Conor McGregor has reportedly retired from the sport of mixed martial arts, and the last handful of hours have been a whirlwind. Dana White has appeared on ESPN already to say that the featherweight champion will no longer be participating at UFC 200 this July, which is a huge loss to everyone on that card and the promotion itself.
However, this is a very real problem for the UFC and the scope reaches well beyond just Conor McGregor and the unfortunate incident surrounding Joao Carvalho, who died last week after sustaining head injuries in a TKO loss.
We’ve all been following how Ronda Rousey’s steadily and carefully tracked her recovery after getting blasted in the skull by Holly Holm at UFC 193. Nobody should be talking shit about that anymore.
Concussions are a big issue in sport, but death from a head injury is a fear that’s all too real for contact athletes in sports like MMA, hockey and football. We don’t know anything about the long-term impacts of concussions just yet, and McGregor is not the first athlete to walk away from money, fame and glory in order to preserve his health. He won’t be the last either.
Whether that present fear of the recent past keeps McGregor away from competition forever obviously remains to be seen, but this is a sentinel moment in the UFC and one we should all be paying attention to. How White, McGregor and the sport’s ambassadors react to it will either signal a potential future…or the unfathomable end to one of the world’s most popular new attractions.
WHAT WE KNOW SO FAR ABOUT MCGREGOR’S RETIREMENT
The main theory is that Conor McGregor was emotionally disturbed by seeing MMA fighter Joao Carvalho die from recent injuries sustained at a fight in Dublin. McGregor was reportedly in attendance and had this to say about the injury:
“Terrible news regarding Joao Carvalho.
To see a young man doing what he loves, competing for a chance at a better life, and then to have it taken away is truly heartbreaking.
We are just men and women doing something we love in the hope of a better life for ourselves and our families. Nobody involved in combat sports of any kind wants to see this. It is such a rare occurrence that I don’t know how to take this.
I was ringside supporting my teammate, and the fight was so back and forth, that I just can’t understand it.
My condolences go out to Joao’s family and his team. Their man was a hell of a fighter and will be sorely missed by all.
Combat sport is a crazy game and with the recent incident in boxing and now this in MMA, it is a sad time to be a fighter and a fight fan.
It is easy for those on the outside to criticise our way of living, but for the millions of people around the world who have had their lives, their health, their fitness and their mental strength all changed for the better through combat, this is truly a bitter pill to swallow. We have lost one of us.
I hope we remember Joao as a champion, who pursued his dream doing what he loved, and show him the eternal respect and admiration he deserves.
Rest in peace, Joao.” [via Facebook]
If anything, Conor is a man unfiltered so his heartfelt condolences have to be taken at face value to a certain extent. There’s no doubt that Carvalho’s untimely passing has had a sincere impact on the featherweight champion, but to see him retire out of the blue like this is completely unexpected.
It’s not unprecedented though. Chris Borland of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers retired after just one year in the NFL. He was one of the league’s top rookies in 2014 and walked away abruptly while mentioning fears about concussions and his sentiments reverberate in this situation as well.
“I just honestly want to do what’s best for my health,” Borland told “Outside the Lines.” “From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.” [Chris Borland via ESPN’s ‘Outside the Lines’]
The fear of a life threatening injury in MMA is very real given the visceral nature of the sport and the whole “punching and kicking people’s heads” element. There’s no doubt about that.
WAS IT ABOUT MONEY?
Already, other theories are popping all over the internet. Dana White appeared via telephone on ESPN to say that McGregor has been yanked from UFC 200 for failing to take part in the promotion for what’s expected to be one of the UFC’s biggest events of all time. The natural draw of McGregor-Diaz 2 has an inherent gravity that fans will resist, even if the rematch does seem semi-pointless. Still, fighters have to do their part to market the event as per UFC’s guidelines.
So while McGregor will say that he’s retired, White is emphatic that he had control over the fighter’s status heading in to this summer’s grandest event. “We pulled Conor McGregor from UFC 200 and we’re working on other fights right now,” White said in the interview. “Conor did not want to come to Las Vegas and film the commercial and be a part of the marketing. He’s in Iceland training.
White has pulled fighters from main events for this exact same reason. He did the same to Nick Diaz – the brother of Nate Diaz – for failing to properly promote a fight in 2011. So there’s precedent here for the UFC to cut fighters from big cards no matter how big of a match they’re lined up for.
But pulling McGregor from UFC 200 shortly after he announced his own retirement also seems like a furious reaction from the company’s promoter. If they had known that McGregor was going to find a way out of the rematch with Diaz, there is a 100% chance that White does everything in his power to get out in front of it instead of letting McGregor dictate the situation. Everything we know about Dana points towards this course of action.
So the question has to be asked: was McGregor holding out on promoting the fight in order to avoid it altogether?
As I said a while back when the fight was announced, there was little to gain with a rematch against Diaz for either side. A win for Diaz doesn’t bolster his chances in the division, nor make him any more of a household name than he already is. A loss for McGregor only further dilutes his status as an icon and draw in the sport. A win for McGregor just means that he has to fight Diaz a third time in a weird rivalry that doesn’t even seem to be underscored by a natural weight class.
I’m not going to say that McGregor was scared of Diaz because that just doesn’t seem plausible, but there’s a risk-reward here for McGregor that was 50/50 at best. Even the odds makers were posting Diaz as a reasonably strong favorite in the rematch.
McGregor essentially leaves what many project as anywhere from $10 to $15 million in immediate earning from UFC 200 on the table, as well as any future earnings, by burning this bridge the way that he did. That seems like a lot of money to simply ignore. Even Oscar de la Hoya went out for a “totally fair and straight up fight” against Floyd Mayweather for a final, massive payday loss.
It’s not like UFC fighters make untold millions either. McGregor made a lot of money, but not much more than a veteran baseball player does in a single season.
If McGregor did just walk away from UFC 200 for financial reasons, he was likely losing the negotiating battle with Dana White for a bigger payout at the event. But there is something authentic about McGregor. I do believe that Carvalho’s death put his own life in to perspective to a very large degree. Death has a way of doing that.
WILL HE BE BACK?
To be honest, we’re not entirely sure McGregor is actually gone. But the door is always open. Dana White has always brought back stars that he could make money off of, because as big as the UFC has gotten it still pales in comparison to boxing.
Georges St-Pierre is apparently in long-winded negotiations to return after last fighting in the promotion in November of 2013. He’s turning 35 in May. McGregor is just 27 years old, so a similar hiatus would still bring him back within the traditional window for an athlete’s physical prime.
Of course, we haven’t heard the last of McGregor. If Dana White stirs up a war of words with the Notorious One, then there’s bound to be a reaction. It is such a shame, but at the same time, a completely understandable move by a fighter rocked by the brutal image of a colleague’s untimely passing.
More than the loss of a great champion and a blockbuster entertainer, it is the UFC’s greatest fear realized. Not many fighters will follow in McGregor’s footsteps because they don’t have nearly the same bank account that he does, nor the stones to walk away from as much money as he just did. But if this happens within the UFC, then the company’s fear becomes a frightening reality.
At least McGregor can walk away from the sport knowing he left a lasting legacy, and that time heals all wounds. We all know that earning potential is the best mender for broken bridges when it comes to situations such as these. McGregor could very well return to the UFC as suddenly as he’s left it.
In the meantime, he has his health, his fame and his fortune.
Enjoy your sandwich, McGregor. You’ve earned it.