Sunday 21 January 2018

Conor McGregor is set to take his earning power to a new level as UFC eye New York bout

Conor McGregor lands a punch on Nate Diaz. Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images
Conor McGregor lands a punch on Nate Diaz. Photo by Steve Marcus/Getty Images
Fergus Ryan

Fergus Ryan

2016 has been a standout year for the business of MMA. The resurgent Pay-Per-View numbers and the sale of Zuffa LLC, the UFC’s parent company, for $4 billion suggest the rise from the underground of freestyle fighting will continue for some time.

The centrepiece to the recent performance has been Dubliner Conor McGregor. There can't be much doubt after UFC 202; Conor McGregor is as good as he says he is. Equally, and maybe more importantly, he is worth as much as he says he is.

This weekend in Cleveland, UFC 203 sees hometown hero, Stipe Miocic defend his heavyweight title against Dutch legend Alastair Overeem. On paper the fight is a big deal - in reality the PPV numbers might suggest otherwise.

The fact that bout rumours around the UFC 205 card are trumping UFC 203 hype suggests where fan and media interest really lies.

The resident authority on fight PPV numbers is MMA Fighting’s Dave Meltzer. Speaking recently he forecasted a lowly 300,000+ PPV buys for this weekend, which partially explains the interest in UFC 205.

So prolific have the UFC become in putting on events that fans now look for a blockbuster in a sea of so-so cards. From the near 50 events the UFC will do this year, there might have been only a handful of blockbuster events. UFC 203, or UFC 204 for that matter, won’t reach that lofty status. UFC 205 more than likely will.

The fact that UFC 205 will be the promotion’s first event in Madison Square Garden in New York after the ban on MMA in the state of New York was revoked in early 2016 gives it some historical significance. That won’t be enough though. Fans don’t buy PPV’s based on geography. The easiest way to guarantee a blockbuster is to include Conor McGregor.

From a fighting perspective, McGregor’s victory over Nate Diaz at UFC 202 answered so many questions.

He proved that the mantra of his coach John Kavanagh, ‘you win or you learn’, holds true. In the first fight and loss to Nate Diaz, Conor ran out of gas chasing the early knock out. He has commented numerous times since the rematch that he had fully expected Diaz to be there for all 25 minutes and he prepared accordingly.

His game plan for the two fights were radically different; opting for patient, calculated attacks in the second rather than the ‘both barrels with every shot' approach from the first. He proved he has the ability to take a hard punch, indeed many hard punches, and has got the gas tank to go five rounds.

From a commercial perspective, UFC 202 proved Conor McGregor is the biggest draw on the UFC roster. This event was his 3rd Pay-Per-View in a row that clocked in excess of one million buys (UFC 194 vs Jose Aldo 1.2 million, UFC 194 vs Nate Diaz 1.6 million and UFC 202 vs Nate Diaz II 1.65 million).

While PPV numbers are a closely guarded secret, conservative estimates suggest McGregor's last three outings have generated $100 million for the UFC. After spending over $4 billion to purchase the UFC, WME-IMG Group will undoubtedly be delighted they have a genuine prize fighter on their books.

McGregor adds real value by being a promotional sweet spot.

Comedian Dave Chappelle had a similar angle on the circus act Siegfried & Roy. Sure, some people are paying to watch the men exhibit extreme bravery with the tigers. But equally, Chappelle believes there was a healthy portion of the audience hoping for something else – “That’s really why we go to the tigers shows. We don’t go to see someone being safe with a tiger. You go thinking in the back of your mind ‘this guy might get bit, I think I’d like to see that in person for $35 if I could’”.

You can apply the same to Conor – some people spend their $60 on the PPV to watch him win but there are also a lot of people that will spend $60 to watch him lose. Regardless of the outcome, it’s a  ‘win-win’ for the promoter.

Videos have surfaced of Conor back in training shortly after his latest win. Though he has a medical suspension due to a shin injury this will be removed if he’s cleared upon examination by a doctor. Given his appetite for work and the new owners’ sizeable debt to work off, it’s hard to believe McGregor won’t be back in action sooner rather than later.

