LAS VEGAS – From his traditional perch at the side of the Octagon on Saturday night, UFC president Dana White could only watch as piles of millions burned in front of him.
Holly Holm … choked out. Conor McGregor … choked out. A pair of the sport’s biggest and most bankable stars suffering stunning upsets, turning UFC 196 into a carnage of commerce. Suddenly a year of easy-to-make mega-fights became more complicated, from the uncertainty of Holly Holm-Ronda Rousey rematch, to McGregor headlining July’s historic UFC 200.
“In 16 years in this business, the one thing you don’t do is plan anything out,” White said after. “Because you don’t know.”
White wasn’t in tears. He was stoic and professional and part of that is because over that slow grind of taking an outlaw organization into a billion-dollar global sports brand, he’s always focused on the long game, not the short-term buck. This is part of the deal.
Make no mistake: The UFC crapped out Saturday night in Vegas. The results were nothing the bottom line wanted; this despite an $8.1 million gate and what White was claiming would be a huge pay-per-view number.
That payout will be a nice salve, but the wound is still there. The UFC was on the verge of what would likely have been its biggest year ever. It may still get there. It just isn’t simple.
That’s the fight game, though. Nothing ever is.
If you’re not tied to the UFC’s bottom line, then this was actually a night to celebrate the sport and what its premier promotion is about.
UFC 196 was a testament to being daring, giving fans what they want, and throwing caution to the wind rather than protect and posture for future profits. It was about building trust with fans. It was everything boxing too often fails to be. It was everything that so many other MMA promotions never stick with.
White probably could have sat Holm until Rousey was ready for a rematch. Holm stunned mixed martial arts in November by knocking Rousey out. When Rousey recovered from that beating and was back from filming a couple movies, then the rematch was projecting as the biggest bout in MMA history, two million buys or more. September looked perfect.
Instead, Holm pushed to be sent back out there to defend her bantamweight title, and in doing so she faced a tough Miesha Tate. Holm led going into the fifth round and controlled it until the final two minutes, when a desperate Tate took Holm down, cinched a choke under her chin and survived a wild flip to eventually put Holm, who refused to tap out, to sleep.
“I guess in my mind, I wanted to fight,” Holm said of why she wouldn’t quit. “[I was thinking], ‘I’m going to get out of this, I’m going to get out of this.’ It went too far.”
She regrets letting up and letting Tate in. She doesn't regret taking the fight that likely cost her plenty. White said Tate will defend her belt against Rousey next. Rousey has already defeated Tate twice. The Rousey-Holm rematch is now on the back burner, a huge payday hanging in the balance, especially if Tate beats Rousey this time. Who knows when Holm gets another crack.
“Everyone said, ‘Why are you taking this fight? You should wait for the rematch,' ” Holm said, explaining her thinking. “You know what, I’m in this [business] to fight.”
Then there was McGregor, the relentlessly trash-talking Irishman who’s turned himself into an international sensation. After capturing the featherweight (145 pound) belt in December, he boldly cast a course where he’d move up to 155 pounds and take the lightweight title from Rafael dos Anjos. But two weeks ago, dos Anjos came up with an injured foot.
Rather than back out altogether or bring in some tomato can, McGregor agreed to be paired up with Nate Diaz, who wasn’t just taller and longer but needed the fight to be held at 170 pounds because he didn't have a training camp. That meant McGregor was going up 25 pounds in 2½ months, plus fighting a guy who regardless of weight is known for his profound ability to take a punch.
McGregor talked his way into being a heavy betting favorite, but across the first round realized that the huge shots that normally felled a featherweight were bloodying Diaz but not burying him. He’d bit off more than he could chew.
“[Featherweights] crumble under those shots,” McGregor said. “Nate took them very well. It must take more than one, more than two, more than three [punches] to put the heavier man away.”
By the middle of the second round, McGregor was out of energy from trying to knock out Diaz. He resorted to throwing single haymakers rather than combos. Eventually Diaz, through a face of crimson, found his timing and found McGregor with a huge left. The Irishman buckled, Diaz slapped his gloves together and a whole new fight was underway. About a minute later, McGregor was tapping out because of a lack of oxygen.
“It’s a bitter, bitter pill to swallow,” McGregor said.
McGregor said he will now return to 145 pounds and defend his title. It’ll still be big. It could’ve been bigger. Georges St-Pierre, the retired welterweight great, had flown in from Quebec for UFC 196 in a rare public appearance. White said he isn’t even sure St-Pierre wants to unretire, so this definitely wasn’t a gimmick to start the hype for a GSP-McGregor monster fight. Fine, but we know these things do tend to happen.
That isn’t happening now. If Diaz can lay waste to McGregor, then GSP wouldn’t be fair. It'd be a massacre. It would have made a big, big buck finding that out, though.
“I took a shot,” McGregor said. “I went at it. I will never shy away from a challenge. I will never shy away from a defeat. I took the fight and it didn’t pay off. This is the fight business.”
More specifically, this is the UFC business. This is the business of having a money train like McGregor take on an outrageous challenge and risk his perfect UFC record, risk his aura of invincibility, risk the vision of him sprawled out on his back in the middle of the cage, overcome with exhaustion and emotion. It wasn't holding Holly Holm back, even if the greatest payday yet loomed.
“Tonight was one of those nights, this is what this thing was built to be,” White said, trying to drape it in pride. “It was everything we talked about it was supposed to be. It was awesome.”
It was awesome. Costly, but spectacularly awesome.
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