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OPINION: Was the UFC Purposefully Under-Promoting UFC 196 Until Now?

(via Getty)

By Bjorn Hansen

Something was wrong. There was something missing. It wasn’t so much about what happened, as much as it was about what didn’t happen. The MMA field of psychic energy lacked a directed focus. It was split in several directions. There was one thing we should have all been talking about, yet it seemed we were all looking past it. We saw the potential, but ignored its likelihood. What I mean to say is, I certainly didn’t feel like we were collectively counting down to potential MMA history…and yet…the greatest page of MMA History could have been written this March 5th.

Let me back up for a moment. Let’s talk for a second about how we got there.

Before a “bruised foot and sore vagina” derailed the fight, Featherweight Champion Conor McGregor was putting his undefeated UFC record on the line in what was an attempt to move up a weight division and snatch the Lightweight Championship belt from Rafael Dos Anjos’ tight grasp. Why would this have been history? Well for one, no one had ever held two belts at the same time. (Randy Couture and B.J. Penn won belts in two different weight-classes, but never concurrently). As huge and unprecedented as that would have been, it was more than just that.

It was about Mystic Mac fulfilling another one of his improbable prophesies, briefly recapped below.

2008: A twenty year old Conor McGregor not only predicts he will be in the UFC someday, he predicts he will be UFC champion.

2013: After his first UFC fight, he predicts he’ll drag the UFC back to Ireland after a six year hiatus.

2014: Before headlining UFC Fight Night 46 in Ireland, Conor predicts a first round KO of Diego Brandao

2014: Months later, before UFC 178 Conor predicts he will KO Dustin Poirier in the first round.

2014: Conor predicts Jose Aldo will pull out of their fight.

2014: Conor predicts he will break PPV and gate figures

2015: Prior to UFC 189, Conor offers to bet Dana White 3 million dollars that he will KO Chad Mendes in the second round.

2015: On the set of the Ultimate Fighter, Conor warns Urijah Faber that his stablemate TJ Dillashaw will backstab him in the near future to go with Faber’s nemesis, and former Alpha Male Striking Coach, Duane Ludwig.

2015: Then, prior to UFC 194, for his most eerie prediction yet, he has this exchange with Robin Black:

“I felt when we stared down, his right hand was twitching a little bit, which was a subtle tell for me, he is ready to unload that right hand, but I feel that could be a downfall for him. If he lets that right hand go…I will create traps, and dead space inside that octagon all over the place, and I will walk him into it…that is what I will do with Jose [Aldo], I will lead him into a place where he feels safe, but all of a sudden, it’s a trap and he is in big danger.”

Before each one of those predictions, most of the MMA intelligentsia would shake their head and say ‘You may have made short work of previous opponents, but this next guy is on a whole different level.’ Rashad Evans smirked at Conor when he told Rashad he would KO Poirier in the first round. MMAFighting’s senior editor, Luke Thomas, thought there was no way the UFC would sacrifice their golden boy striker against the skilled wrestler, Chad Mendes after Jose Aldo pulled out this summer. Both Chad and Frankie Edgar said ‘Conor’s good, but Aldo’s a different animal.’

Of course, you don’t need me to tell you who was right and who was wrong, each and every time…so far. Even those who believed Conor would beat Aldo, thought he would do so in a back and forth war. Only Conor was able to see through time and continue his jaw-dropping predictions by continuing to crack the jaws of his opponent. No one thought it was possible that his best performance in the UFC would come against the best competition he’d ever faced in his career, the first, and former, UFC featherweight champion.

When asked at the press-conference, if he had ever envisioned starching Aldo in only 13 seconds, he responded with “of course, if you look at my record, I have a 4 second KO.” So in Conor’s mind, the only part of his prediction that was off, was that he took 9 seconds too long. Mystic Mac was about to go full-blown super saiyan. He was this close to reaching a mythical level of greatness and stardom the UFC had never seen before. And yet…

You’d figure the UFC would have been promoting this to the brink of over-promotion. The UFC promotes the hell out of anything they’re selling, even if it’s their schlockiest card ever due to injuries (think Dillashaw vs. Soto). So what happened? Was the UFC just sitting back and hoping Conor’s promotional magic did all the heavy lifting? After all, Conor’s UFC fights break records with regularity at this point.

