It’s been 471 days since Conor McGregor won the UFC lightweight title, and with each passing day it becomes a little more glaring that he hasn’t defended it. Even more glaring is the fact that the UFC hasn’t officially stripped its most “Notorious” inactive champion, especially considering (a) there’s an interim champion in Tony Ferguson ready to face him, who’s since been redirected to a match against Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 223 in April, and (b) it’s been six full months since his oil-struck boxing fling with Floyd Mayweather.
The situation has gone from weird to weirder in the last month or so. On January 19, the UFC held a press conference in Boston for UFC 223, presumably to strip McGregor of his title and introduce the lightweight title bout between Ferguson and Nurmagomedov as the real deal. Instead it was declared that the fight would be for the actual belt, yet McGregor wouldn’t necessarily be stripped. How is it possible that McGregor will retain the title while either Ferguson or Nurmagomedov will become the actual champion on April 7 in Brooklyn? Are we dealing in lightweight title shareholding?
UFC president Dana White still can’t utter the words “Conor has been stripped,” even as he reminds everyone that “Conor may never fight again.” He can nod and agree when other people say it, as TMZ found out this week, but he can’t say it himself. He stood up there like the Riddler during that press conference last month, confounding a room full of inquisitive cops. White is speaking out of both sides of his mouth, and what he’s saying is sort of nothing—or kind of everything; as in, McGregor is powerful enough to tongue-tie the greatest carnival barker in the history of the fight game.
On Thursday McGregor indirectly responded to White via an Instagram post, adding new wrinkles to the already exhausted face of things.
Let’s try to make sense of things, beginning with …
White’s Interview With TMZ
In one of those fun, middle-of-the-sidewalk interviews with TMZ this week, White reiterated his stance. Here’s exactly what was said.
Interviewer: All the fans want to know, are you going to strip Conor of his belt before the Khabib-Ferguson fight?
White: I said in the last press conference, that [Ferguson-Nurmagomedov] fight will be for the title.
Interviewer: For the title. … So it’s not for the interim title?
White: It’s not for the interim title, that fight is for the title.
Interviewer: For the real. … So presumably Conor’s going to be stripped the week before?
White: That fight will be for the title.
Interviewer: That means you have to strip Conor, though.
Interviewer: So is Conor upset that you’re about to strip him?
White: Is he upset? No, Conor understands. Listen, Conor, he made a lot of money. You know, he wants some time off, but the division has to go on and the business has to go on.
Interviewer: Does Conor get the winner?
White: Yeah, I’d like to see Conor fight the winner.
Interviewer: What’s the latest with Conor, when does he say he’s coming back?
White: It was August, and then September. I don’t know. I say it all the time, man, with that kind of money, Conor may never come back.
Interviewer: You still believe he might never come back?
White: Yeah, it’s a lot of money.
White echoed everything he said in January. But the thing he didn’t say was that “Conor will be stripped.” White doesn’t want to strip his cash cow McGregor a second time, but at this point he doesn’t have much of a choice. McGregor has demonstrated his whole career that he’s a sublime challenger—either to titles in different weight classes or against boxing greats—but he doesn’t like to be challenged. Psychologically, he’s wired to come at things from the hungry end of the equation.
Yet just as White can’t bring himself to say the words “Conor will be stripped,” it’s just as difficult—if not impossible—for McGregor to utter the words, “I’ve made plenty of money. I’m good.” McGregor is going to come back—bank on it—because he loves money. In fact, he declared that in response to White’s constant cautions that we damn well might have seen the last of him.
He made his return clear Thursday.
McGregor’s Instagram Post
I am fighting again. Period. I am the best at this. I put my name forward to step in at UFC 222 to face Frankie Edgar when Max Holloway pulled out, but I was told there wasn't enough time to generate the money that the UFC would need. I was excited about bouncing in last minute and taking out the final featherweight, without all the rest of the stuff that comes with this game. Please respect the insane amount of work outside the fight game that I have put in. On top of the fighting. I am here. It is on them to come and get me. Because I am here. Yours sincerely, The Champ Champ™
Not only did McGregor vow to return, he also said he had volunteered to fight again as soon as March 3, at UFC 222.
Let’s deconstruct this post, as there’s a lot going on here.
I am fighting again. Period.
This is a fed-up response to White, but also to all the rumors that he may be done because he made a cool nine figures recently. Bottom line is private jets don’t pay for themselves. And besides, if Floyd Mayweather comes over to MMA, or if Nate Diaz wants to capitalize on that trilogy—or both—McGregor isn’t about to scoff at those paydays.
McGregor has been posting photos of himself training since December, and it’s doubtful that he’s hitting the gym for the fun of it. McGregor knows White is just saying he could be done to prompt his return. In case you can’t see through White’s game, McGregor just using a high-pitched whistle for the tone deaf.
I am the best at this.
