Only the UFC could cook both its golden geese in consecutive fights on the same night. At least Holly Holm and Conor McGregor’s loss was the spectators’ gain. It was great. Competitive matchmaking is what separates MMA from boxing: bouts are made that fans want to see regardless of the potential short and long-term consequences for the promotion or the sport.
Mixed martial arts was never been bigger in the run up to UFC 196. Holm – the new darling of the female side of the sport – returned for her first fight since obliterating Ronda Rousey. And brilliant, brash Irish sensation McGregor attempted to prove weight is just a number in mixed martial arts.
Sure, Holm could have been benched until Rousey was ready to make her bankable return to the cage. That would have been the biggest fight in the history of women’s MMA. Likewise, it would have been far easier for McGregor to be put on hold after Rafael dos Anjos picked up an injury less than a fortnight before their 155lb title tussle. But where’s the fun in that?
The UFC likely gambled with millions in potential revenue with the UFC 196 headliners. So when both ‘The Preacher’s Daughter’ and ‘The Notorious’ were submitted, the house – Zuffa – lost. Nate Diaz and Miesha Tate bet big and hit the jackpot.
In a conversion with ESPN Radio in December, when asked about Holm being kept on ice to face Rousey in a swift return, UFC president Dana White joked: “I think that if we didn’t make the rematch, me and Lorenzo (Fertitta, UFC CEO) should probably lose our promoters’ license… Yeah, that fight’s going to happen. I don’t know when, but that’s the fight that will happen.”
After Holm’s defeat to new champ Tate, that rematch lacks the prestige it once did. It’s now less lucrative than a Rousey-Tate bantamweight championship trilogy fight.
Similarly, allowing your 145lb champ to skip a weight class and put his unbeaten run on the line against a guy whose appeal begins and ends with the hard-core market was perilous. Yet kudos to the UFC for not (successfully at least) talking Conor out of it.
Whether the same could or should be said of his management, I’m not so sure. Supporting your biggest star in his pursuit of a world title belt in the weight class above is one thing. Allowing the golden paycheck to risk it all against a guy with a proven chin, dangerously deceiving cardio and an unheralded record is something else.
I’m sure Matt Hume – Demetrious Johnson’s head coach – would back the undisputed flyweight champion should he decide to step up to bantamweight to face Dominick Cruz for a second belt. But there’s no way he’d give ‘Mighty Mouse’ the green light to fight anybody from the featherweight division’s top 10 with less than two weeks’ notice. It’s just not worth the risk.
McGregor, you could argue, is no ‘Mighty Mouse’. His phenomenal rise in the Octagon has as much to do with charisma as it has athletic ability. But the lack of a strong ‘No’ man in that camp appeared to catch up with him in the fight against Diaz.
No party will suffer from the losses of McGregor and Holm as much as the UFC. It now has to re-establish the Irish pay-per-view star back at 145 or 155lb, while also championing Tate, who six months ago was talking about quitting the sport due to being frozen out of the belt, as it’s flag-bearing female star.
Like Holm and McGregor, the UFC rolled the dice. It gambled and lost. But isn’t that worth celebrating? Isn’t the fact the biggest earners aren’t being kept on the sidelines until all the pay-per-view stars align what makes MMA so great?
This column was originally published inside the May ’16 edition of Fighters Only.