The UFC has spent years building up a brand that was once met with laughter. Now, it’s a globally recognized trio of letters that have become the pinnacle of mixed martial arts. Superstars have come and gone, but very few have reached a zenith that rivals that of the UFC brand itself. Conor McGregor has not only reached that level, but surpassed it.
The brash Irishman isn’t the first fighter to captivate an audience seemingly overnight. Brock Lesnar was facing future UFC Hall of Famers in his UFC debut (also his second professional fight ever) and had captured the UFC heavyweight title in just his fourth professional MMA bout.
McGregor isn’t the first star to become a polarizing figure in media circles and to fans. The troubles Jon Jones has had outside the cage are nearly as plentiful as his title defenses.
McGregor isn’t the first foreign champion to feature a fanbase that far exceeds his homeland. Georges St-Pierre was a known commodity well outside the reaches of the land of the maple leaf.
Yet, compared to all the prior superstars to come and go, McGregor is seemingly so similar yet so different. He talks as good a game as any, knows the value of self-promotion and has thus far in his career delivered in spades inside the Octagon. He’s playing the same game that others have before him, only McGregor has mastered it. If there was a legendary level of difficulty in the fight game, McGregor has certainly conquered it.
One area where from past superstars is in his beliefs. Whereas other champions made a note to mention their legacies and love of fighting in the Octagon, McGregor has made it very well known that he considers himself a prize fighter. His career plans can be summed up in a simple phrase: get in, get rich, get out. Of course there’s no doubt McGregor has the competitive nature to want to challenge himself against the best fighters in the world, but at the same time he wants to be sure that the cash flow will be even to the challenge of facing the world’s best.
It’s that desire to be the highest-paid athlete in UFC history where McGregor and the promotion will square off. There have been rumors of the UFC brass and McGregor not being on the same page, but to this point we haven’t seen anything outside of those whispers. However, it’s not hard to connect the dots and see where trouble is afoot down the road. The UFC is like any employer. It wants to see the maximum return on its investment while handing out as little in return. However, what happens when the investment in an employee is far surpassed by the returns they provide? McGregor is far from universally loved by MMA fans, but he could be the star that challenges the UFC to see what really is bigger, the brand or the man?
UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta may be singing the praises of McGregor at the moment, but one has to believe those days will come at an end the minute McGregor decides to use his star power as a bargaining chip. McGregor is well aware of his value to the UFC, and he has an awe-inspiring ability to draw in a crowd. There have been fighters who’ve drawn in waves of fans, but McGregor’s knack for self-promotion is leagues above anyone else. What other fighter has anyone even remotely discussed as promoting themselves under the UFC banner? Not GSP, not Jones, not Lesnar and not Ronda Rousey. When the time comes to discuss future compensation and how his career will play out, McGregor seemingly has all the chips in his favor. Yes, the UFC brand helped build McGregor into the global icon he’s become, but it’s not as if the MMA landscape is barren for fighters to earn money. Bellator has become a viable option for top-level fighters, and with the sponsor ban in the UFC, the opportunity to far exceed a Zuffa paycheck has never been so ample.
MMA fans are constantly clamoring for fighters to be paid more. They may have just found their golden goose in “Mystic Mac.” He’s played ball for the UFC thus far in his career, but eventually a time will come for him to do what’s best for himself or do what’s best for the promotion. With his belief in getting paid as much money as possible before exiting the MMA stage, one would believe those two options won’t coincide. With one title on his shoulder and perhaps another coming his way, what more of a bargaining chip could McGregor ask for?
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