True, though he’s now moving into another sector of relevance. When McGregor came up out of Ireland, he carried a vital relevance in taking out contenders and eventually champions. The Diaz interlude—a pair of fights against the lightweight Diaz at welterweight that generated the biggest pay-per-view in UFC history at UFC 202—began his segue into pop relevance. It was a detour from the meritocracy, a kind of McGregorpalooza festival. He came back to relevance for the Alvarez fight to make history, then shot off to the boxing realm for the Mayweather fight.
If he fights Diaz again, or Mayweather for that matter, he may move away from any sort of conventional relevance for good.
I put my name forward to step in at UFC 222 to face Frankie Edgar when Max Holloway pulled out, but I was told there wasn’t enough time to generate the money that the UFC would need.
This was the biggest surprise in the post, even if we don’t know how true it is. For starters, McGregor hasn’t competed at featherweight since defeating Jose Aldo for the title at UFC 194 in 2015. He looked like death on the scale the day before and wasted no time after knocking Aldo out in declaring his intention to move to lightweight for his next fight. Edgar’s manager, Ali Abdel-Aziz, later stated that McGregor would volunteer for the fight only if the UFC would create a new 165-pound division.
That sounds more like McGregor. Nobody expected him to consider a return to featherweight because, well, why would he?
I was excited about bouncing in last minute and taking out the final featherweight, without all the rest of the stuff that comes with this game.
Having already taken out current 145-pound champion Max Holloway back in 2013, McGregor is saying that Edgar was the last viable featherweight challenge for him from when he was in the division. He was supposed to fight Edgar after defeating Aldo, but instead opted to try for the lightweight title. That part is easy to understand.
But what is telling is the idea of coming in “last minute” and avoiding “all the rest of the stuff that comes with this game.” By that McGregor means the promotional efforts, the press conferences and tours, the media obligations, the cameras and hoopla—the very things he has excelled at to the point of becoming transformative. The things that made him ultra-rich. Remember, he and Diaz were supposed to fight at UFC 200, until McGregor refused to break from his training camp in Ireland to do the required promotional stops in New York and Las Vegas. It was postponed until UFC 202, and the organization cashed in huge (1.65 million PPV buys).
It’s also important to remember that many of McGregor’s fights have been altered affairs with opponent switches, and he just rolled with the punches. His fight with Holloway was originally going to be against Andy Ogle, until Ogle got injured. He was set to face Cole Miller upon his return from a torn ACL, but Miller got hurt and was replaced with Diego Brandao. When Aldo got hurt the first time through, McGregor fought Chad Mendes instead. Rafael dos Anjos hurt his foot and somehow morphed into Nate Diaz. McGregor has never had a problem fighting a Man-E-Faces, and it looks like he might prefer it.
Still, what does it say about him that he’d rather fight a much smaller Edgar last-minute rather than Nurmagomedov or Ferguson, the killer duo who present the biggest, most natural challenges for him in the weight class where he holds the belt? And, to be frank, aren’t the promotional efforts, his ability to work a room and sell his brand of bombastic mysticism, the reason he cashes the biggest checks in the UFC?
Please respect the insane amount of work outside the fight game that I have put in.
I think he means he’s going to sell whether or not he promotes his next fight, though this might be a subtweet to Dana White and Co. It’s possible he’s trying to get the Ronda Rousey treatment from UFC 207, where she was required to do minimal media before her fight with Amanda Nunes. It’s also possible this is his way of saying that the sticking point for getting booked at all is that the UFC wants him to do more promotional work than he’s willing. What better way to negotiate this point than through passive-aggressive Instagram posts?
On top of the fighting. I am here. It is on them to come and get me. Because I am here. Yours sincerely, The Champ Champ™
Come get him, UFC. He wants to fight. No mention of being stripped, which doesn’t matter. He still considers himself the “champ champ” even though he’s had one belt stripped already and the UFC’s hands are fondling the buckle of the other.
So What’s Going to Happen?
The UFC is in an undeniable lull. Rousey is gone to the WWE. Jon Jones is battling drug charges (again) and facing suspension. Brock Lesnar is still a long way from returning. New stars aren’t developing as quickly as UFC wants. Ratings have been down. The television deal with Fox concludes at the end of 2018, which means the UFC needs a strong year to maximize a new deal.
McGregor has a lot of leverage. He knows where he sits as the star of the show, even if his reluctance to defend his title has turned many MMA fans against him. So what should the UFC do with its one major commodity when he doesn’t want to fight the contenders and (apparently) doesn’t want to do all the promotion that goes with it, after 471 days of holding the title hostage?
Dana White might not be able to say it outright, but I can: You strip him. And you present him again as the challenger—the angle where he’s most comfortable—against the winner of Nurmagomedov-Ferguson. Let him come at it from the position of hunger, after Nurmagomedov and Ferguson eat each other alive for the real belt at UFC 223.
Or let him fight Diaz, a fight in which titles don’t mean anything, anyway. Leave it to McGregor and his public to split hairs over what that proves.