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Conor McGregor's return to octagon turning into UFC's biggest headache

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 05/09/2018 Martin Rogers

(Video provided by USA Today Sports)

Even after nearly two years away Conor McGregor is still the biggest and brightest star in the Ultimate Fighting Championship universe. If he beats Khabib Nurmagomedov on Oct. 6, he’ll regain the organization’s lightweight belt.

But, right now, he also holds another title: UFC’s biggest headache.

Nothing has been calm and predictable in the world of McGregor for a long while, ever since he became a global star, then made a fortune by boxing Floyd Mayweather, and let all the fame and hype and adulation go straight to his head.

Now, a month out from UFC 229 in Las Vegas, he is preparing to come back at the top of a blockbuster card expected to break mixed martial arts’ pay-per-view record. On the surface, the UFC should be happy. But it’s far more complex than that.

McGregor was never one to toe the line of officialdom but it has reached the point now where the UFC has virtually no control over him, aside from paying him hefty sums of money to fight, if and when he feels like it.

There is a reason McGregor became the highest-paid athlete in UFC history. It is because his unflinching personality, brash behavior and sharp tongue generated a scale of mainstream interest that the sport has previously been unable to tap into.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Conor McGregor is scheduled fight in UFC 229 in Oct. 6, his first UFC event since November 2016. © Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports Conor McGregor is scheduled fight in UFC 229 in Oct. 6, his first UFC event since November 2016.

Ahead of the biggest fights of his career, you could find the Irishman everywhere, taking potshots at his opponent on social media, engaging in stunts at promotional events, spouting inflammatory trash talk at every turn.

Rare was it that his incendiary barbs failed to go viral, building up a weight of interest in his fights that translated into pay-per-view buys. Whether you are a fan of his often boorish and crude ways or not, there is no question that before his boxing match with Mayweather, McGregor laid on a masterclass in marketing. For many of the 4.3 million fans who shelled out nearly $100, it wasn’t in anticipation of a great contest, but because it was the final act of a riotous reality show.

But not this time. McGregor is virtually silent ahead of his clash with Nurmagomedov, the ferocious Russian wrestling expert with a 26-0 record and current favorite to win the matchup. As the clock ticks down toward fight week, McGregor refuses to fly to the United States for promotional events, is shunning interviews and appearances and is pretty much turning down everything the UFC asks of him.

As a result, the hype machine for the event has scarcely cranked into life yet, calling into question UFC president Dana White’s assertion that it will crack the 2 million buy ceiling.

From a purely competitive perspective, it is hard to fault McGregor. He knows Nurmagomedov will provide the toughest test of his career and appears to be committing himself fully to the clash. But McGregor's act has always involved more than simply turning up on fight night.

UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov is seen in attendance during the UFC Fight Night event at Scotiabank Saddledome on July 28, 2018 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. © Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov is seen in attendance during the UFC Fight Night event at Scotiabank Saddledome on July 28, 2018 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

With him tucked away at his base in Ireland, the promotional efforts for UFC 229 have so far revolved largely around trying to build up the feud between the fighters, based on McGregor’s infamous attack on a bus carrying Nurmagomedov in Brooklyn in April. Given that two UFC fighters were injured in the attack, accusations of poor taste are valid.

But if McGregor doesn’t want to take part in the promotion there isn’t much the UFC can do. The time has long since passed when White can order him around, or even call in a favor. McGregor has too much wealth and too much self interest for that, and also takes his tough-guy reputation too seriously to acquiesce to the company’s preferences.

The UFC has to keep its cash cow happy, in the hope that he’ll keep fighting with Ronda Rousey now a distant memory and Jon Jones still suspended.

That’s why the company can only dream of a big promotional tour and public events and all the things that might have put Nurmagomedov-McGregor on a fast track into the hearts and minds of the public. That’s not going to happen.

Instead, UFC 229 is on a slow boil, all because McGregor does what he wants, when he wants, all of which makes him the UFC’s chief moneymaker, biggest draw and it’s most infuriating headache.

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