UFC president Dana White didn’t have long to celebrate another solid night of fighting on Saturday before Conor McGregor stole the thunder from UFC 250.
McGregor abruptly announced — for the third time on social media — that he is retiring from MMA. It was just the latest public spat White has had to deal with in recent days involving three of his superstar fighters.
On May 31, light heavyweight champion Jon Jones tweeted he was willing to vacate the title and take time off, and Jorge Masvidal this past Friday tweeted he wanted to be released from his UFC contract.
For both Jones and Masvidal, it’s a financial issue. Jones has made no secret about his rift with the UFC over the amount of money he wants to move up to heavyweight for a superfight with Francis Ngannou. Masvidal is upset over the breakdown of contract talks with the UFC. He was supposed to challenge Kamaru Usman for the welterweight title in July, but negotiations have hit the skids. McGregor, the sport’s biggest star, is allegedly walking away, claiming he’s bored, as the UFC doesn’t have any fights scheduled for him in the immediate future. Skeptics aren’t taking McGregor’s stance very seriously.
“I’m going through opponent options, and there’s nothing really there at the minute,” McGregor told ESPN’s Ariel Helwani. “There’s nothing that’s exciting me.”
Which fighter’s situation could cause the company the most grief? Can the UFC line up a bout intriguing enough for McGregor to change his mind? Which fighter can benefit the most from the superstars’ absences? ESPN’s expert panel of Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim tackle it all.
Whose situation is the most problematic for the UFC? Jones, Masvidal or McGregor?
Jorge Masvidal addresses his frustration over his contract dispute with the UFC.
Helwani: There isn’t a wrong answer here because these three are all A-listers, and it’s not a good look for the promotion to have any of them publicly feuding with the UFC. However, I’ll go with Masvidal because if you’re following him on Twitter, you’ll notice he is not holding back. At all. And what makes him so “problematic” is that he is talking about economic issues that affect all fighters. He’s talking about the business of the sport, and he isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
Okamoto: Jones. Look, until we really hear more from McGregor, I, personally, am putting no stock into this “retirement announcement.” There is no chance that man is retired. He posted a picture of a retirement cake over the weekend, which is fun, but post a picture of a letter to USADA, withdrawing yourself from the testing pool — because that’s when a retirement is real. This is just my personal opinion — and I’ll preface it by saying McGregor is the most important figure in MMA right now — but I just think the man is looking for attention. That’s it. Jones is different. Jones is mad, and I do think he’s willing to sit for a while. He’s a polarizing individual, but he’s also the greatest of all time. And he’s the present and future of the light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions. Daniel Cormier is going to retire soon. Stipe Miocic might too. Those two upper weight classes are thin, and they need Jones.
I hurt myself every time I walk out there and take a punch to the head and Not feel my pay is worth it anymore. https://t.co/X3BjGA9d02
— Jon Bones Jones (@JonnyBones) May 31, 2020
Raimondi: Right now, at this very moment, the answer is probably Masvidal. To me, it’s a question of proximity. All three present separate issues that have a chance to be serious. But Masvidal was initially slated to challenge Kamaru Usman for the UFC welterweight title in July. That’s just a few weeks away. The UFC’s next pay-per-view event is slated for July 11, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear main event at this point. It might be too late to figure out this situation with Masvidal in time. And Usman vs. Masvidal would have been a big one.
Remember how hot that rivalry was when they had that confrontation back in February at Super Bowl radio row? The momentum from that was lost, but it could have been built back up again leading toward a big PPV. Masvidal is talking about things that most fighters don’t mention, like how much of a share of the revenue goes to them compared to the athletes in other sports. This seems, at the moment, like a sticky situation for the UFC.
Wagenheim: In the short term, it’s McGregor, because he brings in by far the most money. But looking at the big picture, it must concern the UFC to have several stars taking a hard look at how the company does business. McGregor is just talking about walking away (again), which doesn’t sound so activist. But the rhetoric of Jones and Masvidal suggests they want change and will work toward it. Remember when Georges St-Pierre was part of a group trying to get fighters to organize? Imagine if GSP and Jones — No. 1 and No. 2 in just about everyone’s GOAT conversation — were to lead an effort to get fighters a share of UFC revenue that’s more in line with what players’ unions have gotten from the NFL, the NBA, MLB and other leagues through collective bargaining. That’s a fight I would watch.
If McGregor’s biggest frustration is centered on his inactivity, should Dana White book him for July, and against whom?
Joe Rogan joins SportsCenter and explains his reasoning behind not buying into Conor McGregor’s tweet about retirement after the end of UFC 250.
