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Return of the Mac

Conor McGregor is back after nearly two years out of MMA. What does that mean for the UFC?

A black-and-white portrait of Conor McGregor AP Images/Ringer illustration

If you don’t believe that the UFC is one big, happily dysfunctional family, go check out last Friday’s 25th-anniversary press conference, which was set up to unveil all the marquee matchups for the rest of the year. UFC president Dana White was at the head of the table like a father figure who, over the years, has grown inured to all the bullshit, surrounded by all the unruly kids and cousins hissing and arguing, calling each other names, and threatening bodily harm. There was the normally quiet son, James Vick, dropping the r-word while he was going at Justin Gaethje. Dana’s face curled as if to say, Goddammit, James, what have I told you about using that word! There was Cowboy Cerrone with a big wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth at the dinner table, goading Mike Perry by just smiling at him. And of course there was Israel Adesanya, about whom everybody—namely opponent-to-be Derek Brunson—kept remarking on how skinny he looked. Don’t they feed you at college?

As with any family, there was also a healthy amount of passive-aggressive tension. In this case, it was for the prodigal son who wasn’t there, Conor McGregor, the golden boy who hasn’t been around for the past couple of years. Everyone knows by now that Conor is Dana’s favorite. He’s the one Dana gives unconditional love to, even when he acts up and gets himself into hot water with the law. Some of those gathered at the press conference, such as welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, have been vocal about never feeling loved by Dana. But McGregor can do no wrong. Even when he tried to throw a dolly through a bus window hoping to hit Khabib Nurmagomedov (but instead injuring multiple other fighters and forcing them off the UFC 223 card), Dana tapped his foot disapprovingly but in the end let it slide. A doting promoter will overlook a tantrum or two, especially when the fighter—no matter how volatile or entitled—can make him lots of money.

After playing coy when asked at the beginning of the press whether the Nurmagomedov-McGregor fight was close to being made, Dana closed out the conference by queuing up a video. It was a promo of, what’s this now?—Conor McGregor!—announcing his long-awaited return against Nurmagomedov at UFC 229 on October 6 in Las Vegas. As if that weren’t enough to incite a few grumbles from the amassed family for being upstaged yet again by the absent Irishman, the UFC used footage of the dolly incident as part of the hype package. Well, of course they did. You think miscreant behavior is going to give a black eye to a sport in which the goal is to hand out black eyes?

At that moment, Nate Diaz, the famous McGregor foil who was on hand, after two years away himself, to promote his November 3 fight with Dustin Poirier, stormed off the stage. He tweeted minutes later, “I’m not fighting on that show fuk the @ufc.” This wasn’t a big surprise. Diaz, the black sheep, butts heads with Dana at every gathering. But this tantrum was understandable. Diaz has already split a pair of fights with McGregor that earned the UFC its biggest pay-per-view number of all time, and in his return to the spotlight finds himself shunted aside by a promo featuring his archnemesis. So he bolted, and the rest of the UFC clan bit their tongues as Dana made his toasts to Conor’s return.

It’s a dysfunctional family, and everyone at the table sort of hates Conor—but they tolerate him, too, as well as Dana’s favoritism, because nobody can deny what he means to MMA. With McGregor back, so is the intensity of the sport. Jealousy, envy, and resentment aside, his return is enough to reinvigorate a sport that has lost some of its enthusiasm over the past 24 months. McGregor didn’t need to be on hand at the 25th-anniversary press conference to generate the feel of an upcoming event; he merely had to have a date against perhaps the most dominant MMA fighter of all time.

What does all this mean? Quite a bit.

McGregor’s Legacy

Of the many refrains during McGregor’s time away from the UFC, some popular ones were that, (A) he didn’t want to defend his featherweight and lightweight titles for fear of losing them, (B) he had outpriced himself after collecting nine digits in his Floyd Mayweather boxing match and therefore might never return to the UFC, and (C) he was deathly afraid of Khabib Nurmagomedov.

Let’s face it. McGregor was never going to walk away from fighting just because he’d already earned a measly $100 million. As long as there was money to be made, McGregor was always going to return. To him, the competition was never really with other fighters like Eddie Alvarez or José Aldo. It was always with LeBron James or Neymar. He competes for immortality—and also those zeroes on his check.

