Tuesday 6 December 2016

UFC's decision to take Conor McGregor's featherweight title away raises five unanswered questions

Published 28/11/2016 | 18:13

Conor McGregor celebrates with his featherweight and lightweight belts after defeating Eddie Alvarez
Conor McGregor celebrates with his featherweight and lightweight belts after defeating Eddie Alvarez

Just over two weeks ago, the UFC and MMA celebrated a historic moment.

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In one night at UFC 205 we saw the first ever regulated MMA event in New York, the first ever UFC event at the storied Madison Square Garden venue and to top it off, Conor McGregor became the first dual two weight world champion in UFC history.

However, last weekend the UFC announced that McGregor has ‘relinquished’ his featherweight title. 

In an effort to stabilise a division and bed down the next Pay-Per-View event, this bizarre move has thrown up more questions than answers.

The Genesis

To understand how we got to this crazy position we have to go back to August 2016. Former welterweight champion Georges St.-Pierre reveals he has entered the USADA testing pool. 

GSP walked away from MMA and the UFC back in 2013. At the time he was welterweight champion and one of the biggest stars in the UFC. Also, one of the biggest earners. 

Since his departure, the UFC cut a deal with Reebok, which meant fighters were unable to secure sponsorship from outside companies during fight week. The guys at the bottom of the roster made a few extra bucks from the Reebok deal. The guys at the top, like Georges St. Pierre, lost out big time. The most you can earn under the Reebok deal is $40,000 as a champion. GSP maintains he made a lot more than this from his deals with various companies, including Under Armour, a competitor of Reebok.

UFC 206 is scheduled to take place on December 10th in Toronto, Canada. Given that GSP is Canadian, all roads for his comeback would have lead to UFC 206. However, UFC president Dana White and GSP engaged in an arm wrestle played out through the media over contract terms. GSP wanted to be compensated for the shortfall in earnings due to the Reebok deal. White and the UFC weren’t willing to play ball. Any ground given to GSP would see a long list of other disgruntled fighters looking for their pound of flesh.

Mo Mas. No Comeback. No Card.

With time running out and no sign of GSP being appeased, the UFC announced Daniel Cormier will defend his light-heavyweight title against Anthony Johnson as the head-liner for UFC 206. The co-main is set to Max Holloway vs. Anthony Pettis, and after the usual number of pull-outs and rearranged fights the card is, at best, so-so.

Last week, Cormier was forced to withdraw due to an injury. The UFC scrambled to find a replacement. Gegard Mousasi was willing to step up after his quick win over Uriah Hall at UFC Belfast. Instead, Johnson opted to sit out and wait till Cormier gets healthy.

With a $4 billion hole to fill, the new owners of the UFC, WME-IMG Group, need every PPV dollar they can muster. With no GSP or DC v Rumble, the UFC were in a jam. With no obvious fight to make they were forced to turn Holloway v Pettis into something bigger. But how?

Setting the featherweight scene

Holloway hasn’t lost since he took Conor McGregor all the way to the scorecards back in 2013. Most would agree his 9 fight win streak warrants some form of a title shot.  

Jose Aldo became the interim featherweight champion in July at UFC 200 after beating Frankie Edgar for the second time. You could argue the interim title was only awarded after Aldo threw his toys out of the pram for not getting an immediate rematch with McGregor. 

Also, UFC 200 had lost Conor McGregor and Jon Jones for various reasons. Maybe an interim title would make up for some of the lost ground.

Since winning the featherweight title outright by knocking out Jose Aldo in 13 seconds last December, McGregor had kept himself busy, just not fighting other featherweights.

Enter the New UFC

The UFC were fully behind Conor’s quest to make history and become a dual weight champion. The achievement brought plenty of attention to their promotion. They have flip-flopped on whether they’d get behind him defending both belts. At times they’ve believed if anyone can do it, Conor can. Other times they’ve questioned whether his dual weight status would stagnate the featherweight division.

The most interesting thing in all this is the fact the WME-IMG Group has yet to sit down and talk business with Conor McGregor. 

