Early Tuesday Morning, Conor McGregor sent out a tweet stating he was retiring from the UFC. Other than losing a revenue stream, retiring can place significant obstacles in the way of a comeback.
All successful professional fights, whether boxing or mixed martial arts, have two aspects that significantly boost profits. There is the fight itself and, for context, the UFC bases bonuses on excitement, as no one tunes in to watch a slow or overly tactical fight. Feeding into the fight and its profits is the promotion for the bout. Promoting or “selling” a fight is so important that the UFC, among other organizations, has lobbied against restrictions upon athletes’ speech. Former UFC champion, Conor McGregor has mastered selling a fight and it now may cost him millions.
As previously discussed, McGregor is currently serving a suspension for his participation in a fight following his last event in November, 2018, where he lost (badly) via submission. Nonetheless, he has been active outside the octagon. After finalizing a settlement with the State of Nevada concerning the incident in November, he was set to be eligible to fight again in April. Additionally, he has increasingly built a considerable whiskey business and has clothing ventures as well. Notably, he served as an honorary guest at several St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, and he even spoke to the Boston Bruins and dropped the puck at their home game that same day. Shortly after these celebrations, McGregor called out several other UFC athletes. He even confirmed he was in negotiations for an upcoming event.
Shortly after finding his confidence again, McGregor was set for a return in the near future and the UFC was as valuable as ever. However, reports indicated negotiations between the UFC and Mr. McGregor had numerous issues. The most significant of these was McGregor’s unwillingness to accept a fight when he was not billed as the main event. Given the strong PPV sales at each of his events, this position has merit—even if other athletes scoffed at this hold up. It is undeniably bad business for athletes in individual sports, such as mixed martial arts, to allow management to unilaterally dictate terms and conditions of employment where it can drive down the value of an athlete’s brand. Accepting a co-main event slot would undermine McGregor’s brand value by subtly showing the world he is no longer the best the UFC has to offer.
According to industry insiders and potential opponents, McGregor’s next fight was at a standstill over his status as a main event athlete. Then, early Tuesday morning, without warning, Mr. McGregor tweeted his retirement. He stated:
“Hey guys quick announcement, I’ve decided to retire from the sport formally known as “Mixed Martial Art” today,” McGregor said on his official Twitter account. “I wish all my old colleagues well going forward in competition. I now join my former partners on this venture, already in retirement.”Conor McGregor
The sudden announcement was completely at odds with McGregor’s recent social media posts where he even announced he would fight numerous other UFC athletes in the near future. Shortly after this tweet was sent, news broke that, on the heels of an arrest for an altercation with a fan in Miami, McGregor was being investigated in his native country of Ireland for a sexual assault incident that allegedly occurred in December, 2018. Although retirement rumors and erratic behavior have become the norm for McGregor, retiring is a very real possibility. With an estimated net worth approaching nine digits, a sprawling business empire, and a young family, it’s easy to see why any rational person would walk away from fighting for a living.
But McGregor is no ordinary rational person. He professes a deep-rooted love for the fight game and even amid retirement rumors has been spotted training. Whether retiring is merely posturing to secure a better contract from the UFC, or an attempt to rebuild his “notorious” persona, it can limit his ability to fight in the near future. His team has stated his intent is to stay retired until the UFC gives him a deal reflective of his value to the company – but retirement may take that off the table. The USADA, an organization used by the UFC’s for drug testing, requires six months of drug testing for any athlete who voluntarily removes himself from the testing pool for retirement reasons. Athletes’ eligibility is determined by compliance with the USADA, which often treats ineligibility in one jurisdiction as a bar to competing elsewhere for liability reasons. The logic is simple and correct: athletes should not be able to use retirement as a means of gaining a competitive advantage.
This leaves McGregor with a difficult decision. Playing hard ball with the UFC and actually retiring may cost him the opportunity he is asking for. It is unlikely the drug testing requirements would be waived, even for a historically clean athlete like McGregor, thereby requiring six months’ notice to re-enter the drug testing pool and schedule an event with the UFC. This effectively removes the chance for McGregor to step in to fight for a championship belt (or the equivalent) on short notice, even if the UFC was willing to capitulate to his demands. Due to injuries and failed drug tests, which plague mixed martial arts, the UFC often has to find replacements for high profile fights—providing an opportunity to spark someone’s career if they are willing to fight on short notice. To McGregor’s credit, he has never run from a challenge and would likely take the right event on short notice. However, his choice of retirement over devaluing his brand may very well end any chance of a comeback in UFC anytime soon. Nonetheless, retirement will not be the last we see of this brash Irishman.
By Tony DiPerna
Photo Credit: JOHN GURZINSKI/AFP