The MMA world was surprised this week when, with one tweet, former UFC featherweight and lightweight champion Conor McGregor announced his retirement. The global superstar reportedly couldn’t agree to terms with the UFC on his comeback fight for July’s 239 card, and rather than agree to McGregor’s terms of the deal and give him a stake in the company, UFC president Dana White walked away from the bargaining table and McGregor decided he would retire instead.
As talented as McGregor is, and as much as he’s done for the UFC and the sport of MMA in general, White has always been adamant that no single fighter is bigger than the promotion. The UFC wouldn’t break that unwritten rule for fighters like Georges St-Pierre or Randy Couture, and they didn’t want to be inconsistent and give in to McGregor’s demands, either. As much money as McGregor has made the promotion, MMA is a selfish sport and the UFC doesn’t believe it owes McGregor anything, and in their eyes, certainly not a stake in the company.
McGregor had his bluff called. He wanted to fight at UFC 239 and the promotion wanted him to fight Donald Cerrone, but he refused to fight a non-title co-main event, which likely would have tapped into his pay-per-view points. With the UFC and ESPN signing a new deal to carry the PPVs, McGregor was smart to try and get a piece of ownership stake in the UFC so he would be guaranteed money from the ESPN+ deal regardless of how many PPVs UFC 239 sells. But the UFC wasn’t willing to let that happen, and McGregor decided to walk off into the sunset instead.
Instead of bowing to McGregor’s demands, the UFC’s well-oiled machine continued to move along. The promotion has reportedly booked two title fights for UFC 239, Jon Jones vs. Thiago Santos for the UFC light heavyweight title, and Amanda Nunes vs. Holly Holm for the UFC women’s bantamweight title. The UFC has over 500 fighters under contract, and even though McGregor is a money-making machine himself, the promotion has always made sure that its three capital letters are more important than any one single fighter on the roster itself, and that includes McGregor.
At this point, it’s hard to say what the next move for McGregor is. According to White, he’s buying this retirement announcement and said that because of how much money McGregor has in his bank account and continues to roll in with his businesses, that it makes sense for McGregor to walk away. Remember, McGregor has pulled this retirement stunt before, after his first fight against Nate Diaz, only to come back a months later and fight Diaz in a rematch. This time, though, things seem different. With the ESPN deal, the UFC really doesn’t think they need McGregor to be financially successful. It remains to be seen if that’s true, but as of right now the UFC is still riding the high of the ESPN deal, and McGregor has become almost an afterthought.
Perhaps the McGregor saga will be a learning moment for other fighters, that as much as they may want to think they are bigger than the promotion itself, the UFC will always make sure that’s not the case. The promotion saw GSP walk away from the sport last month after the promotion refused to have him fight Khabib Nurmagomedov without a rematch clause in place, and now they’ve seen McGregor walk away after refusing to give him an ownership stake in the company. With or without its biggest names, the UFC’s well-oiled machine continues to push forward, and the beginning of the ESPN era is nothing short of interesting to watch.