Give 'Em Something To Talk About: The legend of 'The Notorious' grows again
So Conor McGregor says he’s retiring.
We all know what McGregor means to the sport at this stage. He’s the biggest star in the male game. He draws eyeballs, he sells pay-per-views, and he generally influences the sport more than anyone not named Fertitia or White.
Therein lies the crux of all of this. This is why we care. Short of Fertitta brothers selling the UFC or Dana White losing his job, there are few things more newsworthy to the business of mixed martial arts than the loss of its main star at the peak of his athletic potential and earning potential (and all one has to do is look at Floyd Mayweather’s last fight versus how much he made against Manny Pacquiao to see how age and brand doesn’t equal bigger paydays).
Does McGregor’s tweet implode the fight world? No, it won’t. Does it implode his? No, it doesn’t. But the butterfly effect of this saga could go a long ways in proving just how much McGregor matters to the UFC (and is at odds with them), mixed martial arts, and the public.
Here’s what we can safely assume about McGregor. He’s business and PR savvy. No one knows how to leverage a few sound bites into news currency. He’s an influencer of the first order. He’s if Stephan Hawking makes an opinion on the state of the universe, the entire scientific community listens. McGregor didn’t suddenly become this person – he built this himself.
The initial tweet came at a curious time. We all knew he was booked to rematch Nate Diaz at UFC 200, which is a huge PPV and a massive payday. Why would he choose to ‘retire’ after basically begging to avenge the loss to Diaz?
Except it came out late last night by Dana White himself on ESPN Sportscenter that not only was McGregor being serious, he was being pulled from UFC 200. Why? Because he refused to promote the fight, specifically, not attending a scheduled press conference this Friday.
What he is doing in staring down the UFC and not Nate Diaz is two-fold: he is damaging his credibility and losing himself a lot of money.
In regards to the money, it could be that McGregor is simply posturing with the UFC as he has done time and again. If we are to understand White, McGregor is basically a pulling a Nick Diaz circa his title shot against GSP. McGregor just doesn’t feel like showing up.
Perhaps McGregor was banking on the chaos that even the hint he’s not interested in fighting, the UFC suddenly is scrambling to fill the vast emptiness at the top of their card – which is conveniently bracketed by fight cards stacked with other marquee fights. If the UFC were to pull one to fill the headliner for UFC 200 (another interesting subplot will be exactly how does the UFC fill the space), the domino effect would undermine their whole summer of bookings. In other words, if McGregor wanted to be the first nine-figure fighter in UFC history he was going to need to do some serious posturing. Posturing a lot like this.
While losing the money may be damaging, the loss of credibility may be more damaging than you might think (and perhaps more damaging financially). McGregor is already a divisive figure in the sport. He’s a loudmouth who can be dismissive of his opposition and draws attention away from other fighters (many of whom have egos and naturally resent that no one is talking about them because everyone is talking about him). For McGregor to, say, call another fighter a punk does nothing to damage his rep. Its what he’s been doing for years. For McGregor to call out the UFC for the lack of imagination on a fight poster does nothing to damage his rep. He’s largely calling it like he sees it, most fans agree, and the UFC only cares as much he earns them.
Undermining the ethic of the sport, though, can be just as big a deal. A baseball player loses respect from the opposition when he dramatically flips a bat (see: Jose Bautista). Players lose respect when they violate the sanctity of the locker room. It’s something with very real, tangible effects.
An MMA fighter loses respect when they quit on a fight. Whether it’s right or wrong, it’s true. Fighters call each other out irrationally for ‘ducking’ on a weekly basis. In those cases it’s often irrational because it coincides with their opponent being injured (McGregor is even guilty of this in his verbal beatdown of Jose Aldo).
McGregor is dancing close to the edge on this one. What the MMA world sees is a guy booked for a huge fight - a rematch against an opponent he told the world had no chance and then gave him his comeuppance - who fakes retiring as refusal to promote said rematch. What does that do to your reputation? The UFC gave McGregor what he wanted when he demanded a rematch against Diaz. Most fighters tend to consider themselves people of principle. Begging for a fight and then reneging is the equivalent of breaking your word.
Perhaps he’s mentally effected by seeing Brazilian fighter Joao Carvalho critically injured in a fight weeks ago (who died later in hospital) as many in the media are suggesting. But judging by the brashness of his tweet, it would be a shock for McGregor to use that as his rationalization. And furthermore, the vast majority of fighters would brush off that tragedy as an abnormality. For McGregor to pull out of a fight for that would come across as more weak than sympathetic.
Even more risky for an athlete’s credibility is when they lose the trust of the public. In McGregor’s world, the waves his thoughts and words make is the source of his power. To lose that would be to undermine himself. Remember ‘The Decision’? People in Cleveland burned Lebron James’ jersey in the streets. The backlash was incredible. For a while, James’ brand potentially took a solid hit. James couldn’t be trusted by many in the public sphere. While that may not bother sponsors all that much, it certainly bothers those buying the products you rep. A sponsor may not be so bothered by it now, but a couple years from now, if that loss of credibility sticks, it sticks to the bottom line.
Contrarily, don’t forget this: McGregor’s greatest strength comes from the nationalistic pride he imbues the Irish fans. What we don’t see is that the death of Carvalho has been a front page story. Because it was McGregor’s teammate, fellow Irishman Charlie Ward, this story holds a particularly personal corner of the Irish sports sphere right now. For McGregor to go ahead and participate in the UFC’s marketing game so soon after may come across in poor taste across the pond. McGregor represents the sport wholesale throughout the country and appears to take that role very, very seriously. He would know better than anyone the pulse of the Irish faithful in relation to the tragedy.
It doesn’t help that McGregor has essentially tossed a cigarette out the window driving by a dry field. He has gone silent and choosing not to get ahead of the story.
Does one oddly timed teeny, tiny, retirement Tweet will make Mystic Mac more like Mistake Mac? Likely not. But will it stunt McGregor’s credibility? In some ways, definitely. What this teeny, tiny, retirement Tweet may turn out to prove, however, is the sheer cache of The Notorious One. Think about this: if McGregor doesn’t retire, all of this is for what, exactly? McGregor will have in effect proved his influence over the sport. He’ll have broke the internet at the whisper of his never fighting again.
So Conor McGregor says he’s retiring. Isn’t that something to talk about?
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys has worked six years in the public relations industry rubbing shoulders with movie stars (who ignored him) to athletes (who tolerated him). He likes tiki-taka football, jelly beans, and arguing with Bruce about everything.