Conor McGregor wasn’t expected to fight in the UFC until the summer of 2018, and then New York happened. Ah, New York, the place where the absurd happens on the regular, egos are inflated and money never sleeps. As a setting, it was ironic. The state that for years was known in MMA circles for its unsanctioned violence is also the one that the UFC lobbied unsuccessfully for what seemed like eternity, touting its legitimacy as a professional endeavor. The truth is, the sport always lives in an uneasy tension between both worlds, one that was shattered on Thursday afternoon with a steel hand truck through a bus window.
It was a dumb, dangerous and possibly felonious act that injured several people, including lightweight Michael Chiesa and flyweight Ray Borg, who were both forced to withdraw from their respective UFC 223 bouts. It also cost Alex Caceres a fight after scheduled foe Artem Lobov was removed from the card for his role alongside McGregor in the fracas. There was collateral damage all around, and in the immediate aftermath, McGregor’s actions were correctly characterized by the UFC.
“What happened today was criminal, disgusting, despicable, makes me sick, and we as an organization need to make sure that this never happens again,” UFC president Dana White said.
Now comes the hard part: enforcement.
If this was literally anybody else on the UFC roster, that person would almost certainly be cut from the promotion. After all, the evidence is right there on video. There is no need for a defense or even an explanation. McGregor “lost the plot,” as they might say in his homeland. It’s one thing to talk trash; it’s quite another entirely to assault and endanger an entire busload of people, as he and his crew did. What was supposed to be standing up for his friend Lobov for a Tuesday confrontation turned into straight hooliganism.
We have known for a while now that McGregor lives by his own set of rules. He’s the UFC’s golden child, and so the organization has bent over backward for him when necessary. For instance, his 500+ day title reign without yet being officially stripped of the belt. No one else could have gotten away with that, but McGregor is a rainmaker.
It is not unusual or even unfair for exceptions to be made for the exceptional. It happens in every trade and industry, and across geographic regions. But even while McGregor’s behavior has gotten progressively worse—there was the bottle-throwing incident, his confrontation with Paulie Malinaggi, his bizarre Bellator cage-rushing incident—there has been almost nothing in the way of discipline. He’s been enabled up until the point that he went too far.
If White truly wants to make sure this never happens again, what will he do? Is this a McGregor decision or something more general, like a review of security operations?
McGregor’s expectation, in following precedent, is likely that the UFC will do nothing. On Thursday, White deflected any decision, and to be fair, there’s no reason he needs to announce something immediately. He has UFC 223 to promote, and fighters and employees injured in the melee; the New York police can handle McGregor for now.
But as time passes, it will be quite telling to see how White and the UFC handle McGregor, because money tends to cloud thinking. It may not even take long to do so. Saturday will bring with it a new set of developments that may play as much of a role in the organization’s handling of McGregor as the Irishman’s own actions. Khabib Nurmagomedov was McGregor’s intended target, so what if he wins Saturday night?
The UFC has taken such incidents in the past and spun them into marketing gold. Think back to the McGregor-Nate Diaz bottle-throwing episode, or the Jon Jones-Daniel Cormier press conference brawl, or the Chiesa and Kevin Lee press conference incident from 2017.
In all of those instances, the brawls became part of the promotion, and right or wrong, the two major fights did big numbers.
McGregor’s return opponent lies somewhere in the future, but it’s within reason to believe that this attack on Nurmagomedov was at least partially premeditated as a means of giving himself a ready-made rivalry. The ensuing injuries may not have been part of the plan, but here we are.
If the UFC wanted to punish McGregor, it could do virtually anything it wanted, from cutting him to suspending him to levying a hefty fine. If they UFC wanted to punish him, they would not give him a fight against Nurmagomedov, even if that decision directly affected them.
Does anyone expect them to go that far? White is clearly angry at McGregor’s actions, but it’s also safe to assume he will not want him on the sidelines for long. They want him fighting in their cage and generating cash, and he can’t do that if the promotion disciplines him in any meaningful way.
It’s quite a conundrum he’s in. It’s quite a conundrum the UFC is in, too.
As McGregor’s profile has grown, he’s basked in his fame. He’s said outrageous things.
It’s always bigger and bolder and brasher. Maybe something like this always had to be the unfortunate outcome, McGregor feeling untouchable and crossing the line and daring the world to do something about it.
Surely he’ll be sued by a few of the aggrieved parties, but what lies beyond that? Maybe he’ll be penalized, or maybe he’ll get a slap on the wrist and move into a rivalry with Nurmagomedov, and the bus-attack clip will help pad his bank account even further. In this sport and in this town, fortunes are won and lost playing on the edge, and just as often, by crossing it. McGregor has done that here in a horrific way, and the UFC’s response to his actions will tell us whether or not for one fighter, the edge exists at all.