MMA

The UFC Marketing Machine

Conor McGregor, the brash Dublin native that fought Floyd Mayweather in a boxing match last August, is still widely regarded as the top star of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the promotion that the WME group bought for $4.2 billion in 2015. McGregor, the current Lightweight champion, formerly held the 145 LBS belt before he vacated the title to defend the championship of the 155 division. It was quite the promotional tool, one that UFC brass delightfully shoehorned into each division, as Conor received a shot at the Lightweight title before he ever defended the Featherweight championship he won after he defeated Jose Aldo.

Clearly, management wanted to market Conor as the two-division champion. But, the marketing monster that they created might come back to bite them.

When management saw their two-division project completed, McGregor posed on top of the octagon with two championships after he defeated Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205. Ronda Rousey suffered her second career loss and was TKO’ed into retirement a month later, cementing Conor as the top star in the organization by a large margin.

The problem is, the Irishman took his status as the top draw in mixed martial arts to the sport of boxing to make exponentially more cash for the previously mentioned Floyd fight than he made in the octagon prior to that. The rumored $100 million payday gave him much leverage in negotiations with UFC president, Dana White. Conor hasn’t fought in the cage since he posed with those two championships in November 2016, and questions remain about his status in the company.

Since the McGregor/Mayweather super fight, Max Holloway claimed the Featherweight belt after a pair of wins against Aldo, while Tony Ferguson beat Kevin Lee to win an interim Lightweight title last October. Theoretically, that would set up a Conor/Ferguson contest to determine a unified 155 lbs champion, but Khabib Nurmagomedov is scheduled to fight Ferguson at UFC 223 in April. Khabib, an undefeated contender with a record of 25-0, impressed the UFC pay-per-view audience just a few months ago when he won a lop-sided decision against tough challenger Edson Barboza at UFC 219. It remains unclear if McGregor will be stripped of the title or will be scheduled to fight the winner of Khabib/Ferguson.

To further complicate this situation, a video was posted on social media of Floyd as he walked into the octagon, implying a Mayweather/McGregor rematch could be in the future. On a recent edition of UFC Tonight, Dana suggested a rematch was possible. If Floyd actually signs to fight in the cage and/or if it would sell as well as the boxing pay-per-view is another discussion for another time. The point is, another “super fight” would take McGregor out of the championship conversation and halt the entire division for another extended period of time if he isn’t stripped of the belt. On the flip side, if he eventually is stripped, he will go from a two-division champion to a a non-champion without any title defenses, which would dilute the UFC’s original marketing plan.

The bottom line is, the UFC pushed Conor as THE fighter of the organization, and it’s debatable if the return will be worth the investment. The opportunity cost was the ability to build other legitimate, money-drawing stars while both 145 lbs and 155 lbs divisions were halted so that Conor could fight Floyd in boxing for a mega paycheck. In some ways, that boxing match made McGregor bigger than the UFC because the payoff gave him the financial security to retire if he didn’t want to fight in the octagon again. It also forces the UFC to increase the money they offer him to step into the cage again. Basically, the UFC needs Conor more than he needs the organization right now.

While management put the pieces in place to give him the opportunity to win two belts, other talented fighters weren’t given the same chance to become major stars for the company. Outside of Stipe and Cormier, a bout that is penciled in for July, what UFC regulars truly boost numbers on pay-per-view? The price of UFC events was increased to $65 so who on the roster is really a draw to the casual fan? Keep in mind, diehard MMA fans will watch and appreciate the other talented fighters regardless, but the key to major money in any genre is the ability to draw the general public.

There can be tremendous action on a fight card, but if there aren’t stars to motivate the general public to buy the event then from a business prospective, the show isn’t as successful as it could be. A prime example is the event from last weekend, Rockhold vs. Romero for an interim belt. The show took place in Australia and featured some entertaining bouts, but the event isn’t expected to do major numbers because mostly unknowns were on the card. Rockhold and Romero are well-known among fight fans for their impressive skills, but neither athlete is necessarily known to the general public. Ironically, very similar to the lightweight division, the middleweight rankings are left unresolved because Georges St. Pierre was given a title shot four years after he vacated the welterweight title. GSP won the MW title and promptly vacated it, which made the entire title shot pointless.

The sum of all this is, that it’s no coincidence that the only major stars currently on the UFC roster are Stipe and Cormier because they fight in divisions that aren’t diluted or halted. Sure, one could make the argument that Demetrious Johnson or Cyborg stand out in their respective divisions, but there’s not enough depth there to create bouts that are anything more than glorified exhibition contests. On the flip side, the lightweight division has the depth to create intriguing fights, but the ranks are halted because there are questions about if McGregor will actually defend a championship.

Khabib is a marketable star and the persona of the Russian grappler fighting the lavish McGregor could create an intriguing dynamic. The UFC invested a lot of promotional work into the process to market Conor as the top draw in the sport so at least at this point, a McGregor pay-per-view fight is the biggest draw the company has right now. After last year saw a decline in buys, it remains to be seems if the company can cash in the star power of McGregor this year.

What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.

Until next week
-Jim LaMotta

E mail drwrestlingallpro@yahoo.com | You can follow me on Twitter @jimlamotta

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