Dana White is adamant he fights Aldo and unifies the featherweight title. Conor himself said he had to think about his next move. He threw a curve ball that his next move might be outside the sport of MMA.

I think we can dismiss any McGregor activity outside his current contract. If McGregor does venture into boxing or the WWE, the UFC would be co-promoter at best, something they have always shied away from in the past. It seems unlikely McGregor will be allowed off the reservation to make money for another organisation when WME-IMG have a $4 billion hole to fill.

This week it was announced that Robbie Lawler fight Donald Cerrone at UFC 205 in New York.

There will no doubt be a New York/East Coast flavour to the card. Jon Jones would probably have been a lock for the card but for his ongoing woes with USADA. Former champions Frankie Edgar and Chris Weidman will no doubt be matched also. But all these will serve as a springboard towards the last number of fights.

All the above mentioned are fantastic fighters, but with the exception of Cerrone, none have proved themselves a draw at the box office. For UFC 205 to be a blockbuster it is imperative they include The Notorious to maximise the revenue.

Here are the options the UFC and McGregor are probably weighing up.

Eddie Alvarez

Strong favourite seems to be Eddie Alvarez. Alvarez has joined the ranks of those calling out McGregor for a fight after picking up the lightweight title in July.

McGregor was originally slated to fight then champion Rafael Dos Anjos at UFC 196 until injury forced the Brazilian out.

As we know McGregor fought Diaz instead, allowing Alvarez beat Dos Anjos on his return in July.

Alvarez believes he would beat McGregor easily but more importantly he knows he’ll get paid a lot more. You'd have to expect Alvarez will make a lot more than the $150,000 he got for beating dos Anjos and more than the $310,000 Dos Anjos got for being champion. As the lightweight champ he can expect a solid purse. He will also collect some PPV revenue share.

McGregor has expressed a real interest in fighting on the east coast of the US and even at UFC 205 in New York. With lots of interest in the historical significance of the event and Alvarez from nearby Philadelphia it makes sense to stack this card.

Jose Aldo

Since Aldo picked himself off the canvas and walked backstage after his KO loss at UFC 194 he has been asking for the McGregor rematch. Dana White was adamant after Conor’s last win that he’d face Aldo next. Conor poured cold water on the fight by saying it would be hard to get motivated for an Aldo rematch.

There was such a long lead in to their original fight that eventually lasted only 13 seconds, some would say there’s no need to play it back. However, the four championship titles McGregor has held across two different promotions have never been defended by the Dubliner. He has moved on to bigger and better things after each championship win, but it would be nice to see him defend a title; one more notch on the belt, one less question to answer.

What better way to sign off from the 145lbs division than beating one of the Pound-for-Pound greats of MMA?

Nate Diaz

There will be a trilogy, just not at UFC 205. The PPV numbers quoted by Dave Meltzer (first meeting did 1.6 million pay per views and UFC 202 did 1.65 million) suggest a third fight would undoubtedly be another blockbuster.

However, there will be a number of PPV's between now and a third fight and the UFC would prefer people to buy those rather than wait out for the decider.

There's also the issue of the featherweight division. The trilogy fight would make lots of commercial sense but Conor and Nate would be better served in the short term by focusing on a division rather than settling a score.

Diaz has indicated he will wait till the third fight with McGregor at lightweight. He may very well do that but the rest of the division will move on. Diaz may find he falls down the pecking order if he stays inactive for too long.

Trifecta of big fights

If the UFC are planning for their New York event to be a blockbuster they could probably include all or most of the above. For example, fill the undercard with named east coast fighters like some mentioned earlier.

Then, the third from last fight is Eddie Alvarez defending his lightweight title against Khabib Nurmagomedov, followed by Robbie Lawlor and Donald Cerrone who have never been in a boring fight in their careers topped off by Conor McGregor v Jose Aldo – three huge fights, capped off with the biggest PPV draw in the sport.

The added bonus is all of the above fights can be linked back to McGregor. This would add loads of storylines to the promotional efforts for the event and hopefully PPV numbers.

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