After spending time out of the limelight, the question these days isn’t “Where is Conor McGregor” but “Where isn’t Conor McGregor?”
No MMA fighter has transcended the sport the way The Notorious One has. Who else could go from showing up at UFC 285 with Donnie Darko to giving a pep talk to Ryan Garcia immediately after his loss to Gervonta Davis to getting in the ring and facing off with Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship 41 main event winner Mike Perry on Saturday night?
And you know what? It felt pretty good to see—natural even.
For as controversial as bare knuckle boxing has been (and still is), founder David Feldman has put in a lot of work to build up BKFC as more than just some flash-in-the-pan combat sports nonsense that could only appeal to violence fetishists and whatever the modern day equivalent of the “Just Bleed” guy is.
Think of it as the Power Slap of 5 years ago.
And though your mileage may vary regarding how successful Feldman has been in convincing the world that the sport is safe or that they employ high quality talent and not just UFC castoffs and OnlyFans models, it does seem like their shows are getting bigger and more impressive.
Saturday’s BKFC 41 may have been the promotion’s biggest show to date. The event featured former UFC mainstays Ben Rothwell and Chris Camozzi shining in highlight reel fashion (it’s crazy to think I’d be into a title fight between Rothwell and Alan Belcher in 2023 but here we are), a 5-round war between former UFC Lightweight Champion Eddie Alvarez and former top UFC featherweight contender Chad Mendes, and a bloody main event that saw Perry, AKA “The Boogerman,” literally punch former UFC Middleweight Champion Luke Rockhold’s teeth in.
The live crowd in Denver was very much into the card from start to finish, none more so than McGregor. He spent the night right behind Feldman, grinning from ear to ear as the carnage unfolded in front of him. He was so into the action, he was even shouting instructions during some of the fights, most notably during the Alvarez/Mendes matchup.
After Perry’s win, the Irishman was allowed to enter the ring, where he gave words of encouragement to Perry and offered support to the promotion while having a BKFC championship belt slung over his shoulder. You can’t get a more ringing endorsement than that. It really makes me wonder why McGregor doesn’t just split on the UFC and join the world of bare knuckle boxing.
I know that McGregor is loyal to the UFC and to Dana White. The UFC is the promotion that built him up and allowed him the platform to become the megastar he is today. They’ve given him leeway to do things that they won’t allow other fighters to do because they know how important he is and how much business he brings.
But UFC has tried to exert its control over McGregor before and, depending on what plans the two sides have for how best to use him in the last two fights of his current contract and beyond, they’ll likely try to do it again. While McGregor says he has no intention of going and fighting anywhere else, he is also the kind of person to fake a retirement (or multiple retirements) to get what he wants.
We still aren’t even clear on what McGregor’s immediate future is going to be. He’s supposed to fight Michael Chandler later this year after their upcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter airs but no date has been given or even hinted at as far as when that fight will happen.
It hasn’t been made clear how soon McGregor will be eligible to fight considering he’s supposed to be in USADA’s drug testing program for six months prior to fighting and, aside from joking about it online, there’s been no confirmation that he’s back in the program. The UFC has the ability to offer an exemption to the requirement in “exceptional circumstances” but giving one to McGregor will cause quite a headache for Dana considering how that went the last time.
Meanwhile, the bigger question to ask here isn’t even whether McGregor will fight Chandler but whether anyone actually cares to see McGregor fight Chandler? Sure, it has the potential to be an exciting, all action matchup but it will be a main event between two fighters who have lost three out of their last four fights and grasping at whatever relevancy they still have.
What are they fighting for? There is no rivalry there besides what they have manufactured for ESPN. Chandler isn’t getting a title shot with a win. McGregor isn’t getting a title shot with a win (not unless Dana decides to give him the welterweight title opportunity he’s been asking for and screw over the Belal Muhammed-Gilbert Burns UFC 288 co-main event winner). It feels like a waste of McGregor’s drawing power if he isn’t being booked in big matchups that serve some greater purpose. So what’s the purpose behind this?
That’s not to say a fight with Perry would be any bigger but it sure would feel like it. Perry’s career has been rejuvenated by BKFC. He went from floundering as a UFC welterweight to beating the likes of Rockhold, Michael “Venom” Page, and THE “Let me bang, bro” guy.
“Platinum” is officially a free agent after the Rockhold win but it does sound like he wants to stay in BKFC and it appears he’s definitely down for a fight with McGregor. It would make quite the statement to have Conor come in and be the one to take out the golden boy of bare knuckle boxing.
Besides, if the McGregor-Chandler fight doesn’t happen, it’s not like it’d be the first time McGregor has done a season of the show and didn’t fight the opposing coach at the end of it.
And, if you question the futility in McGregor fighting Chandler, you have to question the futility of McGregor even fighting in MMA again. The fight with Chandler would be his first since the brutal leg break he suffered in his third fight with Dustin Poirier back at UFC 264 in July 2021.
We don’t know what kind of performance to expect out of McGregor when he returns. While the injury may be healed up, it’s very likely he won’t be the same fighter that he was when he left. He’s even said as much. That means the hopes for a banger may be nothing but a dream. McGregor could very well be in for a rough night if Chandler decides to forgo a slugfest and use his wrestling.
You know where McGregor doesn’t have to worry about takedowns or leg kicks or other moves that could cause his injury to be exploited or aggravated? Boxing. And, with the ruleset of bare knuckle boxing allowing for grabbing and clinching, and with the fact that most of the top names in the sport are his own contemporaries, it seems like an excellent landing spot if McGregor wants to continue his career in an environment that’s more favorable to the way he likes to fight.
I doubt that bare knuckle will ever become big enough to challenge the position of the UFC in the combat sports pantheon, especially with WME’s backing, but the show on Saturday did have the feel and energy of Spike TV era UFC (or, at the very least, MVT2 era Bellator). It felt as if the sport could be on the cusp of blowing up. All it needs is a bonafide star to put it over the top.
McGregor could be that star. No question he’d become the cornerstone of Feldman’s would-be empire should he decide to buy in. McGregor would have all the freedom to say what he wants, do what he wants, and promote what he wants. And Feldman would have the attraction he needs to get eyeballs on the product and convince everyone why he’s the cool new kid in town.
McGregor already teased us with the BKFC title belt. Maybe it’s time he puts an end to the foreplay and gets ready to knuckle up.
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