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Conor McGregor now has more power than any other fighter in the history of the sport following his spectacular destruction of Eddie Alvarez in the UFC 205 main event on Saturday in New York, where he drew a record Madison Square Garden gate. As the Irishman is wont to do, McGregor is already talking about renegotiating his contract again. He has specifically expressed his desire to acquire an equity stake in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a reflection of just how big he is thinking from a contractual standpoint. While those negotiations will likely have lasting repercussions for the business side of the sport, McGregor’s incredible leverage has an important effect on a subject more important to most fans: matchmaking.
Even prior to the Alvarez fight, McGregor has been open about the power he holds in deciding who he fights. When discussing future opponents, he usually talks in terms of those fighters giving him a reason to fight them as opposed to the UFC standard that he’ll fight whoever the matchmakers select next. UFC President Dana White said McGregor would have to defend his featherweight title against Jose Aldo before the end of the year or relinquish it; McGregor instead elected to fight Alvarez, and the featherweight gold still rests around his waist. Like the biggest money-drawing boxers, McGregor is able to dictate the course of his own career.
To this point, that power hasn’t come in conflict with fans’ desires to see the best fights. McGregor has sought out challenges. When many said he didn’t want to take on wrestlers, he accepted a fight with one of the featherweight division’s best wrestlers in Chad Mendes on short notice. He then fought the most dominant fighter in his division’s history in Aldo and elected to fight Rafael dos Anjos at a higher weight class when many felt it was a rough matchup. After losing to Nate Diaz, McGregor opted for a rematch against the fighter who just submitted him and did it at the same 170-pound weight rather than moving down to 155. He then targeted the lightweight champion again, even as many of his colleagues felt Alvarez would be too much for him.
Some fans might have preferred certain matchups at different points, but McGregor clearly has sought out tough fights that would also draw well at the box office. In his six pay-per-view main events, McGregor was only a 2-to-1 or greater betting favorite once, the first Diaz contest. Even that understates the inside perception of how the fights would go, because the public always bets heavier on the popular McGregor.
While it is promising that McGregor has tested himself so consistently, he also has needed to take tough challenges to carve out his spot as not just a very good fighter and elite self-promoter but one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport. He was to the point earning his status. Now comes the task of defending that status. He has less to gain and more to lose; plus, he has the ability to dictate which gambles to take. That’s a formula that makes it awfully tempting to pick lesser challenges, even for a supremely confident competitor.
In boxing, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao reached that level of control, and it made that sport worse off. Mayweather carefully selected opponents, with his last fight against Edson Berto a particularly shameful offering. Nobody wanted to see Berto as the opponent, and with Mayweather ranging from a 30-to-1 to 50-to-1 favorite, nobody had any doubt about what would happen. Pacquiao, meanwhile, kept fighting Timothy Bradley long after he proved to be the clearly superior fighter and then ducked the dangerous Terence Crawford to compete as a 10-to-1 favorite against Jessie Vargas in a fight that again nobody asked for.
MMA to this point thankfully has a culture where fighters can’t get away with that sort of matchmaking. Much more is expected. However, that’s why McGregor’s situation is particularly important to monitor. Nobody to this point had the ability to push the sport in that direction for personal gain. McGregor does. If he were to take that course, it would inspire other fighters to do the same going forward. There’s a real danger there. This isn’t to say McGregor is likely to pursue that path; he is a proud man and has done nothing to this point to suggest he would select softer touches for easy paydays. It’s just that he could if he wanted to.
Where this discussion starts to become less theoretical is with Khabib Nurmagomedov. Prior to UFC 205, Nurmagomedov wasn’t a real factor in the McGregor sweepstakes. Tony Ferguson has about the same claim to a lightweight title shot, and he would likely make for a more exciting fight and draw about the same amount of money. That changed with Nurmagomedov’s performance at UFC 205. It wasn’t just his dominance on the ground of Michael Johnson; in fact, it wasn’t his dominance on the ground basically at all. It was what he did on the microphone.
A lot of fighters have challenged McGregor since he rose to fame. Few have done as effective a job as Nurmagomedov. The usually genial Russian fighter fully embraced the role of villain. He spoke menacingly in Russian, called McGregor a chicken and badmouthed Ireland relative to Russia in front of thousands of Irish and Irish-American partisans. Nurmagomedov signaled that he will happily don the black hat, much like Georges St. Pierre’s top opponents did for St. Pierre’s biggest pay-per-view extravaganzas. Backing up the personality intrigue is that Nurmagomedov feels like a tough matchup for McGregor. Whether or not Nurmagomedov would beat McGregor, he definitely could convince fans of that possibility to further sell the fight.
McGregor didn’t seem too keen on fighting Nurmagomedov when asked after UFC 205. It could be that he just doesn’t see big money in that fight yet or he has other options on his mind. There certainly isn’t a groundswell of demand for that fight -- yet. However, Nurmagomedov could be an interesting test of how McGregor approaches his fights now that he has solidified his status as not just an attraction but an elite fighter. He could opt for the fights he thinks the fans most want to see and thus would draw the best. He could also add in another factor, the difficulty of the opponent and thus risk that the gravy train doesn’t keep rolling. The philosophy McGregor adopts could create a lasting precedent for the sport moving forward.