mma / Columns

McGregor’s Next Move: MMA or Boxing?

December 11, 2017 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Conor McGregor

Thirteen months ago, Conor McGregor completed the best performance of his MMA career. Over eight minutes, he took Eddie Alvarez apart in a stunning dismantling of one of MMA’s most durable competitors. McGregor’s punches sent Alvarez to the mat four times before the fight concluded. The night ended with a historical touch, as McGregor became UFC’s first fighter to carry a belt on each shoulder.

Neither the UFC nor McGregor willingly release salary information, but for a fight that drew an estimated 1.3 million pay-per-view buys and $17.7 million at the gate, McGregor may have deposited about $10 million in the bank.

Nine months later, McGregor competed in a boxing spectacle against Floyd Mayweather, the largest pay-per-view attraction in the history of the medium. The fight drew roughly 4.5 million pay-per-view buys in the United States and Canada, along with a $55 million live gate (in addition to many other lucrative revenue sources). In that losing effort, McGregor’s gross earnings may have topped $100 million dollars.

Many, UFC president Dana White among them, have speculated that McGregor will be content with his financial windfall and never fight again. However, the number of fighters that have been content with one abnormally large payday and walked away for good is exceedingly small, especially with multiple lucrative options available. Most likely, McGregor will fight again. The only question is whether he’ll compete in an eight-sided cage or a four-sided ring. No matter the sport, everyone is gunning for McGregor.

On Friday, Manny Pacquiao claimed that his camp had opened initial talks with McGregor’s camp regarding a potential April 2018 boxing match. Pacquiao, who will turn 39 on Sunday, has watched his pay-per-view numbers nosedive since his record-breaking 2015 match against Mayweather. A fight against McGregor would surely reverse the trend.

Paulie Malignaggi, who sparred with McGregor leading into the Mayweather bout, has angled for a proper boxing match with the Irishman since McGregor’s camp posted a picture of McGregor standing over a fallen Malignaggi in August.

Over in the UFC, Tony Ferguson earned the next crack at McGregor’s lightweight title in theory by winning UFC’s interim lightweight championship. However, McGregor could just as easily decide to fight featherweight champion Max Holloway next, or archrival Nate Diaz.

McGregor decision of which direction to go in is trickier than choosing the opponent with which he will attract the most pay-per-view sales.

On paper, the pay structure of major-league professional boxing is better for McGregor than the pay structure of the UFC. For any single boxing match, McGregor has vastly greater earning potential than in MMA, particularly now that he has the bargaining power to be the “A side” of the split. However, issues with this thinking may arise in practice.

With Floyd Mayweather out of the picture, and matches against Canelo Alvarez or Oscar de la Hoya exceedingly unrealistic, McGregor’s biggest drawing fights are in MMA. Manny Pacquiao may be the biggest name McGregor could realistically fight, but a third fight against Nate Diaz in the UFC (or even better, a clash against Georges St-Pierre) would be a bigger draw.

If the difference between McGregor vs. Pacquiao and McGregor vs. Diaz is 100,000 buys, then McGregor would likely take home more by fighting Pacquiao. But if McGregor vs. Diaz is a two million buy fight, while McGregor vs. Pacquiao is a one-and-a-half million buy fight, it’s a significant change in economics.

Additionally, if McGregor boxes, the UFC is going to take a significant cut of the pie. All parties agreed to a certain split for the Mayweather bout, but there are millions of differences between boxing Floyd Mayweather and boxing anyone else. At a certain point, it does not become worth it for the UFC to allow McGregor to box in lieu of competing under their banner.

In one sense, allowing McGregor to compete in boxing is easy for the UFC. They are essentially licensing out a fighter they own the rights to and collecting a major paycheck without any overhead. However, outside of a major cultural event like Mayweather vs. McGregor, the UFC is undoubtedly better off with McGregor competing in the cage than in the ring. He lifts the entire brand and makes it the focal point of mainstream sports news for at least one week. His presence provides the UFC with a larger platform on which they can try to build new stars.

If McGregor loses in their cage, the UFC might have a new star overnight that will be an asset for years to come. If McGregor loses in the ring, the UFC loses too.

For these reasons, the UFC will prefer that McGregor fights on their turf. A significant raise will be in order, and my best guess would be that means the end of fans paying a measly $60 to watch McGregor fight. My sense is that will be enough to lure McGregor back into the cage for his next big payday.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.

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Conor McGregor, Dan Plunkett