Written By: Josh Hemeon
The more I get into a sport the more of a love/hate relationship I develop with the organizations that deliver it. Here in Canada, many hockey fans despise the NHL for their perceived favoritism of American franchises, particularly in the south where failing teams have millions of dollars invested into them with no return while expansion in Canadian cities is non-existent despite Canada’s die-hard fan base. Americans can surely bring similar complaints against the NFL and manyMidnight Drive-Thru fans are particularly opinionated about the WWE as an organization. Nonetheless, it is hard to deny that the best quality entertainment is delivered by these organizations and UFC 202 was certainly no exception. The main and co-main event were both interesting for different reasons. Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson delivered a devastating knockout in just 13 seconds over number two contender Glover Teixeira and Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz put on a 5-round war that saw McGregor edge out Diaz in a close majority decision. The obvious reason for my good-but-different comparison of these bouts is the manner in which they played out. Both a knockout right out of the gates and a closely contested back and forth contest is appealing each in their own way. But the less obvious reason is the booking.
The co-main event was a title eliminator bout for UFC Light-Heavyweight Championship. Rumble came into this bout ranked #1 and Teixeira #2. Normally once one becomes #1 contender their next fight is for the title but these fighters moved up when Jon Jones was removed from the rankings due to his anti-doping violation prior to UFC 200. Aside from this anomaly, this bout was academic. A challenger emerges from a big win over another title contender and the stage is set to face the champion. A knockout is a just a gift for whoever is tasked with promoting the championship bout. Jon Jones aside, this is business as usual for the UFC and good business at that.
Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz are also good for business. It is a very compelling rivalry between two very different and equally fascinating characters. On one side you have McGregor, who rose to fame and fortune relatively quickly based on his pro-wrestling like ability to sell his fights coupled with his ability to win them in dramatic fashion. On the other side you have Diaz, a tough as nails UFC veteran whose raw honesty and street punk persona have gained him and his brother Nick a cult following among MMA fans. Nate Diaz is also known for his many CM Punk style ‘pipe bombs’ where he openly criticizes the UFC in profanity-laced rants (ironically one of them is about CM Punk joining the UFC). In the 11 days leading up to their first fight, McGregor and Diaz cut some of the most amazing promos ever with McGregor’s scripted ringmaster-like presence colliding with Diaz’s raw profanity-laced honesty. In every exchange leading up to this fight both fighters and, perhaps more importantly, fans of both fighters could say each got the better of the exchanges based on whatever measuring stick was being used.
As for the bout itself, Diaz/McGregor II also delivered in the sense that fans of either fighter could walk away thinking their fighter won. While in their first encounter Diaz came out a clear winner, McGregor did not come out as clear a winner in this bout. McGregor fans can point to their fighter’s early knockdowns of Diaz and McGregor continuing to land shots later in the fight to assert the validity of their fighter’s decision victory. Diaz fans can also agree with Diaz’s own assertion that he won the fight and belittle McGregor for running away later in the fight. As a Diaz fan myself I took great joy in Diaz laughing and pointing at McGregor as he nearly turned away and jogged into better positions. A Diaz fan could claim that Conor McGregor won but still lost due to his evasive tactics in the later rounds. They would be wrong, McGregor, despite being a high-level competitor, competes in MMA first and foremost for money rather than pride. Likewise, Diaz fans could take consolation in that Diaz, a longtime UFC veteran, would likely get another big payday in a third fight and lost but still won. Not really. While Diaz talks about only wanting to fight for money, I would suspect based on Diaz’s previous comments and behaviors that Diaz values pride more than money and that money, while obviously nice, is a measurement of worth and respect. After all, Diaz has been fined on multiple occasions by the UFC for speaking his mind and openly trash talks about the UFC all the time. Any thought of putting over McGregor for more money in a later fight would have gone out the window as soon as McGregor touched him.
