The intersection between ethics and entertainment in the world of combat sports promotion is at best a street corner covered in gray skies and double standards. Never has that been more apparent than in the two years since UFC sold to new owner WME for over $4 billion.
If you're looking for things to criticize over the past 24 months in UFC, there have been many and most of the short-term decisions (including many with long-term consequences) have been made to help offset the glaring lack of star power over that time by either gambling in hopes of creating a new one or shamelessly appealing to those who still move the needle.
We've seen the gluttonous flooding of interim belts, head-scratching decisions to strip titles and one big-name fighter after another earning championship fights they didn't deserve thanks to failed drug tests, missed weight and/or felony arrests. The latter, of course, points in the direction of Conor McGregor, who returns Saturday following a two-year layoff to challenge new lightweight king Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229 in Las Vegas.
If we're keeping it real, the precedent UFC set in how it dealt with McGregor (21-3) following his April 5 attack on a bus filled with fighters and company officials (including Nurmagomedov), which led to the cancellation or alteration of four different fights at UFC 223, was in excusable. Not only was McGregor (who avoided jail time thanks to a plea deal) unpunished by his employer despite maniacally attacking his co-workers, he was rewarded with what's expected to be a record payday.
Outrage from fans, in this case, was as short-lived as the faux anger UFC president Dana White showed in the aftermath of McGregor's attack, when it only took days for his tone to change from calling it "the worst moment in UFC history" to instantly realizing the full potential of what a Nurmagomedov-McGregor grudge match could do for the company's bottom line.
The excitement of a fight that has been instantly hailed as the biggest in mixed martial arts history before it even happened and is just about guaranteed to break UFC pay-per-view records makes it hard not to support White's decision, regardless of your moral stance.
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So putting the elephant in the room aside for a second (while doing our best to ignore that both Brock Lesnar and Jon Jones appear headed toward similar championship windfalls despite their own recent infamy), praise needs to be given to an unlikely source for a fight this massive to even be taking place at all and that's McGregor.
Due to the control White has within his own "league" as both promoter and commissioner, it's very difficult for UFC fighters to gain the kind of matchmaking leverage that's on par with boxing's biggest PPV attractions like Floyd Mayweather, who for years was criticized for how strategic he was in hand-picking opponents at the right time.
Despite subtle improvements over the past two years from the standpoint of more fighters taking a stand against the company by turning down fights, you can still count on one hand those who retain some semblance of carte blanche as to who they fight. Georges St-Pierre, who exited the sport on his own terms for four years before returning in 2017, is certainly one of them, as is McGregor.
It's hard to argue against the idea that McGregor has more control over his destiny than any fighter has ever known in UFC history. His PPV numbers certainly support that idea but so does the goodwill he has consistently created through "company man" decisions to save cards with a willingness to literally fight anyone, even if -- in the case of two welterweight bouts against Nate Diaz -- it wasn't always the smartest choice.
McGregor's perceived leverage could only have doubled after he stepped away from the Octagon to net a reported $100 million last summer to box Mayweather -- an event that UFC profited from handsomely as a co-promoter. And if that amount of leverage wasn't enough, one could argue that UFC's decision not to punish McGregor for his infamous bus attack only added to his power of attorney when it comes to negotiations.
What that means is McGregor secured himself a rare position in which UFC needed him far more than he needed them. The result of that could've meant McGregor leveraging the threat of not coming back at all against securing whichever fight, undoubtedly for huge cash, he wanted. And that's where "The Notorious" deserves our respect for the legacy he continues to build, which has long been informed by the matchmaking decisions he continues to make.
Love or hate him, McGregor is "about that life," so to speak, when it comes to backing up his claims that he'll fight anyone. Because of that, his decision to return against quite literally the most dangerous challenge in an already loaded division gives the impression that it just might be more about legacy and pride than record-setting money. And that's about as refreshing a scenario as a fan could hope for, especially in light of the "businessman-fighter" model that Mayweather perfected and many in combat sports have failed in trying to emulate.
Had McGregor demanded a trilogy bout against Diaz upon his return, there's little question he would've gotten it. How about a soft touch instead to shake off the two-year cage rust? Heck, McGregor could've probably booked himself into a boxing match inside the cage against CM Punk of all people had the idea pleased him and UFC would've bent over backwards content with simply regaining the biggest draw in the sport's history.
Yet McGregor chose to be about the ideals that fans cling to. He wanted to prove that he was still the best after never losing his lightweight title and he wanted to do it against the unbeaten destroyer that Vegas oddsmakers predict will stop him from doing so. And say what you will about whether McGregor's felony crime in April was merely misguided violence or some crude act of chivalry in protecting a teammate (Artem Lobov) who had been slapped in public by Nurmagomedov earlier that week, the core of his intentions were at least relatable and consistent to his values.
For all of the deserved flack McGregor has received for having won UFC titles in two weight divisions without attempting to defend either one, his resume is equally infallible from the standpoint of daring to be great. Let's not forget he ran face first into the challenge of featherweight icon Jose Aldo and was willing to take on Chad Mendes on short notice to get there. He also moved up two weight divisions at the last minute to face Diaz and refused for their rematch to fight at a weight class more sustainable to his advantages. One fight later, he moved up to win the lightweight title.
Need more reasons to believe? Let's not forget his staredown with welterweight champion Tyron Woodley at the weigh-in before UFC 205 and a threat that the pursuit of a title in a third weight class was imminent. Let's also not forget McGregor was willing to take the chance he would embarrass both himself and his sport when he agreed to make his pro boxing debut against the reigning pound-for-pound best of his era.
Sure, the same argument can be made for the Mayweather decision that can be applied to his accepting a fight with Nurmagomedov, that he had millions of reasons to do so. He also had nearly the same millions of reasons not to.
Should McGregor pull the upset on Saturday by being the first to tame and discipline Nurmagomedov (26-0), it will be hard to keep him away from inching closer to the G.O.A.T. conversation. But even if McGregor loses, he'll only continue to add to a unique legacy built upon the kind of bad-ass behavior (the nature of his Brooklyn attack notwithstanding) unaffected by fear that fans dream for fighters to uphold.
For everything immoral about the manner in which McGregor was awarded the title shot against Nurmagomedov, it's his constant desire to create the biggest events possible with the most danger that, from an MMA standpoint, have made his reputation as a fighter immortal.