Had Conor McGregor come along during UFC’s 2005-2010 boom period, he would have been one of the promotion’s biggest stars, right there with Chuck Liddell, Georges St-Pierre, Brock Lesnar, Randy Couture and the like. Unfortunately for the Irish fighter, his ascent to the main event picture is taking place during an undeniable popularity slump for the company.
With McGregor set to headline Sunday’s UFC Fight Night show in Boston on Fox Sports 1, the question is, can he turn the company’s fortunes around?
It should come as no surprise that UFC President Dana White has invested so much promotional capital in McGregor. After all, the brash fighter has clearly studied some of professional wrestling’s best talkers in an effort to raise his profile.
Given that Brock Lesnar, the man who headlined the best-selling pay-per-view event in the company’s history, also came from the cartoon world of wrestling, it is easy to see why White has put his muscle behind McGregor. It also explains why the UFC would sign former WWE star CM Punk, a 36 year-old with no professional fighting experience.
As much as this may rankle mixed martial arts purists, UFC’s popularity surge was built on a pro wrestling foundation. The first season of The Ultimate Fighter reality show, the series that helped spur the MMA boom, aired immediately following WWE’s flagship show, Raw, on Monday nights.
The first memorable rivalry after the company’s emergence from its so-called “dark age”, featured Ken Shamrock, who had weekly television exposure for several years in the late 1990s as a WWE wrestler, and Tito Ortiz. There have been seven 1 million-buy pay-per-views in UFC history, according to mmapayout.com, and Lesnar has headlined three of those events. The company has surpassed that magical million-buy mark just once since Lesnar’s departure from the company at the end of 2011.
It would be disingenuous to tie the entirety of UFC’s recent decline to Lesnar’s departure, for sure. The company’s move from its long-time cable home at Spike TV for the FOX family of television networks has also been a factor. The transition from Spike, first to FX, then to the fledgling Fox Sports 1 channel, has seen viewership for Fight Night events and pre-PPV preliminary cards drop by hundreds of thousands of viewers. American television viewers are creatures of habit to be sure, and moving from Spike, which is in roughly 9 million more homes than FS1, is a piece to this puzzle as well.
Overexposure is another issue facing the UFC too. The company has shifted its business model from one that saw about 25 events per year, to one that features a staggering 44 planned shows in 2015. With countless entertainment choices, and especially many more well-established sports properties like the NBA and the NFL competing for many of the same viewers that could fuel a rebound, the UFC clearly has its work cut out for it.
Enter McGregor, the trash-talking 26 year-old from Dublin. After an inauspicious 4-2 start to his pro fighting career, McGregor has rattled off twelve consecutive victories, including wins in his first four UFC bouts. After wins in 2013 against Marcus Brimage and Max Holloway, McGregor headlined a Fight Night show in Dublin in July 2014, finishing Diego Brandao in the first round. That fight might have been a star-making performance had it been broadcast anywhere other than UFC’s Fight Pass subscription service.
McGregor followed up the Brandao win by trash-talking, then defeating Dustin Poirier, a well-respected fighter, in just under two minutes. After besting Poirier, McGregor showed up at the post-fight press conference wearing sunglasses, and a suit that looked like something straight out of a Ric Flair promo in Jim Crockett Promotions in 1986.
McGregor proceeded to trash-talk most of the UFC Featherweight division, and it was clear that the company had a potential needle-mover on its hands. Reebok seems to think him as an impact player as well, as he is one of just a few fighters that the apparel company has announced a sponsorship deal with, in its new role as uniform provider for the UFC.
We could reasonably expect a barrage of commercials and in-game reads promoting McGregor’s fight on Sunday during the NFL’s NFC Championship Game on FOX, a sign that the network that UFC is in bed with sees something in him as well.
Whatever the ceiling is for a UFC star is in this post-boom period is, McGregor is clearly nearing it. For good measure, McGregor has vowed to finish Dennis Siver in less than two minutes on Sunday. If he gets past Siver, a featherweight title fight with Jose Aldo looms, perhaps even at a stadium show in his native Ireland, later this summer.
The crowning of a new superstar in McGregor, coupled with the rumored return of Lesnar to promotion later this year, could give UFC the shot in the arm that it needs, particularly coming after the recent Jon Jones controversy cast a shadow on what should have been an overwhelmingly positive sign that the tide is turning. On January 3, Jones headlined a show that topped 740,000 buys, according to early estimates from mmafighting.com and bloodyelbow.com, but word of an out-of-competition drug failure leaked after the show, giving the promotion a black eye.
Conor McGregor is talking. Can he back up that talk well enough to propel the UFC back to its former glory? We’ll know more after UFC Fight Night: McGregor vs. Siver, this Sunday in Boston.
UFC Fight Night: McGregor vs. Siver airs Sunday on Fox Sports 1. The preliminary card kicks off on the UFC Fight Pass subscription service at 6 PM ET. The prelims continue on Fox Sports 1 at 7 PM, and the main card begins at 10 PM ET.