On Saturday night, Conor McGregor will make his long-awaited return to the octagon, where he will face journeyman Donald Cerrone in the main event of UFC 246. The welterweight clash takes place after McGregor’s 15-month hiatus from fighting and on the heels of several brushes with the law, which include two separate sexual assault accusations.
While McGregor, who denied the allegations in an interview with ESPN, has not been charged or officially named by the ongoing police investigations, the New York Times reported the 31-year-old was arrested in January 2019 for questioning and was later released pending further investigation. Despite the sensitive nature of the situation, the UFC has opted to host McGregor’s return, once again highlighting the promotion’s penchant for profit at the expense of common sense, ethical standards and social responsibility.
UFC’s questionable decision to once again do business with McGregor goes beyond the ongoing sexual assault allegations though. Over the past few years, McGregor – once admired for his knockout power, quick wit and trash talking – has had several disturbing brushes with the law. Perhaps the most memorable was his decision to attack a bus filled with fellow fighters at an event in New York. McGregor was subsequently charged with three counts of assault and one count of criminal mischief. He eventually reached a deal and pleaded guilty to a single count of disorderly conduct.
McGregor continued to spiral in 2019. In March, he was arrested for allegedly smashing a man’s phone after he attempted to get a picture with the UFC fighter outside Miami Beach. The criminal charges were dismissed after the court found inconsistencies in the victim’s testimony. The next month, McGregor was caught on video punching an elderly man in the head at a Dublin pub. For this, he pleaded guilty to assault and was fined 1,000 euros. Yet despite his volatile nature, the UFC decided not to distance themselves from the fighter, and instead welcomed him back with open arms and even promised him a title shot in a different division from the one he will compete in on Saturday night.
There is an argument to be made that the return of Conor McGregor will lead to a financial tailwind for the promotion, as it means increased pay-per-view buys generated by their biggest star. McGregor is responsible for five of the six highest selling PPVs in UFC history, shattering previous records set by stars such as Chuck Liddell, Brock Lesnar and Ronda Rousey. However, all of that occurred prior to the UFC making ESPN the exclusive provider of the promotion’s PPVs. Reports have since suggested that the UFC receives a guaranteed revenue stream from ESPN in exchange for exclusivity. That theoretically means that UFC’s primary goal is to create regular content to draw in ESPN subscribers rather than simply maximizing on PPV sales. Despite guaranteed revenue and limited dependency on PPV buyrates, the UFC continues to be blindsided by its pursuit of profit.
Beyond McGregor’s profitability, there is a growing concern that his stardom has diminished in the wake of suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of Khabib Nurmagomedov in 2018 and by the constant stream of controversy spawned by unsavory incidents with the law. Much of the coverage surrounding McGregor’s return has focused on the Irishman’s dwindling popularity in his homeland. Even UFC is using its marketing muscle to paint a picture of a fighter out for redemption – an attempt to induce sympathy in the average viewer.
However, the UFC’s PR machine and McGregor’s stardom can only take him so far in an ever-changing mixed martial arts landscape. During his self-imposed exile from the sport, much has changed amongst the competitive elite. Nurmagomedov remains the undefeated lightweight champion with no end to his reign in sight, while the welterweight division is ruled by talented wrestler Kamaru Usman. Given that McGregor last won a fight in 2016, it is safe to assume that he will struggle to reclaim his former glory as a two-division champ. In fact, it would be a surprise if McGregor was able to claim either title during his comeback.
While McGregor may never be UFC champion again, he could be useful to the UFC in several marquee match-ups, which is why the promotion is willing to take the risk and promote him despite his brushes with the law. UFC has shown no qualms about promoting other fighters with troubled pasts. They include former NFL defensive end Greg Hardy – a man once accused of assaulting his girlfriend – and BJ Penn, who was put under a restraining order after being accused of years of physical and sexual abuse by his spouse (though he was never charged with any crimes). The UFC even continues to do business with fighters affiliated to Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, whose long list of human rights violations include repeated attempts to purge Chechnya’s LGBTQ+ community.
Though it is no surprise that the UFC is willing to forfeit its integrity by working with questionable fighters, its association with McGregor is one that has backfired in the past, most notably in the ugly brawl following his defeat to Nurmagomedov, and could do so again. As such, McGregor is both an undeniable cash grab and a ticking time bomb for the promotion.