"We're not here to take part. We're here to take over."
Those words came out of the mouth of Conor McGregor back in 2014. At the time, he was auditioning to be official spokesman for the almighty dollar.
McGregor announced the imminent takeover of the UFC before he was featherweight champion, before he added the lightweight belt, before he headlined four of the five most lucrative pay-per-views in company history, before an unfathomable boxing match with Floyd Mayweather vaulted him to near the top of the Forbes list of the world's highest-paid athletes. Even back then, the loquacious Irishman had a clear view of the gold shimmering on the rainbow horizon.
This is someone driven by a runaway truck full of self-belief. There was certainty in his vision of what was ahead.
And he was right.
The latest evidence that McGregor has taken over is Friday's announcement that the 30-year-old (21-3) will end a 23-month absence from the Octagon by challenging Khabib Nurmagomedov (26-0) for the lightweight championship on Oct. 6 in Las Vegas.
Under normal circumstances, this would be the obvious fight to book, the undefeated and indomitable champion defending against the former belt-holder who never lost his strap in the cage. But this is an abnormal circumstance for the UFC because, well, how is McGregor even eligible to be booked for any fight at all?
McGregor can now focus on return to Octagon
With Conor McGregor agreeing to a plea deal, Ariel Helwani describes the negotiations for a bout between McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov.
McGregor was last seen not in the Octagon but in a Brooklyn courtroom, facing a possible 12 criminal charges, including two felony criminal mischief counts that could have brought up to seven years in prison. It all stemmed from his April 5 attack on a bus full of UFC fighters and staff at UFC 223's media day at Barclays Center, the whole terrifying aggression caught on video.
McGregor had acted like a mad man, and in his July 26 court appearance he would be facing the full brunt of legal consequences. Or not. McGregor's lawyers negotiated a sweet deal with the district attorney's office, allowing "The Notorious" to plead guilty to a single count of disorderly conduct and to be sentenced to no prison time, just community service, reparation for property damages and participation in an anger management program.
Back in April, it was Dana White who could have used the anger management help. Speaking to reporters minutes after McGregor had heaved a steel dolly through the bus window and injured two fighters, resulting in three of that weekend's UFC 223 bouts being canceled, the promotion president was outraged. Red-faced and ornery, White described his star fighter's actions as "despicable" and "disgusting." He was asked if he still wanted to be in business with McGregor.
"Right now, no," White said. "Absolutely not."
It didn't take long, however, for White to drop the "not" from "absolutely not." Just two days after the incident, he sat at the UFC 223 post-fight news conference right there at Barclays and reflected on the actions of his cash-cow Dubliner.
"People say to me, 'Oh, this looks so bad for the sport,' and everything else. I agree, it doesn't look good," he said. "But at the end of the day, there's a lot worse that goes on in all the other sports. So I'll take a dolly through a window any day."
How reassuring for the fighters and UFC employees who were terrorized on that bus. The DA's office has nothing on the UFC in terms of wrist slapping.
As the UFC eased back into business as usual, White artfully dodged any and all questions about what repercussions McGregor might face from the promotion. The company president framed his answers entirely around the court proceedings, as if the whole sordid matter were out of his hands.
Then, during a June appearance on the "UFC Unfiltered" podcast, White left the past behind and jumped right into McGregor's future, saying he planned to book him against Nurmagomedov -- the target of the bus attack -- after "we figure out what happens with Conor." And a day after the court system freed McGregor to resume his career, White made it clear that his golden goose would be facing no further repercussions from the UFC.
"Conor has faced a lot of repercussions. Conor's lost a lot of money, a lot of time," the promoter told reporters. "And yeah, Conor and I are good. We're good."
This measured, forgiving approach by White had to come as a shock to fighters who have seen the UFC boss impose severe consequences upon them for far less serious offenses.
There are examples galore, but let's just consider the case of Jason High, who four years ago reacted to a TKO loss by getting off the canvas and shoving the referee before wobbling away. High was probably concussed from taking a dozen ground-and-pound blows to the head just before the fight was waved off, but White was accepting no excuses.
"You don't ever, ever f---ing touch a referee, ever," he told UFC.com, explaining why he immediately released High. "You're done here."
Unless, of course, you're Conor McGregor.
Last November, while he was a spectator at a Bellator MMA event in Dublin, McGregor climbed over the cage as a fight was still in progress and shoved and verbally berated the referee, knocked over a fighter and put his hands on several officials. He was not even publicly reprimanded by the UFC.
McGregor storms cage and confronts ref
Conor McGregor jumps into the octagon to celebrate with SBG Ireland teammate Charlie Ward after his Bellator 187 victory and goes after the referee.
It would be naïve to ignore the financially driven double standard that exists all across sports. But combat sports takes this to an extreme. Unlike in team sports or even some other individual sports, a top performer in MMA or boxing is not merely a star but ostensibly the entire universe. When Tom Brady had to sit out the first four games of the 2016 NFL season because of Deflategate, the Patriots still played those games (and sold tickets and concessions and merchandise, collected the same TV rights fees, etc.).
But imagine the massive fiscal hit the UFC would take by pulling McGregor from a PPV or suspending him. The show might go on, but it would go on without the great majority of its expected paying customers. And if the UFC were to outright release McGregor, the competing Bellator promotion would open the Viacom vault to entice him in.
So it's no surprise that White & Co. have booked McGregor for his next fight as if nothing happened. But think about the treacherous path the promotion has set out for itself.
McGregor now knows that pushing a ref won't get him sanctioned. Neither will attacking fighters and UFC staff, causing injuries and significant property damage. How far, then, can a top-earning miscreant take his antisocial behavior without losing his job? Jon Jones, the greatest fighter in MMA, was suspended indefinitely for his 2015 hit-and-run, but it's highly unlikely that McGregor, a bigger pay-per-view draw, would face a similar punishment from the UFC. So will McGregor continue pushing toward the edge? Why shouldn't he?
It could be that McGregor was pondering these very queries in advance of the Brooklyn bus attack. The richest star in the UFC spent two years as promotional dance partner of the richest star in all of sports, Floyd Mayweather, and he might have learned a priceless combat sports lesson: The promoter who will generate the greatest reward for your fights isn't some other guy -- it's you.
Throughout the hype tour in advance of Mayweather vs. McGregor, Floyd took every opportunity to look right past Conor and directly address White. Mayweather, who for the latter part of his career fully controlled the promotion of his fights, had set up this dichotomy between himself and his opponent in an interview with the Telegraph of London, saying, "There's a difference between being an employee and an employer. ... Conor's not a shot-caller."
You could almost see the wheels turning inside McGregor's head while Mayweather was taking his belittling shots. Of course, the Irishman cannot just walk away from his UFC contract to set up shop on his own. So how can an ambitious star separate himself from a promotion that skims off profits from his hard work? One way might be to act with such outrageous recklessness that a company will determine he is no longer worth keeping around.
Not going to happen. White is keeping McGregor around. Bus attack ... chaos ... injuries -- all of it caught on video? That footage will be a perfect fit for the Conor vs. Khabib hype package, dramatizing the unsettled acrimony between the fighters.
Once again, McGregor sells a fight. Money talks.