He may have been soundly beaten by Khabib Nurmagomedov, and his pre-match behaviour cross a number of lines, but the Irishman will still be very much in demand in the future
Money means future still bright for Conor McGregor despite UFC 229 defeat
In Conor McGregor’s native land, Gaelic games commentators often grade on-pitch fracas with a home-grown DEFCON-style rating system.
Pushing and shoving is branded as “handbags”. Something with a little more edge is tagged with the label “schemozzle” or “afters”. On it goes until melees of mutually-assured destruction are solemnly reported as “disgraceful scenes”.
The uncontrolled violence which marred Khabib Nurmagomedov’s fourth-round win over McGregor in Las Vegas on Saturday went beyond disgraceful and leaves some very serious questions for the Dubliner and the UFC in general.
On one level it was a clear loss for McGregor, who was outclassed after a two-year hiatus by a skilled and determined opponent. His unacceptable pre-fight goading of Nurmagomedov repeatedly crossed the line and painfully exposed the hollowness of sledging if the antagonist does not have the goods with which to back it up.
But the road is still open to McGregor to fight because of one thing – money.
He reportedly earned $50 million (Dh183.62m) in losing, and UFC 229 broke the company’s pay-per-view records – the fifth time a McGregor fight has done so. Nothing, it seems, from “Mystic Mac” is too much for Dana White and the UFC behemoth.
From the hysterical John Malkovich voiceover for UFC 229’s promotional video, to the company’s embracing of McGregor’s criminal behaviour – namely his attack on a fighters’ bus in April – the business model is focused on one thing: the lucre generated by the 30-year-old former plumber’s apprentice from Crumlin.
Somehow, Nurmagomedov walked away the bad guy on Saturday. He is now a harder sell to a US audience and his “hidden army” of fans don’t have the spending power McGregor’s camp followers can muster.
The unbeaten fighter from Dagestan had his winnings withheld by the Nevada Athletic Commission as an investigation into Saturday’s brawl was launched. If there are criminal charges, he could face visa issues.
A subdued McGregor, never sanctioned by the UFC for his antics in Brooklyn this year, later called for a rematch.
White and his accountants will be wetting their lips at the thought of a McGregor v Nurmagomedov II showdown. But McGregor has other options before then, if he wants to stay in the fight game.
Nate Diaz – current UFC lightweight champion and a former bete noire of McGregor’s – is an obvious candidate for the Irishman, who would want another payday. The duo still holds the pay-per-view record for their UFC 202 clash in August 2016. Diaz and McGregor have beaten each other once, leaving the possibility of a best-out-of-three fight to set the cash registers ringing.
If McGregor refuses anything but a title fight another option is to drop down to featherweight. Or he could take on Tony Ferguson, who defeated Anthony Pettis in their lightweight clash on Saturday night, although Ferguson seems more interested in a shot against reigning champ Nurmagomedov.
Revealingly, McGregor expressed interest in taking on 43-year-old Brazilian former UFC middleweight champ Anderson Silva. In an interview on Ariel Helwani’s MMA show McGregor said Silva was a “legend” “who surely … wants a bit of cash”.
Canadian Georges St-Pierre, 37, is a more realistic possibility if McGregor wants to step back into the octagon. Number five in the UFC’s pound-for-pound rankings it would be a winnable fight for the Dubliner, although St Pierre has suggested fighting the winner of UFC 229 – who he correctly predicted would be Nurmagomedov.
Nor is McGregor over the hill yet despite the ring rust which clearly affected his performance on Saturday. In 2017 14 out of 15 ranked UFC lightweight fighters were 30 and above, with Francisco Trinaldo still fighting – and earning - at age 40. Evan Dunham was not far behind, at age 36.
In short, if he wants to fight, he will get a fight. If not, the path ahead is less clear. It seems unlikely McGregor would have the patience or the temperament to continue in the fight game the way his one-time opponent Floyd Mayweather did with his infamous “Dog House” stable of up-and-coming boxers. Perhaps it will be movies or other commercial deals.
For the UFC as a whole, Saturday’s debacle draws comparisons with the WWE.
In professional wrestling, the antagonism is largely scripted. The post-fight scenes from the T-Mobile arena - the grainy video stills of which resemble a police appeal for witnesses to a brawl – were like an X-rated version of WWE.
Like WWE, the Ultimate Fighting Championship is a heady mix of money, violence, mass media, athleticism, showmanship and can’t-look-away trash talking. It also lured the UFC’s one-time top female fighter, Ronda Rousey, away from the octagon.
If the UFC cannot guarantee the safety of its fighters, if it cannot rein in racial and religious sledging, if it cannot sanction criminal behaviour, then its clutching-at-pearls reaction to the Las Vegas melee could end up costing it credibility, mainstream approval and, yes, money, in the long run.