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His Bluff Called, Conor McGregor Is off UFC 200 and Maybe Even out of New York

On the increasingly contentious relationship between the UFC and their greatest star.
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

How did things ever get so far?

Not a month-and-a-half ago, Conor McGregor was the greatest thing that had ever happened to the UFC, the mega-talent with the silver tongue and the crossover appeal and the marketing acumen and (most importantly) the loyalty that the promotion had always dreamed of. Every card he headlined broke gate records; every fight he fought cleared new bars for inventiveness and improbability; every press conference he took over printed money.


Now, though, Conor McGregor and his rabbis at the UFC, President Dana White and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, have drifted a thousand miles away from each other. One small but earth-shattering tweet from McGregor followed by an accusatory response from White, and the MMA world is in the midst of a Cold War.

For a minute there I thought McGregor had the UFC's number. Responding to White's criticism that he was refusing to fulfill his media obligations in the run-up to his rematch with Nate Diaz at UFC 200, the reigning UFC featherweight champion argued eloquently on Facebook that as the most profitable fighter in the history of the UFC he's done more than his fair share of promotional work over the years and that he believes he's earned the right to a little leeway from the company he's helped rocket into the mainstream. "I did not shut down all media requests. I simply wanted a slight adjustment. But it was denied," McGregor wrote. "I am paid to fight. I am not yet paid to promote. I have become lost in the game of promotion and forgot about the art of fighting."

The response from the fighting community was overwhelmingly supportive, especially considering the tetchy relationship many of McGregor's fellow fighters have with him. The sense seemed to be that McGregor had hit a nerve by giving voice to a previously mumbled concern within the community that less monetarily successful and therefore less powerful fighters would never dare: that the promotional demands the UFC puts on its fighters can be onerous, draining, unilateral, and take away from fighters' ability to do their jobs.

All of a sudden it seemed like Conor McGregor—materialist of materialist, narcissist of narcissists—was becoming something bigger than himself, a spokesman, possibly even taking that rarefied step from ultra-talented loudmouth to historical figure, the path laid down by Muhammad Ali 50 years ago. Just as Ali converted his self-obsession into a tool of racial consciousness and political awakening it seemed like maybe McGregor was about to leverage his individual power as the king of MMA into a collective struggle for more fighter autonomy. His seemingly selfish reasons for skipping out on his contractual obligations ("I must isolate myself now … I'm doing what I need for me now") had the potential to resonate with and morph into some bigger cause, some shared concern with his fellow fighters. Suddenly you could almost picture Conor McGregor as Folk Hero.

But the UFC didn't become the UFC by getting shook, and Dana White made it clear, even after McGregor's Facebook declaration of independence and its positive response, that no fighter is bigger than the organization and that McGregor, by refusing to do what he was told, would, therefore, no longer be fighting Nate Diaz at UFC 200.

At this point, a gambler's sense would say that McGregor had the upper hand, that as the undisputed moneymaking superstar of the UFC he had the promotion where he wanted it, free to leverage his power position into even stronger demands, be they individual or collective. But all of a sudden, right at this crucial moment, Conor McGregor's uncanny instincts seemed to fail him. On Sunday he tweeted that he was, in fact, back on the 200 card and even thanked White and Fertitta for "getting this one done for the fans." But what seemed like a muscle move, a way to prove to the UFC brass that fans were overwhelmingly in favor of McGregor's return regardless of his appearance on a media tour through Northern California, backfired the next day when Dana White said that McGregor was not back on the card and that he didn't know where the Irishman had gotten that idea. "I don't know why he did," White said. "I still haven't talked to him. We had a whole press conference about this. I just don't know how more clear I can make it." The UFC, owned by casino impresarios remember, had called McGregor's bluff.

Now we seem to have entered a new punitive phase in the UFC/McGregor dispute, with the fight promotion eager to affirm for the whole world its belief that it is bigger than any single fighter and that no fighter, no matter how big, is in a position to change the world, not for himself or for his fellow fighters. So not only is Conor McGregor off the UFC 200 card, White is now saying that the champion won't fight in New York when the UFC returns to the state for the first time in 20 years in November. This despite the fact that a Conor McGregor fight at Madison Square Garden would bring in untold millions of dollars and take over the media in the greatest media city in the world. This despite the fact that New York City has been the adopted home of the Irish in America for 150 years, a city with Ireland in its blood and bones, a city that will welcome Conor McGregor with hungry arms. The UFC appears to be punishing Conor McGregor by punishing the people who love him most. That's what you call a hard bargain, I guess. Negotiating the Las Vegas way.