Yet if there was any question that McGregor was ducking Nurmagomedov, he answered that by reaching a deal to fight him immediately on returning. With the UFC having stripped away his titles due to inactivity, this fight—which is the biggest in UFC history, if for no other reason than it will end up being the most anticipated—is perfect for McGregor’s psychology. When he’s hungry to take something, he’s at his absolute best. Longtime featherweight champion Aldo hadn’t lost in a decade, but McGregor beat him in 13 seconds at UFC 194 and took his title. No UFC fighter had ever held dual titles, so McGregor worked his way to a lightweight title fight with Eddie Alvarez, and took his belt, too, at UFC 205. When McGregor saw an opportunity to do a crossover fight with Floyd Mayweather, he seized it and made more money than any MMA fighter ever has.

The dangling carrot for him has always been to top his last feat with something three times more gigantic his next time out, to outdo everyone’s wildest expectations while doing the billionaire strut all the way to the bank. Now he’ll return for a fight with Nurmagomedov, the man who holds the belt that is spiritually (and linearly) his. By the time they step in the octagon, McGregor will make sure that a large portion of the fight fan base will see Nurmagomedov as nothing more than a man masquerading with the lightweight title.

But what truly endears McGregor to the public, and the feeling that came rushing back when the fight was announced, is that he will fight anybody. A few years ago Dana White made a point of explaining to the media that nobody wants to fight Nurmagomedov, which therefore makes matchmaking hard. Now that he has the title, there are plenty of people who would fight him, but the old sentiment stays intact—nobody wants to.

The Dagestani sambo player used to wrestle bears, for fuck’s sake. He has smashed all 26 of the people he’s faced in his career, including 10 victims in the UFC. He takes people down and beats them into husks, sometimes while holding conversations with ringside folks. Sometimes he just tells the person he’s smashing that it’s his destiny, and his time, and that they must surrender, just like he did with poor Michael Johnson at Madison Square Garden. The most telling of all: He’s never lost a round. There is no one on his level. Except maybe McGregor, who is publicizing his extraordinary self-belief yet again by taking the fight.

If Conor had come back and insisted on a third fight with Diaz, it might have made money, but it would have been a bad look. Diaz hasn’t fought since the second encounter with McGregor and is therefore only residually relevant. McGregor would have been breaking the contract that he made with the fight fans, which is that whichever fight presents the most ridiculous odds against him is the fight he wants. He feeds off of collective doubt. He wasn’t able to capitalize on that against Mayweather, although he’d already beaten the odds by stepping in the ring with him. In every other circumstance, he has succeeded. That’s why he earned the nickname “Mystic Mac.”

He called his shot against Aldo at a time when nobody could conceive of such an outcome. He prevailed against Chad Mendes on short notice, even as skeptics chanted that he’d find certain doom the first time he faced a wrestler. After losing a short-notice fight with Diaz that was arbitrarily contested at welterweight, he insisted on doing a second fight—again at welterweight, just to prove he could—and avenged it. Then he bewitched Alvarez to win a second title, just like he said he would.

McGregor takes on what seems impossible, and that’s what the people love. Taking on Nurmagomedov is in keeping with the most vital part of his legacy. If he comes back and beats Nurmagomedov to reclaim the lightweight title, he’ll become to MMA what Jordan was to basketball. It’ll be like 2001: A Space Odyssey, when Dave is in his space pod traveling through psychedelic color fields beyond Jupiter and ends up in a quiet white room just on the outskirts of time.

(It could also set up that next Diaz fight.)

Who Else Is Still Out There for McGregor?

The brilliant thing about McGregor coming back around the same time as Diaz is that, should they both win, the UFC would be justified in booking that trilogy fight for the lightweight title. If Diaz beats contender Dustin Poirier at UFC 230 at Madison Square Garden—and that’s a big if—he would leapfrog the rest of the field. Then it would come down to McGregor finding a way to dethrone Nurmagomedov, which might be an even bigger if. But should those ifs become reality, the UFC would waste zero seconds in making this fight.

