Who’s the Boss? UFC Edition
The announcement of the “Superrfight” between Conor McGregor and Eddie Alvarez has sparked excitement in the MMA world, mainstream sports attention, and possibly the retirement of one of the sport’s greatest champions. It has also raised questions about who really calls the shots in the UFC; the promoter or the fighter?
The UFC proudly props up President Dana White as the ultimate authority in MMA. If you are unaware of White’s omnipotence, he will likely inform you of it in any interview he gives.
White, along with many media pundits, often reiterate the assessment that the UFC is successful because of its central authority. They often point out how MMA has succeeded where boxing has failed, due to the sports interests being tied up in a singular entity.
However, in 2016 White is not always right.
Enter Conor McGregor.
McGregor has become both White’s greatest asset and a reminder of the power that fighters can hold. White has publicly stated the McGregor would return to the 145 pound weight division after his bout with Nate Diaz. He did not. Otherwise he would be forced to vacate his Featherweight Title. He has not.
Lest we forget McGregor’s “retirement” prior to his scheduled rematch against Nate Diaz, resulting in McGregor being pulled from UFC 200, only to be rescheduled at UFC 202, where McGregor claimed record revenue from the fight.
Does anyone actually expect McGregor to vacate any titles in the aftermath of UFC 205?
The message is clear: What McGregor wants, he gets.
To be clear, McGregor’s autonomy is only partially due to his ability; McGregor has made the phrase “drawing power” a literal term.
The UFC clearly recognizes the need to sell marketable fights over technical proficiency. While the promotion may publicly promote their product as the UFC brand, at the present time those three letters pale in comparison to brand of Conor McGregor.
While someone such as McGregor may wield great power, his influence does not necessarily extend to his contemporaries. Outside of the exclusive realm of the very active Conor McGregor or the currently dormant Ronda Rousey, the UFC remains the emperor of The Octagon. This is clearly illustrated by the recent public frustration of interim Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo.
Despite being one of the most celebrated champions in the short history of the sport, Aldo enjoys no leverage. Clearly, McGregor is a much bigger star than Aldo; additionally, McGregor made very short work of him when the faced at UFC 194. However, the case of Aldo is more comparable to that of Ronda Rousey.
Setting aside stardom, a bind resume test reveals the very similar careers of Rousey and Aldo. Both fighters were undefeated in WEC and Strikeforce, respectively, before their divisions and championships were transplanted into the UFC. Once in the UFC, both fighters remained undefeated for multiple years before stunning knockouts to underdog upstarts. After their devastating defeats, their careers have taken much different paths.
Aldo has since fought Frankie Edgar for the Interim Title, and been denied any rematch with McGregor. On the other hand, Rousey has been inactive for nearly a year, while Dana White publicly announced that she will receive a title shot whenever she decides to resume her MMA career.
This situation is not fair to Aldo, but it makes sense to the UFC. Ronda Rousey is one of the biggest box office attractions in UFC history, while Aldo has gained notoriety for his non-McGregor bouts being box office bombs. Ultimately, neither the fighters nor the promoters control the UFC.
The promotion like any other business is beholden to their bottom line above all else. So when making the exciting “super fights” brings in revenue, they will make them. When the former undefeated champion returns to her division and brings in mainstream eyeballs, they will grant her a title opportunity. The message is as transparent as ever; money equals power.
With the promotion touting a new crop of celebrity investors, bringing in revenue is more important than ever. Long ago the UFC established itself as a legitimate sport. Now it can reap the benefits of straying away from the formula.
McGregor vs. Rousey
Dana White made news when he declared in a radio interview that Ronda Rousey is “by far” a bigger star than Conor McGregor. White rationalized his position here by citing the response that Rousey receives in Brazil. However, the argument is much more complex than that.
In the context of the UFC, McGregor is the bigger star. McGregor has consistently outsold Rousey in terms of pay-per-view buys. Additionally, McGregor has fought in much more compelling scenarios. McGregor has faced the previously dominate Jose Aldo, faced Nate Diaz in multiple mega bouts, and will attempt to be the first ever double champion in UFC history.
While it was not difficult to sell McGregor against any of his featured opponents, the brilliance of Rousey lies in her ability to make mismatches feel important. Outside of her longstanding rivalry with Miesha Tate, the public had no real reason to care about her bouts with Liz Carmouche, Sara McMann, Alexis Davis, Cat Zingano, Bethe Correia, or Holly Holm. The MMA world cared because of Ronda Rousey.
Rousey’s stardom dwarfs McGregor’s in terms of pop culture appeal. Since 2013 Rousey has become part of the mainstream in a way that no other fighter has ever achieved.
The “bigger star” is a subjective term where no absolute answer exists, but the debate can sure be fun!
(Robert Vallejos writes a new Specialist column for MMATorch titled “Media & Business” focused on, you guessed it, the media coverage of MMA and the business side of MMA. He is fascinated by the presentation, business decisions, media strategy, and press coverage of both UFC and MMA as a whole, and will bring that curiosity to explore and delve into that side of MMA to his weekly Specialist column here at MMATorch. He explains his approach: “As a sport in its relative infancy, MMA does not receive the same level of scrutiny and informed analysis from the sports media as other more established entities. This is why it is vital for independent outlets such MMATorch to grow, while featuring a variety of voices. Unlike mainstream outlets, MMATorch is not beholden to any organization. Therefore I believe it is essential for individuals such as myself to explain not only the ‘what’ but also the ‘why’ of MMA.”)