Thursday 8 December 2016

The brilliant and brash big-mouth of UFC strikes again

Published 20/11/2016 | 02:30

Conor McGregor
Conor McGregor

Madison Square Garden in downtown Manhattan is one of the great sporting arenas in the US. It's here where the basketball superstars of the New York Knicks ply their trade and it's here, too, where some of the most iconic fights in boxing history have been staged.

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But last Saturday night, it was the location for an event that broke its box-office record. Gate receipts totalling $17.7m were collected thanks to the latest ultra-hyped fight involving Conor McGregor, the 28-year-old Dubliner who has helped transform the fortunes of UFC (as the Ultimate Fighting Championship is now commonly known).

McGregor dispatched his opponent, Eddie Alvarez, with brutal efficiency and in the post-match press conference, he was still in fighting mood: "I'd like to take this chance to apologise to absolutely nobody. The double champ does what the f*** he wants."

The former plumber from Crumlin has become the first fighter in UFC's 23-year history to be champion in two weight divisions.

He is unquestionably mixed martial arts' biggest star - and he knows it. In his post-fight conference, he laid down the gauntlet to Dana White, UFC's president, to cut him a bigger slice of the action.

"I need to be set for life for this," he said. "If you want me to be truly on board, then I need to be all-in on this proper, as an owner, and have an equity stake in the company. That's what I'm looking for."

This summer, the once ailing UFC was sold for $4.2bn to Hollywood entertainment conglomerate WME-IMG and sources close to McGregor believe he is a primary reason why it has become such a sensation. "Conor transformed UFC when he came along," one associate says. "He is one of the most charismatic sports stars on the planet and he deserves a cut of the action."

Just three years ago, McGregor was on the dole: now he is Ireland's best-paid sports star, earning the sort of money to put even Rory McIlroy in the shade. Estimates differ greatly, but it has been reported that he bagged €18m from last weekend's fight alone - a figure made up of prize money and pay-per-view sales.

In fact, most of his earnings derive from pay-per-view, and all of McGregor's recent fights have enjoyed record business for the UFC. In its study of the world's wealthiest sport stars earlier this year, Forbes put McGregor's net worth at $22m, and that was before high-profile fights against Nate Diaz and Alvarez.

McGregor, an astute figure who keeps a close eye on business, will surely have noted that, in the Forbes list, he came in at 85th place. Floyd Mayweather, who retired from boxing last year, is a primary example of just how much can be made by the world's most high-profile sports stars. It's thought that in the course of his lengthy career, he made at least $800m.

Both Mayweather and McGregor have spent much of 2016 'big-mouthing' about how they would like to fight each other.

It's a bout fight fans globally would love to see and were it to happen - most probably in a boxing ring, under Queensbury rules - both fighters could conceivably make $100m. McGregor's earnings outside the UFC octagon should not be underestimated, either, although one Dublin-based sports marketeer says many blue-chip brands still feel queasy about a sport some label 'cage-fighting'.

"UFC and McGregor are very popular with young, disruptive brands, but traditional brands such as financial institutions, insurance firms and so on, haven't really wanted to know," he said.

"McGregor is a figure who polarises - that's what he's all about.

"He's hugely popular with young men and some young women, but older generations can be left quite cold and his trash-talking means that, for some, he's actively disliked. He will never have the sort of mass appeal in this country that Katie Taylor or Brian O'Driscoll have had - not that it's likely to bother him too much. He may drape the Tricolour around him, but he's a star on the global stage, not just here."

"I never forget the struggles," McGregor said earlier this year.

"I never forget where I came from. I never, ever forget the hard times. I pinch myself because I am surrounded by luxury. But make no mistake, it's luxury built on sacrifice."

And McGregor is unlikely to make apologies for it, either. "It's hard to be humble when you're the best," he once said.

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