This will be different than my usual column this week. For one, there are no events to recap or rundown, but that’s alright, there are plenty of other sporting events to watch. The Olympics are in full swing, especially the track and field and basketball portions, which are my two favorite parts of the Olympics. Hell, I’ve even watched some preseason NFL football, and I hate preseason. I did want to watch the first NFL game in Los Angeles in over a decade, though.
Back to MMA, this week is leading to one of the biggest events in UFC history. That sounds like complete hyperbole, but the stakes are about as high as they get. I’m talking, of course, about the main event of UFC 202, the rematch between UFC Featherweight Champion Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz. Anyone reading this knows this stuff already, but to quickly recap: McGregor is rematching Diaz at welterweight in an attempt to avenge a loss suffered at UFC 196 in March. The reason that this single fight is so incredibly important is that the outcome will shape the UFC for years to come.
McGregor is the biggest draw in the UFC. Or he was, until Diaz made him tap out. If McGregor loses again to Diaz, he’s done being this astronomical star breaking records. He’ll still be popular, but nowhere near what he was or could be. McGregor’s entire shtick is that he’s the best. He positions himself as a Ric Flair-type figure, someone who’s larger than life. “To be the man, you got to beat the man.” However, if you’ve just lost to a guy twice in a row, no one is going to believe that you’re the man.
McGregor could have chalked up the first Diaz loss to it being a short-notice opponent, at a weight that he’s not used to fighting at. He could have claimed that he didn’t take Diaz seriously and won’t make that same mistake again. Losing to Diaz a second time, though, slams the brakes on his popularity and removes all excuses (legitimate or not) that he could have used. McGregor demanded to fight Diaz again, and he insisted on fighting at the same weight. This puts the majority of the pressure onto himself. Diaz has pressure to win as well, of course, but if McGregor loses again, everything comes to a screeching halt.
If McGregor wins, though…he’s bigger than he ever was. The pressure to keep winning remains, but there’s a tremendous amount of money at stake in this fight. The only thing people love as much as unstoppable badass winners is a good comeback story. Overcoming the odds and all the obstacles in your way. That’s why Ronda Rousey can come back and be an even bigger star than she was before her own devastating loss. When an athlete faces adversity and comes out on top, it strikes a chord with people. We all have our own obstacles and adversity to overcome. The circumstances are extremely different, of course, but people love comebacks. They love seeing athletes get beat down, but then fight their way back up.
That’s what’s at stake here for McGregor. If he wins, the comeback story is written and he stands to make tens of millions of dollars. If he loses, he’s a pompous, egotistical jackass, and a lot less people are going to pay to see him fight. He can build himself back up, but that’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of wins. Catching lightning in a bottle is really hard, doing it a second time is nearly impossible.
As for why this is one of the biggest events in UFC history, it’s all about the economics. A McGregor win means millions and millions of dollars will come pouring into the company. And he’s a guy who promotes himself, which is something the UFC struggles with. They’re the promoters, they’re supposed to be the ones promoting the best fighters. Yet there are far too many fighters who aren’t as popular as they should be. Some of the blame lies with the fighters themselves. There’s a blueprint for what helps make you a more popular fighter. Going for finishes instead of coasting to boring decision wins is one thing, but they don’t all involve the action inside the cage. Learning to cut a promo goes a long, long way towards helping you connect with fans. Stand in front of a mirror and practice speaking. Go to a coach that can help you get more comfortable with public speaking. Too many of these guys look like a nervous 13 year old getting ready to ask a girl out for the first time when you stick a mic in front of them.
Get on social media and try to connect with fans. Spend an hour or two a week responding to people on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. You don’t have even to do it yourself, get someone to do it for you. A family member, a friend, anyone who’s in your posse and wants to ride that gravy train, you make them earn it. Get the fans to help make you even more popular. It’s like a ripple in a pond, it keeps expanding outwards. The more you put into it, the more you get back. Should fighters have to do this stuff? No, of course not. Not in an ideal world. We don’t live in an ideal world, though. Transitioning back to the UFC, they should be doing this stuff for the fighters. They should have people assigned to everyone in the top 15 in their division who’s in charge of preparing these fighters and getting them camera ready or social media savvy. Coaches they can talk to to help them learn to cut more effective interviews.
The reason that this is so big for the UFC is that McGregor does all this stuff for them. If Diaz wins again, there’s certainly a big opportunity there for him to gain tremendously in popularity, but McGregor is a natural showman. The UFC is best at promoting the UFC, not the fighters. With McGregor, they have a guy who does all the promoting work for them.
The UFC will be fine regardless of what happens. No one person or fight is bigger than the company. What makes this one of the biggest fights in UFC history is that a McGregor win could possibly help them take another step in the consciousness of the mainstream sports fans. What’s really crazy about this is that a fight between two guys competing in a division that’s not their usual division and without even a title on the line, can have this kind of impact. You’ve got to love the craziness of sports.
[Photo (c) Mark J. Rebilas via USA Today Sports]
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