Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
Karim Zidan breaks down how the UFC uses its public relations machine to protect its cash cow Conor McGregor.
On March 26, 2019, the New York Times published a report which revealed that Conor McGregor was under investigation in Ireland after a woman accused him of sexual assault in December 2018. According to the report, McGregor was arrested in January 2019 by law enforcement for questioning and was later released pending further investigation. The former UFC champion was not charged with a crime. The New York Times later followed up in October 2019 with a second report which revealed that the 31-year-old fighter was under investigation for a second sexual assault allegation.
Irish media reported on the initial case since news broke in December 2018, though without mentioning McGregor’s name. Instead, they referred to him as a “famous Irish sportsman,” as Ireland’s rape laws prohibit a news outlet’s ability to identify or name individuals charged with rape unless they have been convicted. Failure to comply with these strict laws could lead to costly libel lawsuits and even contempt of court indictments.
However, it is these strict limitations in Irish law coupled with McGregor’s exorbitant wealth and influence that led to a peculiar and disproportionate reaction from mainstream media and sports fans alike. Despite celebrity scandals garnering extreme attention in the social media age, McGregor, backed by an incompetent sports media landscape and the UFC’s promotional machine, has managed to avoid much of the backlash usually associated with allegations of heinous crimes. This includes the countless simple assault charges and various other incidents that have taken place outside of the sexual assault accusations.
Understanding this strange situation begins by understanding McGregor’s global stardom, his rabid following, and the institutions that have chosen to protect him instead of hold him accountable.
Days before making his UFC debut in Stockholm, Sweden back in 2013 – a 67-second showcase that ended in the Irishman knocking out Marcus Brimage – Conor McGregor collected a $235 welfare check from the Irish government. It was likely the last welfare check he ever cashed, for McGregor was given a $60,000 ‘Knockout of the Night’ bonus for his exhilarating debut performance – a figure he could only have dreamed about before that fateful day.
”To be honest, I don’t know what’s going on here,” McGregor said at the post-fight press conference when asked to reflect on his newfound good fortune. “ I’m just up here hearing $60,000. I’m just thinking of what I’m going to spend it on…I’m making money here, I didn’t have money before this, you know. Like I said, I was collecting 180 Euros a week off the social welfare and here I am and I’ve got 60 G’s bonus and my own pay.”
McGregor’s swift rise from plumbing apprentice cashing social welfare checks to international superstar with a net worth in the multi-millions became one of the most impressive sports stories of the past decade. It also helped shape his cult of personality and diehard fanbase – a loyal following inspired by his success and influenced by his charismatic personality.
It did not take long for the UFC to catch onto McGregor’s rising star power. He compiled a four-fight winning streak between August 2013 and January 2015, earning an interim title shot against Chad Mendes. He defeated the wrestler in less than two rounds, which catapulted him into a highly anticipated showdown with featherweight champion Jose Aldo. After a chaotic promotional tour that lasted several months, McGregor needed just 13 seconds to knock Aldo unconscious, thus cementing his status as the UFC’s top asset and a hero amongst his countrymen.
McGregor’s star continued to shine well into 2016. Despite suffering his first UFC defeat at the hands of Nate Diaz, the Irishman later avenged his loss at UFC 202 and then went on to claim a second UFC championship when he knocked out lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez in November 2016. And yet, though McGregor seemed unstoppable at the time, his TKO victory against Alvarez remains the last fight that McGregor won in the last four years.
Over the course of the next few years, McGregor – a fighter once known for his impressive knockouts and memorable trash talking – began to make headlines for legal issues and incidents that shed light on the fighter’s self-destructive nature.
During the Bellator 187 show in November 2017, McGregor scaled the cage following his teammate Charlie Ward’s TKO victory and scuffled with event officials and shoved referee Marc Goddard as he celebrated Ward’s victory. The incident drew criticism from the MMA community, which led to McGregor releasing a public apology on his social media.
On March 29, 2018, McGregor and several members of his entourage stormed the Barclays Center in New York and attacked two buses filled with fighters competing at UFC 223. Several fighters, including Michael Chiesa and Ray Borg, were injured during the melee and forced to withdraw from their scheduled bouts. As a result, McGregor was charged with three counts of assault and one count of criminal mischief. He eventually reached a plea deal and pleaded guilty to a single count of disorderly conduct. He was then ordered by the judge to attend anger management classes and commit to five days of community service.
Last year, McGregor was arrested once again for smashing a stranger’s phone outside a nightclub. The incident was captured on video, as it appeared the stranger was a fan attempting to get a picture of the UFC fighter. However, the criminal charges were dismissed after the court found inconsistencies in the victim’s testimony.
In April 2019, McGregor once again made headlines when a video appeared to show McGregor punching an elderly man in the head at a pub in Ireland. He eventually pleaded guilty to assault in November 2019 and was fined 1000 euros.
Despite these repeated offences, the UFC opted not to punish McGregor despite it being within their UFC Fight Conduct Policy to do so. In fact, whenever possible, the UFC used McGregor’s notoriety and unstable personality to sell more Pay-Per-Views.
The UFC’s Propaganda Machine
Over the past few years, the UFC has gone out of its way to protect its prized asset. Even dating as early as 2013, when McGregor made a sexual comment about fellow stars Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate, the promotion opted to turn a blind eye to his problematic side.
