Can UFC continue to grow as a global mixed martial arts juggernaut without former two-division champion Conor McGregor as the face of the organization? Yes.
Does UFC want to cut ties with the brass Irishman, who announced his retirement late Monday night on Twitter? For now, no.
Dana White's original $2 million investment in UFC (in 2001) turned into $360 million when Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta sold the company to Ari Emanuel and WME-IMG for $4 billion in July 2016. McGregor’s rise in the sport coincided with the boom. No one -- not Brock Lesnar, Ronda Rousey, Jon Jones -- made as significant an impact on the bottom line as McGregor did.
McGregor is responsible for five of the six best-selling UFC pay-per-view events of all time, according to Tapology.com. His most recent fight, at UFC 229 against Khabib Nurmagomedov, generated an estimated 2.4 million buys.
A brief timeline of McGregor's bids for power in UFC:
UFC 194, Dec. 2015: McGregor knocks out longtime UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo with one punch. The Irishman has UFC in the palm of his hand, or so he thought.
Post-UFC 194: McGregor takes the unconventional approach (as he always does), trying to move up in weight to face lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos at UFC 196. Dos Anjos gets injured before the fight, and UFC (and McGregor) settle on Nate Diaz as a new opponent.
UFC 196, March 2016: Diaz beats McGregor via rear naked choke in the second round. It's McGregor's first major setback: His trash-talk verbal warfare is now seen as weak and unattractive to casual fans.
April 2016: The first signs of friction in McGregor’s relationship with White. The first “retirement" tweet:
It was a negotiating tactic with UFC management, and McGregor soon "un-retired."
UFC 200, July 2016: UFC bosses over-confidently pencil in McGregor-Diaz 2 as the headliner for the milestone event. But McGregor stays firm on his contract demands, and UFC is forced to scramble and bring back Brock Lesnar after a four-plus-year hiatus to main-event the card.
Post-UFC 200: McGregor’s team doesn’t blink. Once UFC is sold, cooler heads prevail. UFC and McGregor reach a deal on terms for a rematch against Diaz.
UFC 202, Aug. 2016: McGregor showcases his drawing power with a tremendous comeback against Diaz to edge out a five-round decision. The fighters’ pre-fight promotion efforts help generate a record-breaking 1.6 million pay-per-view buys.
Post-UFC 202, fall 2016: McGregor follows the revenge victory over Diaz by knocking out Eddie Alvarez in the main event of UFC 205 (the inaugural UFC event in New York City) to become the first fighter to simultaneously hold two UFC titles. McGregor starts to build toward a boxing match in 2017 against Floyd Mayweather Jr., which despite being a one-sided loss is a business success for McGregor (and UFC). McGregor makes his biggest payday and puts his whiskey company into motion.
March 2019: McGregor's star has dimmed. Inside the cage, he suffered an embarrassing loss to lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229 in October 2018. He was arrested several times: on assault charges in Brooklyn in 2018 after he threw a dolly through a bus window (he lated pleaded no contest to disorderly conduct); on robbery charges in Miami in 2019 after he allegedly took and stomped on a man's cell phone; as part of a sexual assault investigation in Dublin stemming from an alleged incident in December 2018 (no charges have been filed).
Now, McGregor is again in an expensive staring contest with White and UFC. The recent events mirror those of April 2016, but to the nth degree.
History suggests UFC eventually will pay the 30-year-old superstar, which is why we can't expect McGregor and his team to blink anytime soon. White always has catered to his superstars, and a McGregor-headlined event in the first year of UFC's ESPN era would be great for business.
McGregor's next fight will be his most important to date. A McGregor win would elevate the sport of MMA, which has benefitted from having him on top, though it would create even more fraught negotiations with UFC in the future. Time will tell.