Conor McGregor Has The Power To Transform UFC Labour Protection – If He Choses To

When Conor McGregor stationed himself behind the lectern typically reserved for UFC president, Dana White, and dismissed Vice President of Public Relations Dave Sholler in order to deliver his post-UFC194 press-conference alone last month, the move was loaded with symbolic significance.

This was not merely a display of bravado on McGregor’s part, or some stunt designed to garner more media attention. This was the shrewdest self-promoter that the sport has ever seen flaunting the unprecedented authority that his 13 second defeat of Jose Aldo afforded him in the UFC. This was McGregor self-consciously positioning himself as White’s equal at the very highest level of the sport’s governance.

There was, of course, no rebuke on the UFC’s part.

White is far too pragmatic a businessman to allow a sense of wounded machismo get in the way of making money, and even a cursory glance at the audience and revenue figures that McGregor fights generate reveal the extent to which the UFC has grown dependent upon his continued success.

The Dubliner’s defeat of Dennis Siver last January, for instance, drew almost three million viewers on a Sunday night, his victory over Chad Mendes in July, 2015 set a new record gate at over $7 million before that figure was smashed at UFC 194 which raked in over $10 million at the gate and generated many millions more in pay-per-view subscriptions.

Indeed, the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) revealed that McGregor made over $500,000 in salary alone from the Aldo fight and that is before one even begins to factor in the bonus that he would have received based on PPV sales and gate receipts.

No fighter has ever proven this lucrative for the UFC and MMA Mania’s Michael Stets argued that the organization has grown over-reliant on McGregor as a consequence.

“McGregor holds the cards now and there aren’t a lot of other big draws in the promotion, save for [Ronda] Rousey”, Stets observed. “But with the loss to [Holly] Holm putting a dent into her invincible image, and Jon Jones without a return date yet, McGregor is the guy…He is reaching uncharted territory for an MMA fighter and delivers each time out in terms of fans, ratings and numbers.”

This dependency is made dangerous owing to the fact that McGregor is aware of it and the fighter has already begun to wield his influence in order to shape the sport in his own interest.

After beating Aldo in order to become the Featherweight Champion last December, one of McGregor’s first declarations was that he would target the Lightweight belt. Typically this aim would oblige a fighter to relinquish the Featherweight crown and start from scratch at 155 pounds, fighting their way up the rankings in order to be offered a title-shot.

Not McGregor.

White has not only permitted the Dubliner to retain the Featherweight belt while competing at Lightweight (thus halting the entire 145 pound division), he has given McGregor an immediate shot at Rafael dos Anjos’ belt at UFC 197. Such a move is unprecedented in the history of the UFC and leant weight to McGregor’s contention in GQ magazine after the Aldo fight that he is changing the rules of the sport.

“I am changing this sport,” McGregor said. “I am signing a new contract the likes of which there has never been. Share of ticket sales, share of pay per view, I am rewriting the rules.”

There is a lot to admire about the Irishman’s accomplishments since making his UFC debut against Marcus Brimage in April, 2013. In an organization characterized by deep-seated inequity regarding the payment and security that is afforded to fighters, the fact that McGregor is now effectively dictating to White who he wants to fight and how much he wants to be paid is truly remarkable.

But McGregor would be even more admirable if he were to use his position of power in order to improve the working conditions of his less well-established colleagues.

UFC fighters are paid a fraction of the organization’s profits relative to athletes contracted to NBA, MLB or NFL franchises, for instance, and the fact that they are classified as independent contractors not only means that they are more heavily taxed on winnings than standard employees, but they also lack financial security in the likely event of serious (perhaps career-ending) injury.

In this respect the Guardian’s Ernest Aguilar seems justified in referring the UFC’s labor protection practices as “prehistoric”.

“In a world where every athlete from tennis players to baseball pitchers have basic labor rights, the free-for-all MMA industry is practically prehistoric. Fighters have no promise of support after their careers are over, as most professional sportsmen do. Collective bargaining, consideration as employees, unions and basic rights as professionals simply are not there.”

McGregor’s position of power in the UFC is as unprecedented as it is unique and the manner in which he uses it will ultimately determine his legacy. One cannot fault the Dubliner for maximizing his personal profit – he is a professional athlete with a short career – but there is no reason why he cannot agitate for basic labor protection for his colleagues at the same time.

[Photo by Brandon Magnus/Getty Images]