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Of Dana White, Conor McGregor, and all the strange ‘what nows’ — taking inventory of today’s UFC

UFC 'Go Big' press conference photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

If there’s one thing about the UFC that has changed over the last year or two, it’s…well, it’s hard to put a finger on. For starters, there used to be better fibs getting kicked around, from people who cared about the product enough that they didn’t mind telling you that this effing sport was bigger than soccer, or that Jeremy Stephens would be out of jail in plenty of time to fight in Minneapolis. Fun lies. The kind you could get behind if you only gave over to imagination. Not the kind where, you know...the super cashed-in president tells you he never got into this business for the money.

Things have been a little disconnected in 2017. It’s hard to tell the small picture from the big picture, or if anybody cares to even distinguish anymore.

Start with the fact that the new owners at WME-IMG are spooks — sophisticated and well-connected celebrity brokers who (essentially) bought the sport and have thus far not so much as deigned to love it. Powerful aloofness is a hell of a thing to broadcast from the ivory tower, especially when MMA traditionally functions on its own rabidity. When the UFC became a business venture for Hollywood agents to the tune of four billion dollars, it lost a lot of passion. It lost Joe Silva. It lost Lorenzo Fertitta. It lost the common thread that was woven so deeply between fan and ownership, which was this — we’re all in it together.

(That, too, was nothing more than a fib we could get behind).

Now there’s a very real disconnect between fans and the UFC, and even fighters and the UFC. Fans don’t understand the new ownership, and — from everything we’ve seen — the new ownership doesn’t get too bothered by that.

Even White, who for so long stood as an authority in not just raising a league but in convincing people — media, commissions, fans — that fighting was in our DNA, has just become a husk of the original. Oh, he’s still around. He shows up on Colin Cowherd or on investigative journalism platforms like Fight Pass’s The Exchange from time to time (ahem). He’ll address the media after a big show, and then skedaddle like his plane needs to beat the noise curfew. And why not? He just cashed in over $300 million in the sale. That will rid you pretty quick of whatever f*cks you had left to give, even if he insists otherwise. It’s possible it hasn’t even fully dawned on him yet, but how could he care on the same level he once did, now that he’s realized such a ridiculous endgame?

MMA was at its vital best when it was in search of relevance, and White was just the right ringleader to get it there. It got there. Now it’s in the hands of an entertainment conglomerate, and White is inertia in T-shirt and tennis shoes, full as a tick.

In some ways, Conor McGregor’s run through the UFC, and now into the potential nine-figure payday of boxing, is emblematic of the current state of things. The UFC is on board with McGregor fighting Floyd Mayweather because it means a truckload of money. This is the kind of myopic view that wouldn’t have played before; the UFC with the Fertittas was staunchly anti-co-promotion. When the millions swell to eight zeroes, though, and people want returns on their investment, suddenly there’s a gooey center.

The line being put out there is that the fans want the fight, and it’s true for the most part, it is captivating — but fans of what? Fans of MMA? It’s boxing. Fans of money? Conor and Floyd aren’t sharing the proceeds. Fans of spectacle? This would seem recidivist to a company that spent the last 15 years distancing itself from that very word.

It’s all so newly complicated.

What happens to McGregor once he gets that big payday? What happens to his lightweight belt right now? Does he come back to the UFC? Does the money the UFC can give him upon return satisfy his longing for career escalation? Will a nine-digit payday diminish his want to compete? In other words, is it worth it to risk his vital MMA career so that he can cash in against Mayweather?

Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t, but it’s a new day in the UFC, and McGregor helped usher in the times.

As with other firebrands in history, he is both creator and destroyer. McGregor’s success (which he earned) and special treatment (which he fostered) makes for a lot of disgruntled alpha people in the ranks. Al Iaquinta is openly out there telling the UFC to go f*ck themselves. Jose Aldo tried to quit. Frankie Edgar throws up a little in his mouth when talking titles and McGregor. These are new developments. In 2017, you’re an outlier in the UFC if you aren’t chirping about Reebok or USADA or the death of meritocracy or the B.S. pay or the lack of promotion or...Conor McGregor.

The truth is, McGregor is one of the best things to happen to the UFC, and one of the worst. He got his ransoms at every stop, and left a wave of mutiny crashing behind him. Will he defend a belt? That’s an old question that belongs to an old day. As far as “the way things were,” McGregor lit a match and tossed it over his shoulder as he went about doing things his way. Sometimes that sort of thing’s necessary. In the very least, it’s novel.

Problem is his way can’t be everybody elses way, and that pisses people off. They all can’t be Conor.

And it’s not just McGregor’s quest or White’s diminishing command. It’s a lot of things. Maybe it’s the lawsuit hovering over the UFC, which probably plays a roundabout role in free agency defections. Maybe it’s the matchmaking, which more and more caters to names rather than pecking orders (another symptom of McGregor’s pass through). Maybe it’s that people like Frank Mir are treated as strangers by the brand that raised him, or that the creative team stopped trying on promotional posters (I mean, look at this). Maybe it’s that so many things are going on at once, and in a direction that we can’t yet fully understand.

Whatever it is, there’s a different feel to the UFC right now with the subtle shifts, and it has something to do with a change in vitality.

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