So Conor attempting to make UFC history, should have been another surefire record-breaker right? Ok fine. But why didn’t they give it that extra push, like when McGregor finally faced Aldo. For that fight, they practically rolled out a 72-hour long undercard to give a fight of that magnitude the proper promotional underpinning.

But just a few weeks ago… they didn’t even put Conor’s featherweight belt in front of him during the UFC 196 (then UFC 197) press conference. Hell, it didn’t even find its way onto the fight poster until Conor threw a well-deserved hissy fit.

Why was the UFC strangely demoting UFC 196’s previous headliner McGregor/Dos Anjos in importance, rather than doing their usual jobs of enhancing it? Some of the MMA media mused that it was because they were upset with Conor McGregor’s pompous antics and hardline financial negotiating, particularly with the idea of “McGregor Promotions”.

Let me propose an alternative suggestion. I believe the reason the UFC slightly took their foot off the promotional pedal, was because they “didn’t see how (Conor) wins this fight.” Their rationale for not putting Conor’s featherweight belt in the fight poster was “because Conor’s belt was not on the line.”

Think about that for a moment. If Conor would have won, he would have become a two-division champion. So, while the featherweight belt was not on the line, it was still relevant and significant, but only in victory. If he would have lost, then, they were saying, Rafael would not have become the featherweight champ. In other words, the featherweight belt was only significant if Conor would have won, which they had already admitted they didn’t believe was going to happen. In short, they were, to borrow one of Chael’s phrases, ‘nesting for his fall’.

They wanted to remind everyone, even if Conor lost, he would have still been the featherweight king. He would still be the moneymaking machine that owned 2015 with record breaking PPV’s and gate sales. Essentially, they were implying, this fight doesn’t count, unless Conor wins. It was almost like they didn’t want the whole world watching, just in case, Conor got bludgeoned by the “animal” Dos Anjos (let’s not forget this is same guy who crumbled the last man who tried to take his belt in 66 seconds, with a tornado of muay thai violence). If they wholeheartedly believed Conor was going to win, why wouldn’t they have saved this fight from the get-go to headline the massively epic UFC 200?

Now don’t get me wrong. The UFC is a business in pursuit of a profit, and they were certainly promoting this fight. But, a fight of this magnitude required scaling the tallest mountain and shouting into a megaphone, commanding the whole world to watch. Instead, they were tapping people’s shoulders and whispering into their ears. Promotionally speaking, it completely flew in the face of how they usually did things.

But what if Conor would have won? If he did pull off the victory, they would have gotten to mega-promote Conor and UFC 200 with the money they saved by under-promoting UFC 196. They would have undoubtedly billed him as the #1 pound for pound fighter in the world. Scratch that…they would have billed him as the G.O.A.T.

At least, that’s how the UFC that I’m used to would have done it.

If he would have lost, they would have said, ‘well, we told you this would happen.’ And ‘it doesn’t mean he’s no longer the featherweight champion.’

Basically they were betting on this:

Heads, History is made. Tails, this didn’t happen.

Heads, Mystic Mac lives on. Tails, Conor McGregor remains the featherweight champion.

But now, with an entirely different (and oddly, less significant) fight on the table, it seems the UFC has once again kicked the promotional machine into overdrive. We’ve all seen the press conference, the promos, and so forth. Is it that a matchup between McGregor and Nate Diaz is simply much more marketable than his previously-scheduled battle with Dos Anjos, or is the UFC a little more assured that their golden boy (and I say that with no negative connotations whatsoever) can actually win this fight, and have decided to step up their marketing game as a result?

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