mma / Columns

UFC Reverses Status Quo for Mayweather vs. McGregor

June 19, 2017 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Floyd Mayweather Conor McGregor Mayweather vs. McGregor

Born as an outlandish, unrealistic dream, a boxing match between Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor advanced to strongly unlikely when the retired Mayweather expressed interest in the bout, and then after surprisingly quick and reportedly smooth negotiations, became reality on Wednesday.

On Saturday, August 26, 2017, Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Conor McGregor will enter a pantheon dedicated to only the biggest bouts in combat sports history.

The bout coming to fruition is surprising, perhaps chiefly for the fact that for the past dozen years, the UFC has (with one near exception) steadfastly rejected cross-promotional efforts and made a point of keeping its top fighters on a short leash. This super fight (although it certainly falls short of some definitions of the term) is the largest cross-promotion effort anybody could have dreamed up, and its financial rewards lend McGregor, the biggest money draw in MMA history, more leverage than any fighter has had in company history.

Long ago, when circumstances were much different, the UFC was not so ardent against sharing its best fighters. They sent Chuck Liddell, Ricco Rodriguez, and Vitor Belfort to Pride as company representatives at different points, when they were the distant number two or number three MMA organization in the world. All ultimately lost, and Pride’s promises to send fighters like Kazushi Sakuraba and Kazuyuki Fujita to the UFC in return turned out to be empty ones.

In 2006, in the midst of explosive growth, the UFC and Pride negotiated a clash between UFC light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell and Pride middleweight (Pride’s equivalent to UFC’s light heavyweight division) champion Wanderlei Silva. Although Silva was not a major name to fans in the United States – the ones who would be buying tickets and purchasing the proposed bout on pay-per-view – Liddell vs. Silva was UFC president Dana White’s personal dream match, and so he pursued the bout; it was key reason he had sent Liddell to Japan three years earlier.

Pride was in a desperate state, having just lost its lucrative TV deal with Fuji TV due to a highly publicized yakuza scandal. The promotion set its sights on a new market that had just been proven in a major way, but they were less keen to share their top stars than they had led UFC to believe. On July 8, 2006, in Las Vegas, in front of what was then the largest pay-per-view audience in UFC history, Dana White brought Liddell and Silva – sporting a Pride t-shirt – into the cage to announce a November champion vs. champion, UFC vs. Pride fight. Within days, the fight fell apart. Pride would shortly thereafter announce its debut show on U.S. soil for that October in the same city.

The publicity stunt did not work for Pride; they crashed and burned on U.S. pay-per-view, and UFC purchased the company in early 2007. In any case, the experience, along with ascending to an unchallenged spot atop the MMA world, soured the UFC on co-promotion, even when it would have been lucrative.

In 2009, the UFC believed a fight between Brock Lesnar and Fedor Emelianenko would have been the biggest fight in its history. When Emelianenko’s services became available in July of that year, UFC executives travelled to Russia to negotiation with Emelianenko’s management. One of the major key points of contentions, and perhaps the biggest reason the talks fell apart, was M-1 Global, a promotion that also acted as Emelianenko’s management, insisting on co-promoting Emelianenko’s bouts, and UFC’s extreme resistance to co-promotion.

The potential windfall from Mayweather vs. McGregor changes things. Compared to the hypothetical Lesnar vs. Emelianenko bout from 2009, this bout will command double the price on pay-per-view, more than twice the amount of pay-per-view purchases, and multiple times more at the live gate. It blows any bout in MMA history out of the water. If the fight only meets conservative estimates, UFC will not likely benefit any more than a standard McGregor fight due to all the hands in the basket. However, if it reaches the great heights that some are predicting, it will be a boon for UFC and McGregor.

McGregor stands to make tens of millions more than he has ever made in mixed marital arts for the single bout, enough that he will never need to fight again. That means that when the UFC comes calling for McGregor to defend his lightweight championship, he need not answer unless it makes financial sense for him to do so. By dipping in on the opportunity, UFC is also allowing McGregor the freedom to stay at home if they cannot meet his asking price for future bouts. The move is in stark contrast to efforts the UFC had made in the past to put the brand ahead of the fighters on the marquee.

Tito Ortiz clashed with the UFC for years over pay. When he returned to the company in 2005, he had a boxing match with Dana White promised in his contact. In 2006, Ortiz established himself as one of the top three draws in the company, setting two new pay-per-view records as well as television ratings records. The following year, the boxing match was set, but Ortiz would eventually back out. UFC aired a special on the would-be fight on Spike TV that reflected poorly on Ortiz and positively on White. Ortiz never drew at the same level again.

UFC moved Ortiz back to the trunk. If not inviting McGregor to drive, they are at least welcoming him to ride shotgun. The change is a welcome one for fighters, as it’s a precedent they can point to in negotiations, but it’s highly unlikely UFC will be keen to extend similar treatment to its roster outside of McGregor. He is, after all, their biggest attraction. If UFC is changing they way they do things for him now, imagine what will change in a few short months when McGregor is much richer and more famous.

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.