Following the UFC 223 bus melee, UFC President Dana White revealed that he was disgusted by McGregor’s actions, and was even quoted saying, “Do you want to chase this guy around for interviews and buy his fights? Do you? I don’t think anybody is going to want to right now. I think everybody is going to be pretty disgusted with Conor McGregor right now.”
And yet, despite White’s feigned disgust, the UFC opted not to punish McGregor for his heinous behaviour, instead leaving the responsibility to the courts. Then, at a press conference for UFC’s 25th anniversary in early August 2018, White announced that Nurmagomedov would fight McGregor at UFC 229 in Las Vegas. The announcement took place less than a month after the Irishman struck his plea deal, and was capped off with a promotional video that used actual footage from the bus attack. Where other sports organizations would have seen an opportunity to make an example out of an athlete to discourage such actions, the UFC viewed it as an opportunity to build tension and increase profits.
The UFC’s pursuit for profit eventually backfired. After spending the weeks leading to the UFC 229 showdown stoking religious and ethnic tensions to promote his fight against Nurmagomedov, McGregor was thoroughly dominated by the lightweight champion before being submitted in the fourth round. However, moments after clinching the fight-ending choke, Nurmagomedov scaled the Octagon cage and launched himself at McGregor’s team. A brawl ensued between the two sides while officers attempted to restore order. It was a fitting conclusion to a fight promoted off the backs of a criminal incident, racial and religious prejudice, and legitimate tension in the name of sports entertainment.
While White was quick to admit that the post-fight brawl was horrific and set mixed martial arts back several years, he rejected the suggestion that the incident could have been avoided – “That’s the fight business. That’s sports,” White said during the post-fight press conference – thus alleviating himself and the promotion of any responsibility in the matter. White’s dismissal of McGregor’s antics as simple “trash talking” in the lead-up to a fight of this magnitude emphasizes the UFC’s relationship with its star. Unlike the majority of the UFC roster, who are subject to the promotion’s wrath if deemed guilty of any infraction, McGregor can seemingly do no wrong, even when faced with accusations of sexual assault.
Speaking to Yahoo Sports last month, White vehemently insisted that he did not see any issue with scheduling McGregor in a fight despite looming sexual assault allegations.
”He hasn’t been charged with anything,” White told Kevin Iole. “You can’t accuse somebody and stop them from making a living when they haven’t even been charged of anything. If he was being charged with something right now, it would be a different story. The New York Times wrote those stories, but there’s no other stories out there about Conor McGregor.”
While McGregor has not been charged with any crimes related to the accusations, he was placed under investigation for two separate incidents and was even named by New York Times. This form of negative publicity is usually something that sports organizations attempt to distance themselves from. Instead, the UFC drew closer to McGregor, agreeing to host his return to the cage and even promising him a potential title shot in a different weight class from the one he will compete in on Saturday night at UFC 146.
The UFC’s profit-driven decision-making has even bled over to the media landscape that relies on its existence. A significant portion of reporters covering the sport are placed in a vulnerable position where they could risk losing access to the promotion’s events if they did not toe the company line, which in this case means not asking questions about McGregor’s sexual assault accusations or criticizing the UFC’s decision to do business with him.
It should be noted, however, that ESPN’s Ariel Helwani did ask McGregor about unspecified allegations during his interview with the fighter earlier this week, which McGregor denied without going into detail. While it remains unclear whether the question was preplanned with McGregor and his legal team, it is safe to assume that it was the UFC’s opportunity to get ahead of the story with their media partner instead of allowing other journalists to do so on their own terms.
Given the UFC’s stranglehold over MMA media, it comes as little surprise that most of the coverage leading into UFC 146 has been about McGregor’s training preparations, his coach’s opinion on the upcoming fight, whether McGregor is in the best shape of his career, and even McGregor’s “most memorable quotes.” While there have been a handful of critical articles, the vast majority of news in the lead-up to the PPV can only be described as promotional hyperbole. It is exactly what MMA fans have come to expect from the coverage of this sport.
This was evidently clear on Wednesday evening at the UFC 246 press conference, when hoards of UFC fans booed veteran journalist Morgan Campbell — one of the most respected reporters present at the press conference — for asking McGregor about the status of his sexual assault investigations. The crowd reaction is a testament to the fact that the UFC has trained its fanbase to view the media as little more than an extension of the UFC’s PR machine.
To make matters worse, UFC President Dana White interrupted Campbell’s question to inform him that it was already answered during Helwani’s ESPN interview – an entirely false statement given that Helwani asked a nondescript question about “allegations” while Campbell’s question was precisely about the status of the sexual assault investigations. White’s response confirms that the UFC saw the ESPN interview as an opportunity to control the narrative surrounding the sexual assault accusations and as an excuse not to allow other reporters to publicize the information on their platform.
While McGregor’s return is a financial boon for the promotion, it is also a risky venture given his unstable nature and his penchant for unsavoury incidents. The UFC understands this and has chosen to continue using its public relations (read propaganda) machine to defend McGregor, silence critics, and rebrand his return as a redemption story instead of what it actually is: a distraction from heinous sexual assault allegations, all in the name of increased profits.
Finally, in keeping with their public relations facade, the UFC has once again not responded to BloodyElbow’s request for comment.