Conor McGregor Claims He ‘Doesn’t Have To’ Defend His Belt Anymore

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Conor McGregor has turned MMA on his head, and not always in a good way. Since the inception of the UFC, one of the great features has been how the best fight the best. From their early days of tournaments right up to the modern era, few fighters managed to duck opponents the fans or rankings demanded they fight. Even if you were a blanket of a fighter with a fanbase made up of family and friends out of Iowa, enough wins would earn you a title shot.

But Conor McGregor has changed all that. Since capturing the featherweight and then lightweight titles, the Irish UFC superstar hasn’t defended either one. It’ll be over a year from the date he won the lightweight belt before McGregor steps back into the cage, and all signs are pointing towards him facing off against Nate Diaz for the third time. The problem with that? Nate’s sitting down near the bottom of the UFC lightweight rankings, inactive and unwilling to fight anyone but Conor.

To complicate things more, UFC 216 on October 7th features an interim lightweight title fight between Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee. Ferguson is riding a ridiculous 9 fight winning streak that goes back to 2013. If he beats Lee, there’s no question who would get the next shot against the full champion in any other scenario. But when that champ is Conor McGregor, different rules apply.

McGregor’s coach John Kavanagh made that explicit in a recent interview with Ireland’s Sunday World.

“At this stage, I mention Diaz and people are shouting what about Khabib [Nurmagomedov] or what about Tony [Ferguson], and there’s Kevin Lee and some other guys,” Kavanagh said. “Really, Conor doesn’t have to do that anymore. He won the featherweight belt, interim and unified. He won the lightweight belt. At this stage he’s only doing fights because they’re fun.”

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It’s been this way for a while. After McGregor took the featherweight belt off Jose Aldo in 13 seconds back in 2015, the UFC demanded they have a rematch. McGregor forced them into letting him face then-lightweight champ Rafael dos Anjos instead. When that fight fell out, he picked Nate Diaz as a late replacement. Diaz beat him, and once again the UFC tried to force Conor to return to featherweight to defend his belt. But McGregor reportedly picked up the phone and screamed at UFC brass until they bent and signed the Diaz rematch.

It’s worth noting that the UFC isn’t an organization used to getting pushed around. The Diaz brothers are an example of potential stars the promotion has largely turfed out and kept down because they weren’t willing to work within the established rules and payscale of the league. For decades now it’s been the UFC’s way or the highway, somethings fans have cheered on because it’s kept the big fights rolling and the best fighting the best.

That’s not to say things have been perfect. Superfights like Randy Couture vs. Fedor Emelianenko and Anderson Silva vs. Georges St-Pierre went unrealized because the UFC refused to cede any control or potentially raise the ceiling on fighter pay, which is estimated to cost the UFC a mere 15% of revenue. Following the promotion’s sale to WME-IMG for $4 billion, the list of athletes on the roster refusing to compete until they get a raise is growing rapidly. There’s even more doing everything they can to follow in McGregor’s footsteps by only accepting money fights against recognizable opponents.

While big fights don’t sound bad in theory, in practice they tend to mess everything up. Just look at the middleweight division, where a logjam of world class contenders exists while champ Michael Bisping has spent a year angling towards a ‘big fight’ against former welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre. Lightweight is starting to look similar, and will only get worse if Conor McGregor fights Nate Diaz next.

McGregor has smashed the established paygrade for UFC fighters and is in the process of rewriting the rules for matchmaking. That might be good for athletes on an individual level, but it’s also creating chaos for the UFC, which continues to pretend it’s all business as usual following their sale and Conor’s rise. That’s translated into a rough year for fans as divisions stall out, money issues keep people out of the cage, and the top fighters refuse to face each other. Something’s got to change, and we can only hope it does so for the better.