Conor McGregor, Georges St-Pierre, and Uncertainty in the UFC

Will Georges St-Pierre vacate his middleweight title? Will Conor McGregor fight again? Is Francis Ngannou the nightmare that the UFC has been waiting for?

A few years ago, back when UFC president Dana White held regular media scrums before and after events, one of the fun games assorted media members found themselves playing was “Read Between the Lines.” As in, somebody would ask Dana a question, he would shoot off an answer, and it was left for everyone in the huddle to decide if what he said was what he meant, if what he didn’t say actually said it all, and if his red-faced proclamations were statements of fact or just tools to motivate fighters who could use motivating.

Those Dana scrums—which he stopped doing in late 2014—were all very intimate, in large part because Dana knew that (most) of the media could see right through simple smoke screens, and (some of) the media knew he knew that, making the whole thing the ultimate test of gullibility. Remember when he said that Nate Diaz—who was holding out for more money—wasn’t a needle mover? Those were the good old days.

It’s been a little harder to infer what’s going on in the UFC since Dana stopped doing the scrums, but a few days before last weekend’s The Ultimate Fighter 26 finale and UFC 218, he brought it back! Sort of. The UFC held a luncheon at its headquarters in Las Vegas, and it was only different from a scrum because of the presence of food. And as usual, there was plenty to sort out—perhaps more than ever, given the many uncertainties going on in the UFC with its champions, its would-be stars, and its actual stars.

Let’s revisit some topics a week later, and read between the lines a little bit.

What’s up with Georges St-Pierre? Is he vacating the middleweight belt?

When GSP decided to come back after a four-year hiatus to challenge Michael Bisping for the middleweight title, one of the commonly asked questions went something like this—“Why?” In the end it wasn’t so much that he didn’t deserve a shot in a weight class he’d never competed in, given that he is one of the greatest champions the UFC has ever had in the one he did (at welterweight)—it was more about whether or not he’d stick around after. Would he defend the middleweight title against interim champion/infernal beast Robert Whittaker?

Even though GSP said he was contractually obligated to defend his new title if he beat Bisping, that never seemed anything other than … unlikely. And last week, when White had his media powwow, he was asked about GSP abandoning his newly won belt with just that kind of intuitive skew.

“I don’t want to hear that,” White said, breaking into the most confiding off-the-record tones. “That’s not what I want to hear. I want to hear he’s going to defend his 185-pound title. That’s the agreement we made. That’s the deal we made when we made the deal. … I’m going to be super pissed [if GSP doesn’t want to defend], and I don’t know where we go from there.”

White knew then that GSP was ready to bounce back to welterweight, and a week after airing his druthers at the media gathering it’s all but official. The UFC is now flirting with the idea of having Luke Rockhold challenge Whittaker at UFC 221 in Perth, Australia, come February, in all likelihood for the undisputed (vacated) middleweight belt. GSP made the idea come off as a wise move by announcing that he was battling ulcerative colitis, an inflammation of the digestive tract that was complicated—he said during an interview with Canadian SportsCentre—by unnaturally gorging himself to make the higher weight. What kind of boss would willingly turn his best pound-for-pound fighter into a glutton?

In that same interview, citing those same health concerns, GSP pretty much bid adieu to the middleweight division. “We’ll talk about it, but I’m not sure if [when] I compete, I will go back to 185,” he said. “I don’t think so.”

Circle back to White’s scrum, when he tried to list the “monsters” who would lurk in wait for GSP at welterweight, which was like a subliminal table-setting for this eventuality.

“Go to 170? Who’s better to fight at 170?” White said. “You’ve got [Tyron] Woodley, you’ve got ‘Wonderboy,’ you’ve got [Yoel] Romero, and then you’ve got Luke Rockhold. Fucking monsters. They’re all monsters. There’s no fight that looks like, ‘Oh, maybe this is the fight for me to take.’ You looked at Bisping like he was a tune-up. You got your tune-up. There’s nothing but fucking animals at ’85 and ’70.”

The point being that if GSP ends up taking on Woodley, it isn’t a retreat—it’s a step into a different minefield.

White may be mad, but he’s subtly undermining his own argument. This is how you warm people to the idea of a fight without making the champion look like he’s shirking responsibility (or ducking people). Not that GSP moving back to welterweight needs to be justified. He defended the 170-pound title nine times between 2008 and 2013, and hasn’t lost a bout since 2007. And if White is genuinely “super pissed” about GSP wanting to go back to picking on people his own size, here’s something that might soothe him:

The last pay-per-view that Woodley headlined, at UFC 209, did around 300,000 purchases. GSP’s return fight on November 4 did 875,000 (or a million, if you ask Dana). GSP making a dramatic return to his natural weight class to overthrow an unpopular PPV draw, right at a time when stars are needed in the UFC?

This is a no-brainer. GSP and White are saying different things, but they’re actually very much in concert.

When will Conor McGregor fight again? Will he fight again?

On the heels of some erratic behavior—you know, launching himself into the Bellator cage and going after a referee during a training partner’s fight … possibly punching a man believed to be the father of a highly placed member of the Irish mob in a pub … showing up in photos with Rita Ora, like a don of tabloid life—Conor McGregor’s future in the UFC is cloudy at best, as Bleacher Report noted Wednesday.

His demands have escalated incrementally from UFC title shots to mega-boxing events to coveting a piece of the UFC ownership group—or even branching out to begin his own promotion—all of which makes negotiating a new deal with him a little tricky.

