If his promoter is to be believed, Conor McGregor won’t fight again until the dog days of summer 2017. Yet that news hasn’t, and seemingly won’t, stop the man from making headlines.
As the 28-year-old Irish icon expands his reach beyond the unfriendly confines of the Octagon, McGregor’s ability to create stories when he’s out of competition is yet another aspect of the mixed martial arts game in which he dominates his peers.
Since his last fight, McGregor has fronted an assortment of reports. In addition to the regular bits that relate directly to fighting in the UFC (challengers’ complaints about his status and wanting a piece of him; a feud over his belts; taking 10 months off from competition ahead of the birth of his first child) it was revealed that he will petition a Nevada court regarding the $150,000 fine handed down by the state’s athletic commission as punishment for his bottle-throwing dustup with Nate Diaz ahead of UFC 202. Also, he received a boxing license from the state of California that re-energized talk about an improbable matchup against Floyd Mayweather. Oh, and McGregor will appear on the seventh season of Game of Thrones.
“Conor’s the best at when he’s not fighting, he’s not out doing PR, he’s not getting ready for anything, to keep the media talking,” UFC president Dana White told ESPN this week. “He’s very good at that.”
The UFC regularly builds to major events that are all but forgotten a few days later. The fleeting attention span of fans and media along with a robust schedule of fights has led to this unfortunate phenomena. The build is there. The payoff, too. But the chance to bask in the aftermath is generally removed as the sport presses on to the next thing.
For a variety of reasons, when “The Notorious” one is involved, this isn’t the way things play out. The circumstances are different because McGregor is different.
At her peak perhaps only Ronda Rousey generated a similar deluge of media, but she’s hardly been interested in courting coverage after dropping the UFC 135lb belt a year ago. As champion, she spoke of avoiding headlines because she was simply happier that way. By blaming the press for her own shortcomings in the wake of her loss to Holly Holm and skipping all but the most fawning talk show interviews, Rousey has fallen well behind McGregor when it comes to being MMA’s top attention-grabber in 2016.
Recently, the UFC ramped up its promotional campaign for Rousey’s return to the cage on 30 December. Her return is an important event that is expected to draw considerable attention outside the confines of MMA’s niche press and diehard fan base, however it has yet to burst through the McGregor bubble.
Almost a month after it went down, hardly anyone is discussing UFC 205, the massively successful debut of professional MMA at Madison Square Garden. Mostly everyone, though, is talking about UFC 205’s star of stars, and not necessarily for what McGregor did when he engineered history against Eddie Alvarez on 12 November.
McGregor has made it a habit to ramp up clicks, social media impressions and the interest of sports best known pundits. Becoming the first UFC fighter to hold title belts in two weight classes at the same time understandably increased the intensity of the spotlight on McGregor. The key here is unlike Rousey, McGregor handles scrutiny and plaudits just the same. Even during downturns, such as his stoppage loss to Nate Diaz in March, McGregor deftly uses the media to his advantage.
So far there hasn’t been a situation McGregor couldn’t spin his way. Passing on a rematch with all-time featherweight great Jose Aldo, whom he knocked out in 13 seconds late last year to win the undisputed featherweight belt, was frustrating to some, but largely shrugged off by the public. The same could be said of his pushback regarding media duties that caused UFC 200 to occur without him. Not even the UFC’s decision to relieve McGregor of his self-designated “champ champ” cachet led to serious lumps regarding his reputation.
See, as it happens, even if McGregor wanted out of the public eye it would not be possible for us to simply move on as another UFC pay-per-view comes careening our direction. That’s because UFC 206, taking place this Saturday in Toronto, had nothing to do with the Dubliner until it did.
Atop the card at the Air Canada Centre is an interim title fight in the featherweight division – the Matryoshka doll of UFC weight classes, what with the creation of interim title upon interim title over the last 18 months – after UFC followed through on what it said it would do and effectively removed one of McGregor’s two titles from his possession.
“Look, I let Conor fight [Nate] Diaz and then I let him fight Diaz again,” White told Yahoo Sports after news of the move broke at the beginning of December. “Then there was the whole 155lb thing I let him do. But at the end of the day, him doing that tied up the [featherweight] division for a year. There’s a logjam there and a lot of guys were [angry].
“This was my way to fix the logjam. I wanted Aldo to fight Holloway for the belt, but he needed more time. So I looked at it and I said, well, it makes sense to make Aldo the champion and then have Holloway and Pettis fight for the interim title, and when Jose’s ready, barring any crazy injuries, the winner can fight him.”
To hammer home the point McGregor is no longer featured among the top 15 featherweights of UFC’s far too easily manipulated rankings. According to the promotion, Aldo again is champion at 145lbs. And the winner between Max Holloway and Anthony Pettis will carry an interim champion tag after they fight in the main event 10 December.
It’s as if McGregor’s featherweight run was all a dream.
“You can’t take away the accomplishment,” UFC president Dana White told Fox Sports 1 this week. “He accomplished that. He won two belts at the same time, he held them both at the same time. Nobody’s ever done that. He’s the only one to ever do that in UFC history. Nobody beat him. He vacated (the title).”
Vacated. Relinquished. Stripped. Frame it how you want, White repeatedly claimed that the UFC allowed McGregor to fight for two title belts but would only let him carry on with just one.
“I’ll say to the UFC, and I love the company, but you’re fooling nobody,” McGregor said last week during a public question and answer session in Northern Ireland. “Best of luck to them, but I still got those belts. Someone has to take those belts off me physically, not online. Not through a keyboard. The keyboard warriors are trying to take belts; you’ve got to take those belts physically.”
McGregor said it would take an army to remove the belts from his care; all it really took was a press release. This made headlines, of course.