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All sides should want same result in Conor McGregor high-stakes poker game

Conor McGregor's statements on Thursday made it clear he wants to fight Nate Diaz, and his retirement talk was a bluff that UFC called. Now it's a matter of both sides saving face and the fight being bigger than ever, which isn't as simple as it seems from the outside.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

We are all witnessing now the most intriguing game of high-stakes poker in UFC history.

But the key is that almost everyone, whether it be the UFC, Conor McGregor, and the fan base, all should want the same conclusion: McGregor vs. Nate Diaz as the UFC 200 main event. If anything, by all three parties being faced with the possibility that the match won't take place, it's probably left all wanting it even more.

And there are a lot of different angles to it. The short form of the story is that Conor McGregor and UFC had a dispute, either over doing media in the U.S. this week, or one that led to McGregor not agreeing to do planned media this week. This included what Dana White said was the filming of a $1 million television commercial for UFC 200. It is implausible that they could do that commercial without McGregor, the biggest draw on UFC's planned biggest event in history.

Even after McGregor made it clear publicly he was not retired and wanting the fight, the UFC hasn't wavered in its position that the fight is off. There is almost surely more to the story than is out. So it's hard to fully know why the UFC seems steadfast in its decision not to do the fight when it has yet to announce a new one.

McGregor has been able to use his status as UFC's goose that lays the golden eggs to get what he wants. Perhaps only one other fighter would have been able to delay a press conference by 40 minutes, like McGregor did before the first Nate Diaz fight, without any repercussions. The reality in sports and entertainment is that there is a double standard for those that drive revenue. But at some point, by continuing to push his weight around, it was inevitable there would be a push back from UFC.

So that came this week, and the game was on.

McGregor and his camp played the retirement card as a first strike. It made the dispute public and teased he was willing to walk out of the fight, and the rest of his career, if he didn't get what he wanted.

The UFC and White then pulled McGregor from the show hours later. It was an even more public sign that they are willing and able to run UFC 200 without him. They also painted the picture that the fight was over something that the public would see as petty. But both sides have been careful about how they portrayed the other, so it was clear from the start nobody was looking at burning any bridges.

But, as per the retirement threat, while White made it clear he was skeptical of it, he also said that if McGregor is retiring, they have to strip him of the featherweight title. And they've already got a match in place to take care of that.

On Thursday, McGregor's response was a clear attempt to get back on the show, a willingness to go to New York for one press conference, and making it clear he's not looking at giving up that title. In a sense it was a compromise position.

The difference between McGregor being on UFC 200 and somebody else being put in his position is, conservatively, worth $40 million to the company on that night. McGregor will be out millions as well. But the truth is, the UFC doesn't need the money as badly as McGregor, which is their leverage position. But it's not a trivial amount of money to the UFC.

In the UFC's public posturing, with the idea they weren't upset or mad, and this was just part of doing business, they were making that message clear. For McGregor, besides the money, he will have wasted all his recent training time, and will not get a chance to avenge a loss that clearly haunts him.

But let's not underplay how big losing the fight is to the UFC.

That $40 million figure doesn't even include revenue that can't be measured, long-term value to the sport of opening new doors, creating more fans and elevating its ceiling of popularity and big-show interest. At a time when ratings in much of television and sports are either declining or holding steady, the UFC posted big increases last year. This year is well ahead of last year's pace. McGregor and Ronda Rousey are the key catalysts of this popularity increase. And that's not even factoring in the UFC's goodwill in the Las Vegas community.

Nobody in the UFC brings more tourists to Las Vegas than McGregor, which means more money spent throughout the city and brings more respect, influence and value to the company in its home base. For the UFC, it means more people in town for International Fight Week, its fight expo, and its Thursday and Friday night shows.

After a tumultuous two days, it's very clear now it's just a matter of figuring out a way to get to the end that everyone should want, the fight itself taking place. Part of it is a matter of publicly saving face. It's also UFC sending a message to other fighters that if they are willing to pull the biggest revenue driver from the most ambitious promotional event in company history, it's a sign to even the biggest stars that you can only push so much.

It was interesting that McGregor used the line that "I am paid to fight. I am not yet paid to promote."

Nobody in the company is more aware than McGregor that as a top-tier star, your pay to fight is determined as much by your fighting ability as your ability to promote your fights. He is perhaps the highest paid fighter the company has ever had, and his pay is best on both fighting and promoting.

But McGregor didn't come up with that line. And he's hardly the first UFC fighter to use it.

It was his rival, Jose Aldo, who used words to that effect last year while McGregor completely carried the promotion of their two planned fights. McGregor made Aldo into a far bigger star and earned Aldo far more money than strictly his fighting ability for years of being one of the best ever could.

There were rumblings from the McGregor side about resentment, that Aldo was benefitting by how much work McGregor was doing promoting both fights, both the one that didn't happen and the one that later did. McGregor's gift of being the guy so good at promoting in a sense gave his opponent an advantage in being able to fully concentrate on the fight, and not having training broken up by as much travel.

A key, pointed out many times, was Aldo leaving one of UFC's biggest press events ever midway through because he had a wedding to attend. McGregor complained publicly about that one. As it turned out, none of that played any part in the outcome of the fight, given McGregor won in 13 seconds.

But after a loss, it is likely that manifested itself when looking for reasons the Diaz fight ended up the way it did.

Stripping things down to their basics, UFC can't allow a main event fighter to refuse to be part of the filming of the television commercial, or the major press conferences, that build a major fight. Can a fighter ask to do less local media and fewer media days? Yes, and with top stars, there will always be some give-and-take. A fighter who is climbing the ladder and wants to be a top star is better off doing as much as he can to build his name. A fighter at the top, who already has the name, can get away with doing less. But even if you're Muhammad Ali, some key things have to be done.

But there's also a major lesson in the last few days. The game of publicity is rapidly changing. McGregor did point out that with one tweet, he called more attention to the fight than doing copious amount of traditional media would have done. The fight is bigger now than it would have been had he done what traditionally would be done to promote. He's gotten three days of major publicity everywhere.

Although the timing wasn't perfect. All that publicity has led to Saturday's UFC 197, which has its own major story of the return of Jon Jones, being overwhelmed by a show nearly three months away.

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