Self-promotion and sports have always gone hand-in-hand, especially when the athletes in question are raring to punch each other in the face. The primal nature of combat sports, which is arguably the purest form of exerting dominance over another person, lends itself well to bragging about how good you are. It can range from fun and catchy (Muhammad Ali’s early years), vitriolic (Ali’s racist tirades against Joe Frazier), to downright frightening (Mike Tyson’s cannibalistic threats against another fighter’s children).
These days, the undisputed king of fighting words is UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor. Yes, he’s without doubt a talented fighter, but his superstardom has been cemented largely thanks to his gift of gab. When the Irishman takes to the mic, whether you’re a fan or hater, you’re in for a show filled with memorable quotes that one of your officemates will emulate for months. He’s gone from struggling plumber/fighter to multi-millionaire in just a few years, making a lot of money for himself and the UFC.
In turn, he’s had a lot of support from his employers along the way. Since McGregor’s rise to popularity, the UFC higher-ups have done all they can to ensure the best possible outcomes for their cash cow. First, he was granted a title shot after defeating the game but limited and aging gatekeeper Dennis Siver. Then after he defeated Jose Aldo for the undisputed featherweight crown, the UFC allowed him to retain said title while competing for another belt in a different weight class—something that the organization had prevented other fighters from doing in the past. That was after he’d already fought outside of the featherweight division twice against Nate Diaz.
McGregor held the featherweight belt captive when he stepped into the cage against lightweight champ Eddie Alvarez. All so the UFC could anoint (and market) him as the first man to hold two belts at the same time—he was stripped of the featherweight title soon after anyway. There’s no question that he won his gold fair and square and showed how big his cojones are along the way, but it’s hard to argue that the circumstances weren’t favorable.
Since the Alvarez fight last November, McGregor has been busy with the whole boxing charade versus Floyd Mayweather while holding the lightweight title hostage. That’s another special detour that the UFC permitted just for him. Anderson Silva’s pugilistic dreams were dashed when he was champion. Years ago, a UFC mid-carder told me that his contract forbade him from competing in a scheduled local four-round boxing match. I’m not sure if that fight was even going to be aired on TV, let alone pay-per-view.
Today in the post-Mayweather afterglow, the latest rumors swirling around indicate a potential rubber match between McGregor and Diaz. If you ask me, this just goes to show all that’s wrong with the UFC today.
For years, the UFC thrived and gained credibility for the sport of mixed martial arts because it gave fans the fights they deserved. Unlike boxing where must-happen fights between guys in the same weight class like Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao take years of negotiations, contenders in the UFC would work their way up the ranks towards a title shot. For the most part, the deserving challengers were the ones fighting for the belt.
These days though, the UFC has gone the route of setting up fights based on their monetary value. It’s not just McGregor, either. Since Michael Bisping won the middleweight belt, he’s defended it against old rival Dan Henderson (who wasn’t even in the top 10 at the time) and is now scheduled to face Georges St. Pierre in the latter’s first fight in four years. Meanwhile, the murderer’s row of contenders wanders around in circles.
Diaz is currently ranked sixth in the lightweight division and hasn’t fought since the McGregor rematch in August last year. His name shouldn’t be anywhere near the title picture. Meanwhile, Kevin Ferguson and Kevin Lee are facing off for the interim belt next week. Logic dictates that McGregor should fight the winner of that fight, not Diaz. That’s if his next bout will even have the belt on the line. It wouldn’t be the first time that the UFC has skirted its own rules for the sake of McGregor’s marketability.
Will the McGregor-Diaz rubber match draw money? Probably, yeah. Will it settle their rivalry for good? The bigger question is, does it matter that much? The UFC instituted the ranking system for a reason and it’s McGregor’s responsibility to defend the belt or relinquish it. If Dana White and company want to be taken seriously as a sports league, then they need to act like one. Could you imagine the NBA taking a low-seeded team, letting them bypass the playoffs, and slotting them into the finals?
For all of his superstardom as a UFC champ, McGregor has yet to defend a title. Let that sink in.