Prior to the UFC sale, McGregor had talked about personally doing business with the former owners, the Fertitta brothers and Dana White. While most fighters dealt with the match makers Joe Silva and Sean Shelby, Conor dealt with the president and the CEO. 

Prior to UFC 205, McGregor had headlined four PPV events. These events averaged 1.3 million PPV buys,making him the biggest draw in MMA by some distance. Rumour have UFC 205 topping McGregor’s PPV record of 1.6+ million, but numbers have not yet been released. It seems the era of McGregor being in partnership with the UFC and toasting big business with fine whiskey are over.

In times of crisis… Go Crazy!

At a UFC event in Australia over the weekend, commentator Jon Anic announced that McGregor had relinquished his featherweight title. Some media reported he had vacated the title, implying it was his decision. Others opted for the term stripped, meaning it was the UFC’s decision. At the time of writing, McGregor hasn’t addressed the issue. 

At the UFC 205 post fight press conference he gave no indication that he’d relinquish or otherwise his 145lbs title. 

With McGregor out of the featherweight picture, the UFC opted to make (interim title holder) Jose Aldo the champ proper and promoted Holloway v Pettis to an interim championship fight. All of which, as I said above, raises more questions than provides answers.

So many Questions

ONE - Why is the new UFC not engaging with fighters that are proven draws? 

If you look at the GSP and McGregor's dealings, the new UFC seem to be laying down a marker. Despite the phenomenal growth of MMA over the last number of years, fighter compensation is still a hugely thorny issue. Only those at the top of their division can expect to earn a comfortable living from fighting. But when you compare UFC's top earners with other sports, there is still a huge gap in pay scales. Surely the extra dollars it would cost to keep GSP and McGregor happy would be returned when they unlock lucrative markets like Asia and the Far East. 

TWO – Why the need for an interim championship fight if you have a champion in place?

Typically, interim championships come about when the real champion is out with injury. McGregor beat Chad Mendes to win an interim featherweight belt while Jose Aldo was out with a broken rib. If Aldo has been installed as the champion, the only reason you make an interim title is if you’re trying to pump up your UFC 206 headliner. Unless…

THREE - Will Jose ever fight in the UFC again? 

Aldo asked to be released from his UFC contract when it became apparent a rematch with McGregor was not on the horizon. If the UFC haven’t spoken to Conor about all these developments, it could be fair to assume they haven’t contacted Jose either. This could explain the reason for the interim title fight at UFC 206. If Jose doesn’t want to get handed a title, the new champ could be crowned in Toronto.

FOUR – Why ‘make history’ if it’s only going to last two weeks? 

This part makes no sense. Conor McGregor had the world’s media reporting on MMA; partly because of what he did and partly because of where he did it. At least Miss World gets a year to parade around with her tiara. The first standing dual weight champion was offered only two weeks to enjoy his spoils. McGregor has been accused of holding up the featherweight division due to his activities in other weight classes. It’s not yet a year since he beat Jose Aldo. Dominic Cruz was injured for almost three years before being stripped of his bantamweight title. 

FIVE – Have they ever tried to match Conor at featherweight since he became champ?

At the end of the day, Conor fights for the UFC. Because of his achievements, he has typically held more bargaining chips than most fighters when it comes to career planning. However, how can you accuse a fighter of holding up a division if the promotion itself hasn’t offered him a featherweight fight? 

UFC and Team Ryano fighter Neil Seery said it best in a tweet – No featherweight will feel like the champion while Conor McGregor is around and fighting.

If you go back to 2005 when MMA and the UFC started to gain notoriety, there were few events and not many named stars. The UFC was the star and people were happy to pay their dollars and consume the product because they didn’t know when or if they’d see it again.

Roll it forward to 2016 and there are events nearly every weekend. Fighters like Georges St.-Pierre, Anderson Silva, Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor have emerged as MMA stars. Fan have taken to their cult of personality as much as the sport itself. 

By stripping their featherweight champion, the UFC are trying to send a message to fighters, regardless of standing,  ‘you need us more than we need you’. Whether it’s true or not remains to be seen. 

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