After over a year away from the sport, Conor McGregor returns to the octagon this weekend in a bout against Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone to kick off the year on pay-per-view for the UFC, which will see yet another price increase as the event will be $65 to order through the ESPN streaming service.
As unusual as it might sound, Conor McGregor, still regarded by many as the biggest star in the sport, could be fighting to remain relevant within the genre. The brash Dublin native was shoehorned into a position for the chance to win two championships by UFC management, which was designed to be a marketing strategy, but that didn’t pay off for them. The charismatic slugger took his fame from the cage to the boxing ring to fight Floyd Mayweather for a rumored $100 million in 2017 while both of the divisions he held titles in completely halted. Eventually, he was stripped of both titles without actually defending either of them, making the entire concept of the double champion rather pointless.
The infamous bus incident last year, McGregor was arrested before he was ordered to complete community service. When he finally clashed with Khabib Nurmagomedov for the Lightweight title he previously held, it was a mostly one-sided contest that saw him defeated via choke in the fourth round. The rivalry between the two erupted into chaos with a post-fight brawl that resulted in fines and suspensions for members of both corners. The defeat exposed the fact that while Conor is a dangerous striker, his fight game is rather one dimensional because he doesn’t have effective ground skills, which is why all four of his career losses are via submission. More importantly, aside from the post-fight brawl between corners, it almost got lost in the shuffle that the argument could be made that Conor might not be one of the top fighters in the UFC at this point. Granted, he has the star power to sell tickets, but is he as dangerous of a fighter as he was five years ago? Furthermore, if he suffers another one-sided defeat, would he still garner the same hype as he did previously?
He made the most of the two-year absence from MMA in terms of financial security with the mega payday from the Floyd fight, but his standing within the UFC is somewhat shaky because he hasn’t won a fight in more than three years. As mentioned, the lop-sided defeat against Khabib Nurmagomedov didn’t boost his status in the UFC and in the year since that time, he hasn’t done himself any favors outside of the octagon either. Last March, when he was leaving a club in Miami, he grabbed someone’s phone that he saw was recording him and smashed it. He was arrested and charged with robbery, but the case was dismissed. Just a few months ago, a video surfaced of him punching an elderly man at a bar in Dublin because he refused a drink of McGregor’s brand of whiskey. McGregor later pled guilty to assault and paid a fine.
The point being, the only headlines that Conor McGregor has made recently were for unwise decisions outside of the cage instead of his accomplishments in the sport. Considering that he has complete financial security from the Mayweather bout, it’s possible that Conor doesn’t actually want to fight again, but he has to make better choices or he will became another precautionary tale in sports.
On the other end of the spectrum is Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, a gritty veteran that generated a fan following for his willingness to fight anyone with an all-action style. While Conor didn’t fight at all in 2019, Corrone fought four times last year, putting him among the most frequent fighters in the organization. At 36, Cerrone is probably at the latter stage of his career because of the miles he put on his body throughout his career with his extensive 36-13-1 record in the sport.
Cerrone will often go for the slug fest approach, but is well-rounded with a jujit-su background as well. On paper, this is a bout designed to let Conor get some of his shine back with an opponent that will trade punches with the Irishman, but make no mistake about it, if Cerrone gets McGregor to the ground, he’s very capable of a submission victory.
Usually, the selling point of a pay-per-view is based on what’s at stake, is it a championship? Is there a specific ranking? Is it to settle a rivalry? However, this fight is more or less just being sold on the return of Conor McGregor against a fighter that is willing to exchange punches with him. There’s nothing wrong with that in terms of a one-off event, but even if Conor wins, what does that really prove? Cerrone went 2-2 in 2019 with a two-fight losing streak prior to this fight so a McGregor victory doesn’t exactly move him up the ranking. Don’t get me wrong Cerrone is a very entertaining fighter, but again, in terms of the actual ranking, a win against him doesn’t really change McGregor’s status within the organization.
On the flip side, if Cerrone gets the win, it puts much doubt around McGregor’s standing as the top draw for the company, especially because it would be a tougher sell of a $65 event if it’s been a few years since he had an impressive performance in the UFC. That speaks to a greater problem with the company as far as marketing new athletes and the process of making new stars. With the ESPN deal, it was designed more to give the streaming service another a selling point to a broader fan base than to allow for more exposure for the MMA product. In fact, the argument could be made that the organization has less main stream exposure under the ESPN banner than it did previously. The majority of UFC programming is behind a pay wall and as harsh as it sounds, most of the casual MMA fans don’t want to have to subscribe to ESPN+ just to watch a Fight Night card. Furthermore, the fact that UFC pay-per-view is exclusively distributed through the streaming subscription makes those events an even tougher sell than the increased price tag. The causal fan is only going to make that purchase with the easiest access to a show possible. If they can pick up the remote and order the show then it’s a much simpler situation than the process to subscribe to a streaming service just to have the option to order the show. Regardless of the amount, the scenario where fans have to pay for a streaming service just to have the option to pay to order the event can be a hurdle for the pay-per-view buy rate.
Keep in mind, the surge in popularity of the sport over a decade ago was based on the fact that fights were widely available on cable television and that translated to the PPV buys. Now, the opposite approach is being used and I’m not sure how the economics of that will be successful. The argument could be made that one of the reasons the company has lacked star power the past few years is that besides the shaky structure of most of the divisions, the fighters just don’t get enough main stream exposure to truly make a name for themselves to the general audience.
So, the event with the increased price tag is more or less a one-fight show and the commercials on ESPN to promote the pay-per-view completely feature Conor McGregor, but it will probably bring Donald Cerrone the biggest payday of his career. Even if it takes a card that lacks depth without much at stake, if it gets Cerrone paid then he earned it. As much as this show is built around Conor McGregor, the bigger story might be if he has another defeat on his record because despite very sporadic competition in the octagon, he’s one of the few on the roster that boost numbers for the company.
What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.
Until next week
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