Conor McGregor may not be getting $80 million, but giant revenue is at stake in Saturday’s fight

Conor McGregor | Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Conor McGregor’s fight against Donald Cerrone pits a fighter without a UFC win in three years against an opponent who was stopped in his last two fights.

To the public, that hardly seems to matter. If past is prologue, Saturday’s event could be the UFC’s most successful event of the ESPN era. McGregor is the biggest box office star in UFC history, with four of the highest-drawing events: His most recent win, which came in 2016 at UFC 205 against Eddie Alvarez; a pair of 2016 fights with Nate Diaz, and a 2.4 million pay-per-view monster with Khabib Nurmagomedov.

McGregor was the UFC’s biggest star before the fight. Not only was he the top box office attraction, but the first fighter to hold two world titles (featherweight and lightweight) simultaneously. Then, he became even bigger as a sports personality in his boxing match with Floyd Mayweather.

In reality, the August 2017 match put an 0-0 pro boxer against one of the greatest boxers of all-time. It was an obvious mismatch. But Mayweather’s light work still drew 4.3 million pay-per-view buys in North America, not only the second biggest number of all time, but a number that doubled the biggest numbers Mike Tyson had ever put on the board.

McGregor then returned to the octagon against Nurmagomedov, and was the biggest money night in UFC history. But the business of major UFC fights has changed significantly since then.

The move from television pay-per-view to exclusive streaming through ESPN+ has likely led to great declines in total numbers of buyers and viewers. While the UFC’s pay-per-view revenue for the year is largely guaranteed in the U.S. market, McGregor’s return signals an uptick in business. UFC 246 figures to be the first pay-per-view in modern times with the strong showing in the U.K. and Ireland markets.

Although numbers are kept confidential, Saturday could mark the biggest event since ESPN largely bought out the UFC’s pay-per-view business. But it’s still unlikely it will generate the total revenue McGregor’s previous fights, given older fans’ aversion to purchasing streaming pay-per-views after adapting to the ease and comfort of one-button ordering with television.

Using his best Chael Sonnen marketing, McGregor still drew headlines when he said he expected to make $ 80 million for the fight. But that claim can easily be discarded when viewed against information revealed in the UFC’s ongoing antitrust lawsuit. According to internal documents, no UFC fighter had ever earned more than $ 8 million for a fight through late 2017, which includes both McGregor’s fights against Diaz and the Alvarez fight. Not included is the Nurmagomedov fight, which, given the record it set for UFC pay-per-view numbers, should have been the promotion’s all-time highest payout for its headliners.

But unlike a generational talent like Jon Jones, the proven best fighter in company history, nobody makes the general public take notice like McGregor. It doesn’t matter his legal situation, or even questions about where he stands right now as a fighter. It doesn’t matter that in his last two fights he talked big and lost decisively. The Mayweather fight in particular took McGregor from being a well-known fighter to being among the most well-known athletes in the world, a level that no other UFC fighter in history has ever reached.

So it doesn’t matter that McGregor’s opponent, Cerrone, while among the company’s most popular and historically exciting fighters, is really not a top-tier contender and hasn’t beaten a championship-level opponent since a 2015 win over Benson Henderson.

The fight is a smart one for UFC to make, even if neither McGregor nor Cerrone have talked much trash as compared to previous fights. Cerrone, 36, has never won a UFC championship and only once risen to top-contender status. But his exciting style and willingness to fight often has led to him being at the top of the UFC record books. He has the most wins (23), most knockdowns (20), most finishes (16) and most announced bonuses (18). And those numbers don’t even include his six wins, five bonuses and three finishes during his run as the WEC’s most popular lightweight when it was under the Zuffa umbrella.

Cerrone looked old for the first time in losing to Justin Gaethje his previous time out. But for the UFC, the name value is big, and more importantly, Cerrone is the biggest name who McGregor can be expected to have the best chance against.

In theory, Saturday is only the start of the journey for McGregor. The Irish star wants money and big names, so he’s pushing for boxing matches with Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao. Those make sense for the boxers. McGregor will hype them big, and he’s better known than any legitimate boxers they could face. As risk-reward goes, there would be no better opponent for either.

Plus, with boxing still on television pay-per-view, McGregor’s potential as a draw isn’t hindered by the UFC’s exclusive streaming model. It’s only from a sports standpoint that the matchups present question marks, as they are not serious fights and the public may not buy McGregor as a boxer if he returns to the ring.

For MMA, the perfect destiny is the Nurmagomedov rematch for the lightweight title. But Nurmagomedov also has the toughest opponent of his career, Tony Ferguson, in his next title defense on April 18 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

McGregor was shut down by Nurmagomedov in their first meeting, but there is a chance for him in such a fight. He can claim he was injured going in, and he still has the striking edge.

A Ferguson fight is completely different. Ferguson has a wild offensive style that invites counters from a disciplined fighter. Nobody has been able to implement that strategy, of course, and that’s why it’s been seven years since the ex-interim champ has tasted defeat. Ferguson’s cardio is also ridiculous. If McGregor can’t take advantage of an early mistake, it could be a bad night, the kind that further damages his aura to the public.

McGregor would not be favored against Mayweather, Pacquiao, Nurmagomedov, Ferguson, and welterweights Jorge Masvidal or Kamaru Usman are tough draws. But history shows he’ll be able to talk people into spending money for any of them. While the $ 80 million purse number he claimed might be a complete fabrication, it would be anything but to say that number is absolutely at stake when it comes to future revenue.

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