On Saturday night at UFC 194, the most significant hit landed may not have been the straight left from Conor McGregor that floored Jose Aldo, but the one from Ultimate Fighting Championship co-owner and Zuffa executive Frank Fertitta, who slammed down the UFC Featherweight title belt in anger just after Aldo hit the deck.
It’s no secret that the love-fest between top draw Conor McGregor and the UFC has become frosty. In fact, when one takes into consideration that the UFC is a powerful business accustomed to calling the shots and getting what it wants, and that McGregor is a man driven to succeed in everything he does, it’s clear that a falling out was pretty much inevitable.
Since Conor joined the UFC back in April of 2013, his mission has always been to win as many titles and make as much money as he could. His skills have allowed him to silence all the doubters and his personality has made him a crossover star, not only in Ireland but also in the United States. All the while the Zuffa brass rode the Conor Bandwagon straight to the bank as his fights generated huge money, no matter if they were on Fox Sports 1 or pay-per-view. But as in every marriage, there comes a time when both parties have to make sure their needs are being met. And, simply put, Conor’s are not.
Multiple sources state Conor was not happy with being forced to coach the latest version of The Ultimate Fighter program, especially when being part of that show took away from time needed to train for Jose Aldo. And then there’s the fact McGregor feels underpaid. As one fighter stated: “Conor is starting to realize that they (UFC) have no intention of paying him the money he wants.”
The UFC model has always been that the brand is bigger than any one fighter. No matter if it was Randy Couture, George St. Pierre, Brock Lesnar or Ronda Rousey, the Ultimate Fighting Championship was the star and the fighters came second. But Conor McGregor might be the one guy who will force them to change that. And the word on the street is he’s talking to another guy who is one of the few men alive who could really ruin all of Zuffa’s future plans.
According to reports, Conor McGregor has been in contact with Al Haymon and already people are speculating about the outcome. Before we kill the rumor or give it credibility, let’s remember that the one thing the UFC has always wanted to prevent is any single fighter being bigger and more popular than the UFC brand, and thus becoming the MMA version of Floyd Mayweather.
“Dana and the Fertitta’s have seen first hand what happens when fighters get lots of power,” one manager stated to me. “They don’t want to deal with a fighter who can leave them and make more money on his own. It would change everything.”
When Floyd Mayweather years ago found himself in the same position McGregor is in now, he reached out and brought Al Haymon into the fold. A decade later, Floyd was the owner of his own company and made more money in one fight than most pro football players make in their entire careers.
What Haymon brings to the table is a bevy of networks who are not aligned with the UFC but would be most willing to get into the PPV business with Conor. NBC, CBS, ABC/ESPN and even SPIKE would all jump at the chance to get a bonafide sports and crossover star on their networks. More importantly, all those networks have the platform to sell Conor to a wide audience and provide him with the producers and marketers who know how to make this happen.
While MMA fans keep saying the UFC is the biggest and greatest show in the world, they fail to see the big point. Stars sell, and Conor McGregor is now as big a star as exists in combat sports. He can use his stardom and the clout that comes with it to make the fights that generate interest for the casual fan. Meanwhile, Haymon is perfecctly positioned to make the boxing model work for McGregor. For example, Haymon could have Bellator be the “promoter of record” and do all the leg work while Conor trains, sells the event and develops his own team.
Meanwhile, Haymon gets a huge star fighter who everyone knows about. While his stable of athletes and his war chest are second to none in boxing, Haymon has not developed or signed on that bigger-than-life champion to be the face of Premier Boxing Champions. But if Haymon wants to get into the MMA market, what better way than with the biggest star in the sport to date?
For now this is all speculation, and most people say that, while they did talk, nothing “substantial” came out of the meetings. But the fact Conor and the UFC are circling wagons, that Conor has stated he wants “Mayweather money,” and that he and Haymon may have had talks — these are clear signs that all is not well in Zuffa Land.
All I know is this: if Conor McGregor and Al Haymon do go into business together, you can bet that the UFC brass will see this as a nuclear threat. And rightfully so.
— Chris Connor