UPDATE: On Tuesday afternoon, The New York Times reported that McGregor is the subject of a sexual assault investigation in Ireland stemming from an incident in December. There have been whisperings about the investigation for the last couple of months, but McGregor was never directly named. Obviously, if the investigation leads to a lengthy trial or a conviction, it would change everything.
Later on Tuesday, McGregor’s spokesperson released a statement denying a link between news of the investigation and his retirement announcement.
The first time Conor McGregor retired from MMA, in April 2016, it was via a half-startling, half-comical tweet: “I have decided to retire young. Thanks for the cheese. Catch ya’s later.” Nobody believed him. Not after he had just come off a loss against Nate Diaz at UFC 196 a month earlier, and with a massive rematch on his horizon that could earn him well into the eight figures. Not after he’d built up a legend of his own indomitability that could translate into over a million pay-per-view buys. Of course, he was posturing, negotiating his next fight through contemplative bluffs. He was letting the world imagine losing him right in the heart of his prime.
He ended up fighting Diaz again five months later at UFC 202, and shattered the UFC’s PPV record with 1.6 million buys. Mission accomplished.
So when the “Notorious” McGregor retired at 2:18 a.m. ET on Tuesday, it had people sifting through the salt spill again, trying to pick out the choice grains. Like last time, the news came via tweet: “Hey guys quick announcement, I’ve decided to retire from the sport formally known as ‘Mixed Martial Art’ today. I wish all my old colleagues well going forward in competition. I now join my former partners on this venture, already in retirement. Proper Pina Coladas on me fellas!”
He always did want to be more like Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta—the “former partners” in question, who sold the UFC for $4.2 billion in 2017—than Muhammad Ali.
The circumstances of this latest Twitter retirement are somewhat similar, though not entirely like last time. McGregor made somewhere in the vicinity of $100 million for his crossover boxing match with Floyd Mayweather in 2017, the kind of money that can get you to reflecting on the absurdity of taking punches in a cage. Not only that, but he became the first UFC fighter to win concurrent titles in two different weight classes when he beat Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 for the lightweight belt. He’s accomplished just about everything that he’s set out to do in fighting, and raised just about every bar. Even for a happy-go-lucky materialist like McGregor, the dangling carrots to keep fighting no longer catch his eye like they once did.
It helps that he’s emerged as a 21st-century whiskey baron, having launched—to great fanfare and success—his Proper No. Twelve Irish Whiskey brand in 2018. These days McGregor cares more about the coopers and the casks than he does about fighting “Cowboy” Cerrone or Max Holloway.
Then again … then again … he is once again coming off a loss. He got destroyed for four rounds by Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229 in October, and—as a preternatural competitor first and foremost—that can’t sit well. Retiring? Please. He has been pursuing a rematch with Nurmagomedov, and growing frustrated that his request hasn’t gained any traction. He’s been talking about fighting just about everybody, really, a man fully aware that he’s the living embodiment of a sweepstakes.
Last week, when he was a guest on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon—which aired on Monday night, coincidentally—he said he was in negotiations with the UFC to return this summer. He also pointed out that there were a lot of politics going on. In other words, the UFC hasn’t been cooperating with his idea of what should happen next. A recent point of contention was that McGregor and Cerrone—who were deep into talks for a fight—couldn’t headline a PPV because it wouldn’t be for a title. The UFC traditionally puts a title fight at the top of a PPV, and was holding its ground in this case. Strong-arming tactics by the UFC to bring McGregor’s head out of the clouds? Of course. His headlining fight with Diaz at UFC 202 wasn’t for a title, and that one shattered the record for buys.
As for whom he might face next, McGregor told Fallon that it’s entirely up to him. “In reality, I can pick who I please,” he said. “I’ve done a lot, I’ve fought a lot. I’ve never pulled out of contests. I’ve gone through some crazy injuries, some crazy external situations that many a man would sprint for the hills if it happened to them. But I stood firm, done my piece for the company.”
He added: “Like I said, this whiskey is my baby. I have a lot of great entities. I don’t necessarily need to fight. I am set for life, my family is set for life. We are good. But I am eager to fight. So, we will see what happens. I’m just staying ready, as I like to say.”
None of that sounds like a guy who has given serious thought or consideration about hanging up the gloves for good. At 30 years old, McGregor is still by far the biggest, more celebrated mixed martial artist on the planet, and he knows it. His tweet had a quarter of a million likes by mid-Tuesday morning. UFC president Dana White knows this too. It’s why when ESPN asked him about McGregor’s decision, White gushed about how proud he was of him and pointed out all that money he’s made. White, too, is a public poker player. He enjoys calling bluffs with the best of them. McGregor knows that White knows what he means to the UFC’s bottom line, all of which speaks to the “politics” he told Fallon about.
McGregor is still the demand, and the benchmark. He lost to Nurmagomedov—so what? Half the roster is calling him out because he still represents the absolute pinnacle of success in the sport. He is the money fight, the justification of any career, the only name that guarantees the random fighters of the day a link to posterity. Cerrone angled as hard as any fighter could for a fight with McGregor, and McGregor fanned the flames. Diaz, who made enough money in his series with McGregor to sit on the sideline until the trilogy fight can take place, has been trying to provoke McGregor of late. McGregor has flirted with the idea of fighting Anderson Silva, Holloway, and even Anthony Pettis.
McGregor has been posting pictures of himself training. Even after he got busted in Miami a couple of weeks ago for destroying a fan’s cellphone in a hotel lobby—the latest in an ongoing exhibition series of erratic behavior—he was next seen out on a run in tremendous shape. McGregor wanted to fight as of a few days ago, and now suddenly he’s wrapping quotes around the sport formerly known as “Mixed Martial Art” as he bids it adieu?
Remember, McGregor acts on impulse more than any big business magnate should, jumping into cages, pushing referees, slinging water bottles at press conferences, throwing hand trucks at parked buses, you name it. Theatrics sell, and by extension so do power sulks and tantrums. Is McGregor really done with the racket? If he is walking away from MMA, it would be among the most rational things the “Champ Champ” has ever done. But let’s face it, McGregor isn’t known for being rational. He’s known for doing as he damn well pleases, and right now there appears to be some subtext in the retirement tweet. The UFC can read it, and it’s not about to let him go.