Yet the hunch is that he will fight in the UFC again because, hey, if you can earn around $100 million in a fight with Floyd Mayweather, why not make another $100 million while fighting in your bare feet? Forget about the obligation to defend his lightweight title at this point (that model was built for fight game mortals), it’s about cashing in as much as humanly possible while people are still hysterical enough to pay for the privilege of seeing you fight.

And McGregor could cash in big in that trilogy fight with Nate Diaz, right? Yes, but not so fast, says Dana.

“Conor might never fight again,” White cautioned during last week’s luncheon, just some man talk over virtual beers. “The guy’s got $100 fucking million. I’ve got guys that made less than that and were lawyers and went to school their whole life and quit working.”

White went on to echo what Cyndi Lauper said all those years ago. Namely, that “money changes everything,” especially when the idea is to inflict (and absorb) bodily harm.

“Fighting’s the worst. Try to get up and get punched in the face every day when you’ve got $100 million in the bank,” he said. “Money changes everything with a lot of people.”

If anybody should know it’s White himself, who cashed in over $300 million as a minority owner of the UFC in last year’s sale to the entertainment conglomerate WME-IMG. Yet there he was, still holding court with the media, talking about this fighter and that fighter, coming down to earth to explain how the rich get warped. If Dana can find it in himself to leave the satin sheets of his bed and preside over the UFC, here’s guessing Conor will find a spark to compete again, even if he’s gone off the rails a little bit in real life.

(In fact, at the rate he spends on yachts, exotic animal skins, clothes, and private planes, he might return because of his extravagances.)

Dana was mostly negotiating with Conor in public, casting doubt over the Irishman’s resolve as a way to refocus him and apply some pressure. White has always pointed out that the UFC will wait on no man (or woman), that it rolls on and finds the next star. He’s doing that again here, but it’s a little comical in this situation. Think the new owners at WME-IMG are as cavalier about letting McGregor walk off into the sunset if he so chooses, after a moonlit boxing match and never defending a title?

Don’t make me laugh.

Even if he’s stripped of the lightweight title, completing that trilogy with Diaz could break the UFC’s pay-per-view record, which McGregor owns already for his second fight with Diaz (1.65 million buys). It will all get worked out, because money has a way of getting egos on the same page.

Speaking of stars, what about Francis Ngannou? Is he the next star?

One of the things that Dana reiterated at his media chat was that the UFC is having the best year it’s ever had, which is hard to believe given that (a) Conor McGregor hasn’t fought once in the octagon in 2017, (b) its other transcendent star, Ronda Rousey, hasn’t either, and in fact is off to pro wrestling, (c) it just crowned somebody named Nicco Montano as the inaugural flyweight champion, a fight which only 500,000 people tuned in to watch, (d) people drop out of fights these days like stoners do high school social studies classes, (e) belts change hands frequently, and (f) budding stars like Justin Gaethje and Cody Garbrandt keep losing right at the transcendent moment.

But hey, let me get out of the way and let Dana say his piece.

“This is one of the most unique businesses in the world,” White said. “I literally just hung up the phone with [new owner] Ari [Emanuel] before I walked in here with you guys. He was talking to me about, you know, this is the best year the company’s ever had, in the company’s history. So he’s fucking off the charts, so pumped, and we’re actually coming in over the number they had budgeted.”

White was proud of the things he was finding to say.

“So he’s all pumped up, and he’s like, ‘I just can’t wrap my fucking brain around it, if you look at the beginning of this year and how it started and how it ended …’

“I said, Ari, this is what I tell you guys all the time, this is the stuff that drove [former UFC matchmaker] Joe Silva crazy—literally Joe Silva went crazy, and didn’t want to do this shit anymore. I know this sounds super insensitive, and I don’t want it to come off this way, but it’s a fact. When human beings are your product, you never know what’s going to happen. Everyday it goes like this, from day to day.”

Here he made an up-and-down wave motion with his hands.

“Forget about … all the crazy shit that gets thrown at us everyday. You just have to ride the fucking waves man.”

Never mind the Spicoli speak there at the end, or that Joe Silva isn’t literally crazy (White uses the word loosely), the truth is he’s onto something. There are waves in the UFC. Stars come and go. Interest changes. Sometimes people emerge who’ve been under our noses for years (like Max Holloway). People did wonder who would be the next Chuck Liddell, just as they wonder these days who will be the next Jon Jones or Ronda Rousey.

So Dana is justified in his faith concerning the cycle of stars.

Right on cue, four days after White gave this impassioned address, the French Cameroonian heavyweight Francis Ngannou knocked Alistair Overeem out in Detroit in the most ridiculous way possible—an uppercut that snapped his whole face skyward, and then felled him like he’d been shot. It wasn’t just Ngannou’s sixth finish in six fights in the UFC, it was a declaration of ruin. People were throwing up memes of the KO, and grown men were talking about their greatest fears (which Ngannou came to represent).

Ngannou is the hardest-hitting, most vicious puncher the UFC has ever known. He has been fighting as a professional for only four years. He looked like he was drawn by Frank Frazetta, and his quest to dominate the indomitable heavyweight division suddenly feels inevitable. He already talks about the title like it’s his, and it probably will be on January 20, when he would meet Stipe Miocic in Boston at UFC 220.

For every Cody Garbrandt and Paige VanZant that the UFC burnishes to look like a legend before they really earn it, there is a Ngannou coming up the rungs with the kind of “it” factor that wows people into paying attention. He’s the next big thing in the UFC.

And he’s the reason Dana White comes off looking like gold when making outlandish claims. Sometimes Dana is overly blunt. Sometimes he’s full of shit. And sometimes he literally speaks bullshit into existence. During the old scrums, Dana would make a leap and a net would literally appear.

Well, not literally, but you know what I mean.