Helwani: Yes. I don’t understand the idea of shelving him until after Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje happens. He’s the biggest draw in the history of the sport, why in the world would you shelve him for another six to eight months when he is revved and ready to go? Priority No. 1 should be to find him a fight right away. If Gaethje isn’t available, call up Nathan Diaz. No. 3. Let’s go.
Okamoto: I mean, sure. Yes. If Conor McGregor wants to fight, he should be allowed to fight. Of course. But who does he want to fight? Justin Gaethje? No. Gaethje deserves a title shot. Khabib Nurmagomedov? No. Nurmagomedov is fighting Gaethje. Anderson Silva? No, if I were the UFC I wouldn’t make that. It’d be a joke. Masvidal? Heck yes. Make that. Nate Diaz? I’m in. Kamaru Usman? You know what? I wouldn’t love it, and it wouldn’t make the most sense, but it’s a great story and would be a shot at history for McGregor. I’d accept it. I would love to see an active McGregor. Who wouldn’t? But at the same time, he’s not entitled to any fight he wants, on any date he wants it.
— Conor McGregor (@TheNotoriousMMA) June 7, 2020
Raimondi: Justin Gaethje? Nate Diaz? If McGregor just wants to fight and fight soon, this would seem to have an easy solution. But that’s not exactly it, is it? McGregor is looking for a fresh challenge, something exciting. Honestly, I wouldn’t be opposed to him even fighting Anderson Silva at a catchweight, as crazy as that sounds. I think that could end up being a lot of fun.
There has to be a way for the UFC to tempt “The Notorious” with something unique for this summer. It’s worrisome to hear McGregor say he’s bored and uninterested with the fight game right now, given his unbridled enthusiasm for every aspect of MMA.
Wagenheim: If the man wants to fight, give him a fight. He doesn’t get Justin Gaethje though, because Gaethje is matched up with Khabib Nurmagomedov. And no Kamaru Usman either, because title shots need to be earned. (That’s not necessarily UFC protocol, as we’ve been seeing, but when I’m playing matchmaker, I get to make the rules.) So look beyond those three names, Conor, and take your pick of anyone else on the roster. Looking forward to welcoming you back from the retirement home.
Does it make more sense to book Conor now without fans and again later this year, or wait until there’s a megafight possibly with a live crowd?
Helwani: Book him now. We don’t know when fans will be allowed to attend events again, and, even if they are eventually allowed, they won’t be filling up arenas right away like they used to. McGregor is a massive pay-per-view draw. He hasn’t fought three times in a calendar year since 2016. He wants to fight three times this year, badly. Keep him active and enjoy those PPV numbers.
Okamoto: I don’t know the ins and outs of the cost the UFC will incur to host an event on “Fight Island” without a live gate. And I don’t know exactly what McGregor makes, or how his contract is structured. If there is a way to book McGregor to a sensible fight, like a Masvidal, Diaz or Tony Ferguson, and contractually, both sides can be happy with the final numbers, then yes, of course. Book him. Right now. We have no idea what the future holds. Three months ago, a pandemic was something we only thought about in movies. I’d rather not see McGregor shelved until fans can return to an arena, because we don’t know what that date will be. But frankly, the answer to this question really comes down to financial information we are just not privy to.
Raimondi: The UFC seems to want to wait, do the lightweight title fight between champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje and then have McGregor fight the winner. By then, perhaps there will be some ability to have a crowd in a larger venue. If McGregor fights this summer, there’s a chance he could lose and ruin what would be a monster matchup for the lightweight title against either his nemesis Nurmagomedov or Gaethje, one of the most exciting fighters on the planet. But what makes most sense to me is keeping the biggest star in UFC history happy. He has made so much money he doesn’t have to fight again. So the UFC needs to ask him what he wants, and then go from there.
Wagenheim: So my choices are one McGregor fight or two McGregor fights? That’s an easy one. Sure, I get the reluctance to book him at an event without fans in attendance. McGregor is the best there’s ever been at riling up a crowd, and that in turn transforms a fight night into a capital-E Event. But his fight performances alone could energize a lonely Octagon set up in the middle of the Sahara. Give me all the Conor fights he’s willing to take on. Just be sure to book him against opponents who pose the greatest challenge. That’s when he’s at his best and most fun to watch.
Are you confident McGregor, Jones and Masvidal will all have another fight for the UFC this year? Who do you see fighting first?
Ariel Helwani explains why UFC president Dana White and light heavyweight champ Jon Jones have been engaging in a public war of words.
