NEW YORK – As Conor McGregor strutted and swaggered and talked up a storm as Sunday morning hurtled toward sunrise, it was just as well that this is a city that never sleeps. The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s loudest, boldest and undeniably biggest star had no intention of allowing it to.
“I love this city,” McGregor beamed. “It suits me.”
UFC 205, the organization’s first foray into Madison Square Garden and first appearance in the Big Apple after nearly two decades of political red tape kept it at arm’s length, needed to go off with a bang.
The company got what it desired, in various forms, as McGregor knocked out Eddie Alvarez inside the octagon within two rounds in what was only part of a show fully worthy of this grand old arena.
McGregor’s fame and notoriety has never been higher and in some ways this was his most satisfying night. A complete performance saw him never troubled against Alvarez and the spoils were manifold. Not only did his efforts land him the UFC lightweight belt and a place in the record books as the company’s first simultaneous two-division champion, but he now has unprecedented leverage over the organization’s powers that be.
For maybe the first time the UFC now has a genuine superstar, a real one in every sense of the word. McGregor is not just someone who performs at a high level, or a character who plays well on social media, nor an athlete who has fallen into notoriety as much by accident as design.
No, he is a whirlwind of hype and substance the likes of which mixed martial arts has never seen before. Now let’s see how they handle it.
Because it comes with pitfalls, having a marketer’s dream and a moneymaking juggernaut at your disposal, and UFC president Dana White is already wrestling with that lucrative headache.
“Conor is special,” White said. “I have never seen anyone like him before.”
Leverage is a powerful thing in life, an almighty trump card in business, and put into the hands of an athlete who makes a living from seizing upon the slightest weakness in an opponent’s armor, a recipe for fireworks.
For all the excellent entertainment on show Saturday night and into Sunday’s early hours, with a string of outstanding contests, McGregor is the reason that UFC 205 broke records at the box office and on the pay per view spreadsheets.
And he knows it. He knows that no other fighter, not even Ronda Rousey, can bring such reams of cash into the UFC’s coffers and, with fatherhood looming for the first time, is hellbent on wringing every cent he can out of that power.
He has struck a chord, the 5-foot-9 son of Dublin, not just in this city with its booming Irish population but across America, with his refusal to conform, his penchant for unbridled sass and his willingness to back it up with fistic violence.
The act is not refined by any stretch. He belittling shtick is raw and coarse and often lacking in sophistication and class, but it is mightily effective with its intended audience and has propelled McGregor to the most influential seat in the sport.
Do we really need a reminder that these are times when to be the poster boy for the anti-establishment movement is to carry the keys to the kingdom?
McGregor is undecided on when he fights next and against whom, but the decision is largely in his court and, to certain extent, he can write his own check. The UFC has long kept tight controls on its payouts, but it knows a cash cow when it sees one.
For his part, McGregor wants to go where no other mixed martial artist ever has. He wants, he says, an equity share in the organization. He is not all bluff and bluster and snazzy suits and mink coats. An astute business mind lies behind the noisy soundbites and left hooks. When the business proposal that eventually persuaded the WME-IMG group to buy the UFC for $4.2 billion was recently leaked, McGregor had a good read of it, and took special notice of the parts that highlighted his specific generation of revenue.
He will drive a hard bargain, that much is certain, and White can expect an uncompromising battle ahead before a new contract is inked. The question for UFC, which has always relied on the understanding that new stars emerge to replace lost ones, is how far to go, and how much to give up.
There are several options for his next fight; a move up to welterweight to contend for a third belt against incumbent Tyron Woodley, a rubber match against nemesis Nate Diaz, a return to featherweight or a first defense at lightweight. All would sell big, the Diaz clash especially so.
The UFC is in a new era and the hefty sum the investors paid came with an expectation of a lucrative return. Riding the McGregor wave is the best way to achieve that, but a price must be paid for it. McGregor promises to give plenty in return, both in terms of entertainment and revenue, and so far he has always backed up his words.