After the fight UFC president and minority stock-holder, Dana White uncharacteristically held back on the possibility of a third fight between the two. This makes sense considering McGregor is yet to defend his featherweight title he won in December 2015. McGregor has also expressed interest in fighting for the lightweight title against champion Eddie Alvarez who has also expressed interest in fighting McGregor. White told media that McGregor would need to either defend his UFC Featherweight Championship against interim champion Jose Aldo or vacate it in favor of a fight with either Alvarez or Diaz at lightweight. McGregor said in the UFC 202 post-fight press conference that it is “hard to get excited” about a fight with Aldo given Aldo pulling out beforehand and later being finished by McGregor in only 13 seconds. McGregor politicked a little saying him being stripped of the belt would “bury the [featherweight] division” but given the drama surrounding UFC 200 which McGregor was pulled from that card, one can wonder how effective politicking with the UFC president will be for McGregor.
The rub for MMA fans is what should happen next. From a rankings perspective, Diaz/McGregor II should not have even happened, at least in the manner that it did. Having a champion fight a non-title fight at another weight class makes no sense. Furthermore, having an immediate rematch (which is very rare in the UFC) for this non-title fight while knowing the title is ready to be fought for is ludicrous. But with an expected 1.5 million PPV buys for UFC 202, surpassing that of UFC 200 from which McGregor was pulled, it is hard to reason that their booking is flawed. Should the UFC book strictly based on rankings or should they allow room for, or in this case give priority to, money-making rivalries/feuds? It is not an easy question to answer.
It all comes back to whether the UFC should be first and foremost sports or sports-entertainment. Diaz/McGregor II was 100% sports-entertainment. The fight had no consequences in regards to rankings and was purely put on because fans wanted to see it and a third bout between the two would be for the same reason. From a sports perspective McGregor should clearly fight Aldo regardless of entertainment value and if McGregor was to successfully defend his featherweight title he can then challenge the UFC Lightweight Championship. The question lies in how far the UFC should go to push highly anticipated fights or whether they should just promote them as they happen organically from the rankings. Can promoters continue to push WWE-style bookings indefinitely or will the potential loss of validity as a sport have a devastating effect on the longtime growth of MMA as a whole.
One thing is clear: no one really knows what to expect of the UFC in regards to their booking. Many new champions are looking for title defenses based on what kind of payday they will get. Michael Bisping will defend the UFC Middleweight Championship against #13 ranked Dan Henderson at UFC 204. UFC Welterweight Champion Tyron Woodley, despite previously ranting about how UFC needs to be a real sport based on the rankings, has expressed interest in fighting non-ranked fighters Nick Diaz and Georges St. Pierre instead of #1 contender Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson who is currently on a seven-fight winning streak. As previously stated UFC Lightweight Champion Eddie Alvarez has been vocal about fighting either Nate Diaz or Conor McGregor in his first title defense rather than undefeated #1 contender Khabib Nurmagomedov. While commentating for FOX at UFC 202, UFC Bantamweight Champion Dominick Cruz expressed interest in fighting Cody Garbrandt who was ranked #8 coming into that fight and is now #6.
And while fans of middleweight contenders Chris Weidman, Luke Rockhold, and Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza may be upset at their fighters not getting a title shot they deserve, Bisping/Henderson II is an exciting matchup! Likewise a welterweight fight between Tyron Woodley and Nick Diaz or St. Pierre would be exciting despite Carlos Condit, Demain Maia, or Stephen Thompson deserving it more. Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz are both good matchups against Eddie Alvarez although Khabib Nurmagomedov would be a favorite against any of them. Finally, the feud between Dominick Cruz and Team Alpha Male, which Cody Garbrandt belongs to, is an interesting story to continue despite there being several more deserving contenders at bantamweight. But are we as fans also losing out on the potential for other stories that naturally occur when multiple elite athletes converge over the notion of who is truly best in the world? Or should we throw titles aside and pay to see interesting characters fight over other motivations and compensate them generously? Dana White seems to be trying to create or reestablish some balance between the two with holding out on Diaz/Mcgregor III. Time will tell if the UFC decides to try to reign in its champions or if they will chase big money in the short term. Personally, I am not sure what I want.