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Conor McGregor’s chaotic 24-hour stretch is a crossroads moment, but to where?

Conor McGregor (MMA F)
Will Conor McGregor ever fight again?
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The latest on Conor McGregor is that he’s at odds with the UFC over his contract and that he’s facing potential criminal charges, which is to say, there is nothing really new with him at all. This is what McGregor’s life has turned into over the last few years, since he went from collecting government welfare to making a small fortune in the blink of an eye.

It’s been a wild, sometimes thrilling, sometimes disturbing sequence of events since then, culminating in a Monday that began with a cheeky tweet and ended with a sobering hammer of news that places McGregor in the midst of an active sexual assault police investigation. The New York Times reported that the former UFC champion was accused of the charge by a woman in Ireland in an incident that dates back to last December, and that the investigation remains ongoing.

No one but McGregor and the victim know the truth of the case, but nevertheless, people will draw their own conclusions based on the drips of information, as well as their perceptions of McGregor and his history.

As magnetic of a personality as he is, McGregor has also attracted his share of trouble. There was the time he jumped the cage in Bellator and physically confronted a referee, the infamous bus attack in Brooklyn, and the phone-smashing incident in Florida, among other things. He has been arrested three times in the last year. None of that makes him guilty of the most recent crime for which he is accused, but it’s also not character evidence that works in his defense.

While the wheels of justice slowly grind, McGregor’s career has also hit a slog. Early Monday morning U.S. time, McGregor tweeted that he would retire. No one took it seriously in the moment, mostly because he is on record within just the last week of wanting to get back into the Octagon to compete. And also because he’s threatened retirement before, only to return within a few months. The belief was that as he did last time, McGregor was using his social media pulpit as his only available leverage to get a better deal from the UFC to return. McGregor has long stated that he wants — no, deserves — an ownership stake in the UFC as part of his compensation.

Frankly, he is right. The UFC sold in 2017 under a $4.025 billion valuation created in part by McGregor’s superstardom. Its valuation has only increased since then; according to the UFC itself, the number is now around $7 billion. In 2018 and 2019, the promotion signed two separate, multi-year deals with ESPN that virtually guarantee that the promotion will receive record revenue, even if pay-per-view receipts dip. Those deals were due in part to the McGregor effect. McGregor has headlined five of the six best-selling UFC pay-per-view events of all-time. He is a historic MMA cash cow, and ESPN was in part paying for the rights to all of his future fights.

He has created hundreds of millions — perhaps even over $1 billion — in revenue and in valuation for his promotion. That is indisputable, yet he has no way to negotiate and receive the percentage of money commensurate with his worth. His leverage is limited. Worse from his point of view, his pay-per-view cut will almost certainly decline under the new ESPN deal, as his fights will be behind not one, but two paywalls, making last-minute impulse event purchases unlikely.

So McGregor, whose value helped lead to a record sports property acquisition fee and two rich television contracts, may actually make less money as a result. That seems both unfair and ridiculous. Yet on the other hand…

If you’re on the UFC’s side of the negotiating table, and you take a look at McGregor’s recent antics, behavior, and legal issues, wouldn’t you hesitate a little before backing up the Brinks truck? It is understandable that they might be more wary to partner with him now than they were just two or three years ago, even though, let’s be honest, they were never going to agree to an ownership stake.

“That’s never gonna happen,” UFC president Dana White told TMZ on Monday afternoon. White’s guarantees are hardly written in stone, but this one seems like a lock. In sports history, there has never been a situation where an active athlete owned an equity stake in the organization he or she played for. McGregor wouldn’t just be fighting the wishes of UFC brass; he’d be trying to buck history, and trying to do it at a time when he is accused of a heinous crime.

Up until yesterday, McGregor might have had the public on his side. He is one of the few professional fighters who can rally the troops with a few words. Some of those supporters will remain firmly in his corner, but others will be asking the obvious questions of a man who seems on top of the world yet keeps finding himself in trouble.

What is going on?

What will happen next?

Is he off the deep end for good?

These are not pleasant questions to ask, and this is not a fun situation for anyone. We would much prefer that McGregor’s top controversy consist of a contract negotiation or some silly feud. We long for the juvenile simplicity of him and Nate Diaz throwing middle fingers each other’s way. We don’t want to believe that he will blow it, that everything will come crashing down around him. He was such a feel-good story, now on the verge of becoming a cautionary tale.

For now, MMA seems far away. McGregor has important concerns to face down, ones that require his attention and sober introspection. This seems like a crossroads moment for him, but to where? The next few months will begin to offer answers, but before he can address his contract, he must address a surprise obstacle to it: Himself.

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