Then again, almost nothing plays out the way people want it to. Tony Ferguson was supposed to fight Nurmagomedov on three separate occasions. The last time, he tripped over a cable in a television studio while promoting the fight and injured his knee. That’s the kind of random, inexplicable stuff that happens in the UFC. One minute a big fight is on the horizon; the next minute we’re asking someone named Al Iaquinta to step in on 24 hours’ notice to fight Nurmagomedov, like he did at UFC 223. McGregor would have never even fought Diaz at all if then–lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos didn’t injure himself before UFC 196.

Even if that scenario doesn’t play out perfectly, there are other routes to Diaz-McGregor III that the UFC will almost certainly capitalize on. Should McGregor and Diaz both lose (a far more plausible scenario), that fight could be booked without apology or explanation. Should Diaz win and McGregor lose, same thing. The only thing missing in these setups is a championship title. If McGregor wins and Diaz loses, there would be no justifiable way to make the fight happen anytime soon. But at that point, the UFC wouldn’t mind because whoever McGregor fought next would mean big business, even without the mean-mugging pride of Stockton.

So who else is out there for Conor? No matter how many flirtations with it there were during McGregor’s sabbatical from the UFC, a Mayweather sequel—this time in the octagon—is about the dumbest idea that has ever been floated. Not even the most gullible fight fans would fall for such hooey. But a fight with Georges St-Pierre? Now we’re talking. St-Pierre, just like McGregor, is the spiritual champion of two separate divisions (welterweight and middleweight). Like McGregor, he never lost his titles. He ceded them. McGregor was stripped, but St-Pierre just gave his away.

A clash between GSP and McGregor—either at lightweight for McGregor’s (potential) title, or at welterweight, where St-Pierre ruled for nearly a decade—would do great business. Plus, one side of the equation is already thinking about it. St-Pierre told Submission Radio this weekend in Australia that he’d be down to fight the winner of Nurmagomedov-McGregor, seeing it as a “legacy upgrade” for himself that features “good money.”

Another fight on McGregor’s horizon might be against current featherweight champion Max Holloway. Depending on what happens with Holloway’s health, a rematch could glint like gold. Holloway hasn’t lost since falling to McGregor in 2013—a streak of 12 straight wins—and is almost certainly bound for a step up to the lightweight division after his health scare during his weight cut at UFC 226.

What McGregor’s Return Means for the UFC (and Morale)

Over the past couple of years, the UFC’s pay-per-view numbers have gone steadily down. UFC 226, which featured a heavyweight title fight between Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier, notched about 380,000 buys. UFC 225, which ended with a middleweight title fight between Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero, got 250,000. UFC 224, which pitted women’s bantamweight champion Amanda Nunes against Raquel Pennington, did even worse.

In fact, the UFC could add up all the PPV buys of 2018 so far and it would still fall well short of what McGregor did against Diaz in the 2016 rematch (1.7 million). McGregor’s last UFC fight, at UFC 205 against Alvarez, got about 1.3 million. His fight against Nurmagomedov could very well get near 2.5 million. That’s a big shot in the arm for a company that used to draw 250,000 buys just by turning on the lights in the arena. And it’s a tremendous positive sign of life for a promotion that is set to enter into a five-year deal with ESPN at the start of 2019 and is struggling to build new stars. Since the WME-IMG conglomerate (now known as Endeavor) bought the UFC for $4 billion in 2016, it hasn’t had much chance to witness the transformative nature of a McGregor fight. Or really, any of the bigger stars. So far McGregor has fought just once under the new ownership, at UFC 205. Ditto women’s pioneer Ronda Rousey (who fought her last fight at UFC 207) and beleaguered ex-champion Jon Jones (UFC 214). Brock Lesnar, who held the UFC PPV record of 1.6 million for his rematch with Frank Mir at UFC 100, has never fought for Endeavor. So far the new owners have mostly visited the old battlefields, but haven’t gotten to know the great generals.

McGregor is just what the doctor ordered. His return—along with the pending returns of Lesnar and Jones—signals a return to the “event.” Too many UFC cards these days pass by the calendar without drawing interest beyond the (diminishing) hardcore set. McGregor is the one name that invites the rest of the world to peek in on the sport. His presence alone makes everyone involved more visible.

That’s why it was a big deal when the UFC announced his return Friday. Everybody in the room at the 25th-anniversary press conference can fight, but not many of them can draw. Not like McGregor, who can fetch more PPV buys than the entire lot of them combined and shatter his own records like a dolly going through a bus window.