four of the UFC's five all-time bestselling pay-per-view events. In the sudden absence of attractions like Ronda Rousey, Brock Lesnar and Georges St-Pierre, he was often credited with being the organization's last remaining bankable star.

Conor McGregor and Dana White at a prefight press conference for McGregor's boxing match against Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Conor McGregor and Dana White at a prefight press conference for McGregor's boxing match against Floyd Mayweather Jr.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

So long as McGregor kept the cash flowing, perhaps it was worth it for the UFC to excuse his erratic and sometimes troubling actions. That is, until this week, when the company itself came into his line of fire.

During just the last six months, McGregor has been linked to an escalating series of bizarre incidents, including shoving a referee and slapping a ringside official at a Bellator MMA event in Dublin in November 2017. That same month, reports surfaced that the fighter was in hot water with an Irish organized crime syndicate after an alleged nightclub brawl.

This is to say nothing of October 2017, when McGregor got caught on camera using an anti-gay slur backstage at a UFC event. Or what about the time he and Nate Diaz hurled water bottles at each other during the official press conference for UFC 202 in August 2016.

The Diaz incident drew McGregor at least one lawsuit, a fine and 25 hours of community service, but very little response from the UFC itself.

Then there was the time he called opponent Dennis Siver a "nazi" leading up to their bout in January 2015. There was the time the Irish police investigated him for brandishing a gun in an Instagram post (McGregor later said it was just an Airsoft rifle). There were the numerous hard-partying escapades—during one of which McGregor reportedly ended up looking wide-eyed and dazed in a tree house while in Liverpool to attend a horse race.

These transgressions seldom netted him any official sanction from the UFC.

When the promotion did seek to lay down the law, it appeared ineffectual at best.

In April 2016, the fight company yanked him from a scheduled bout at UFC 200 after the two sides reportedly couldn't come to terms on his media obligations. Just a few months later, however, the UFC and McGregor were back on the same page, and his August rematch with Diaz became the company's most lucrative PPV event of all time.

The Bellator MMA incident allegedly prompted the organization to also pull McGregor from an appearance at UFC 219, but that fight—if it existed at all—had never been announced in the first place.

Meanwhile, the UFC made numerous policy exceptions for McGregor. In November 2016, it allowed the then-featherweight champion to become the first fighter to simultaneously hold two UFC titles in two different weight classes after he defeated Eddie Alvarez to claim the 155-pound crown at UFC 205.

The following summer—after he'd already announced a long paternity leave from combat sports—the UFC took the unprecedented step of granting McGregor permission to take on Floyd Mayweather Jr. in a boxing match. This flew in the face of two decades of precedent, where the UFC guarded the exclusive nature of its performance contracts as vital to its success.

The lead-up to Mayweather-McGregor included ugly banter and negative press coverage, but it finished as one of the top-selling PPV events of all time. Again, this makes it easy to imagine that UFC brass figured the ends justified McGregor's problematic means.

But as ESPN analyst Sarah Spain noted Thursday, perhaps the lead-up to the Mayweather fight merely set the stage for McGregor's UFC 223 antics:

In fact, maybe it's most accurate to say the UFC didn't just look the other way as McGregor's career slowly but surely rattled off the rails—it helped create the problem.

After all, if you want to know how a guy who started as a plumber eventually came to view himself as above the law, you might as well start here: One of the first times UFC fans ever saw McGregor, he was racing around the streets of Las Vegas riding shotgun in one of White's expensive sports cars.

Soon after, McGregor graduated to swilling whiskey with former UFC co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta to celebrate his victories. McGregor reportedly stayed in one of Fertitta's private residences while in Vegas leading up to his fights and trained in Fertitta's private gym. McGregor publicly reveled in this special treatment and would refer to UFC partner Frank Fertitta as "Uncle Frank" in his social media posts.

The 29-year-old Irishman began his UFC career sporting ball caps and T-shirts and didn't graduate to his custom suit-clad "Notorious" persona until after Lorenzo Fertitta hooked him up with his personal tailor.

McGregor in a custom suit following the Mayweather fight.
McGregor in a custom suit following the Mayweather fight.David Becker/Getty Images

On their own, none of these factors is inexcusable or even egregious. Viewed together, however, it's easy to see how the UFC helped fashion a reality where McGregor figured he could lead a dozen or so cohorts on a rampage through the Barclays Center.

Why not? They'd always let him do whatever he wanted before.

Even now, we don't know how the UFC will punish McGregor for this incident, though White has said discipline is coming.

The organization can't very well cut ties with him. Doing that would merely play further into McGregor's hands, allowing him to go off on his own and promote events under his nebulous McGregor Sports and Entertainment production banner.

It's possible laying siege to that bus will only make McGregor more marketable in the long run. The UFC will obviously want to be around to capitalize on that, since ultimately it won't have any other real option.

At the moment, however, it's clear the fight company has a problem on its hands—one that it helped construct while building McGregor into one of the biggest stars the Octagon had ever seen.

It's a vexing Catch 22: The UFC frankly can't afford to lose him, but it can't afford to totally lose control of him, either.