Helwani: I’ll say yes. While they are very far apart, I’ll go with Jorge fighting first by virtue of the fact that they need to do that Masvidal vs. Usman fight next. Why? No other big names are available for July 11, the next UFC pay-per-view date. Stipe Miocic isn’t ready yet, we know about Jones, Israel Adesanya isn’t ready yet, Khabib Nurmagomedov isn’t ready yet, the bantamweight and flyweight titles are vacant, and I don’t think the proposed vacant title fight in either weight class — Joseph Benavidez vs. Deiveson Figueiredo at 125 and Petr Yan vs. Jose Aldo at 135 — is big enough to headline a PPV right now. On the women’s side, Amanda Nunes just fought, Valentina Shevchenko is still injured, and Zhang Weili isn’t available. There’s only Usman left. So Usman vs. Masvidal on July 11. Easy.
Okamoto: No, I’m not confident. How could I be? Jones is threatening to drop his belt. Masvidal is asking for his release. And McGregor just announced his third retirement. How in the world would I be confident we’ll see all three in 2020? I’ll say this about it: I am most confident we’ll see McGregor, and least confident we’ll see Masvidal. Oddly enough, I hope we see Masvidal first, because I hope we see him fight Kamaru Usman in July. That’s the welterweight title fight to make. But if Usman moves on to Gilbert Burns, I really do think Masvidal’s future is the most uncertain of the three.
I can’t leave. They own me until they cut me or I fight out my contract #depinga https://t.co/55hOTMqql0
— Jorge Masvidal UFC (@GamebredFighter) June 7, 2020
Raimondi: I’m not confident about that at all. I could see one or two of them fighting before 2021, but I’m just not sure about all three. Jones has already said he’ll see the UFC next year. Masvidal is playing serious hardball in the press. McGregor says he’s unmotivated by fighting right now. Neither is a very good situation. Add Henry Cejudo, the former two-division champion, to that list and this is quite the quandary. It’s so hard to say who will be back first. McGregor seems the least complicated — it’s not a money issue, unlike the other two. So perhaps it’ll be him.
Wagenheim: Tough call if you haven’t somehow pilfered the Zoom codes and quietly sat in on UFC business meetings. With no insight into the thinking of Dana White or any of the fighters, I’ll say we see all three stars before New Year’s, because fighters fight and promoters cash checks. I’m guessing it’ll be McGregor first, because we’ve been here before with him. After his first retirement tweet, in 2016, he fought five months later. His second retirement lasted nine months. He wants back in the cage, the UFC wants to make money, so I’m guessing they work out their differences pretty soon and book a second honeymoon on Fight Island.
If the three superstars don’t fight again anytime soon, which fighter do you see benefiting the most from getting an opportunity?
Gilbert Burns catches Tyron Woodley with a monstrous combo that floors him in Round 4.
Helwani: If they don’t make Usman vs. Masvidal next, they’ll most likely go with Gilbert Burns vs. Usman for the welterweight title. Fine fight. Good backstory considering they’ve trained together for years, but it certainly doesn’t have the juice Usman vs. Masvidal has. So Burns stands to gain the most because he’d be the next man up. If Jones really vacates the light heavyweight title, Dominick Reyes and Jan Blachowicz would benefit, but if you can’t fight Jones at 205 are you really benefiting?
Okamoto: Gilbert Burns, because I think he’s the one who ends up getting a title shot from all this. And then someone in the lightweight division, because they won’t have to wait for the McGregor saga to play out. Someone like Dustin Poirier, Dan Hooker, Tony Ferguson — one of those. Ultimately, I think more fighters will suffer from it than gain from it. Usman doesn’t get a big fight against Masvidal. Dominick Reyes doesn’t get his Jon Jones rematch. Francis Ngannou doesn’t get a superfight against Jones. These three are all good for the sport, obviously.
Raimondi: It could be Leon Edwards. If Masvidal is not next for Usman, it’s possible Gilbert Burns, one of the hottest fighters on the roster, gets the nod. But Edwards has been brought up several times by Usman as being the most deserving for a title shot. Edwards has won eight straight in a very deep welterweight division. The Jamaica-born fighter, who lives and trains in England, has an inspiring story of overcoming adversity, one that would be incredible to tell right now.
Wagenheim: There are two fights on the horizon that could propel someone to a new level of stardom: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje for the lightweight championship and Israel Adesanya vs. Paulo Costa for the middleweight belt. I think Gaethje and Adesanya, in particular, have the charisma, the duende, the it factor to leave their imprint on the sport in a big, bold way, especially within a vacuum left by the absence of McGregor, Jones and Masvidal.