Around this time two years ago, Conor McGregor boxed Floyd Mayweather Jr and earned himself north of $50 million for what was objectively a huge mismatch, but advertised otherwise.
Last Thursday, McGregor spoke for 41 minutes with ESPN’s Ariel Helwani in what was advertised as a must-see interview — a major get for the industry’s most recognizable and award-winning access journalist — but was essentially an extended PR session to repair the Irishman’s steadily crumbling image.
Listeners got to hear McGregor go on at length about his regretful punching of a bar patron, his intentions to compete in the Octagon again, a laundry list of fantasy matchmaking, and a host of other subjects to give MMA media outlets (Bloody Elbow included) content for days for readers to click on. Fair, that’s the nature of the business.
Here’s what we didn’t get:
- Any questions or even a request for comment about his alleged sexual assault investigation, as was reported by the New York Times.
- Any comment about his poor taste “your wife is a towel” tweet towards Khabib Nurmagomedov, of which that particular Twitter feud reached a point where Khabib outright called him a rapist.
Those are two of the most serious, hard-hitting topics to push McGregor on, and whether it was Helwani’s own choice or McGregor’s team (or the UFC) blocking those questions prior to going on-air, they were never discussed. A decent chunk of this conversation was not necessarily new information, much of it not substantive in the first place. He just consolidated a few of his recent hits into one neatly, nationally televised package.
His claim that he broke his foot prior to the Khabib Nurmagomedov bout? He already tweeted that more than four months ago.
I broke my foot 3 weeks out from the bout.— Conor McGregor (@TheNotoriousMMA) April 11, 2019
I still marched forward however, and also landed the final blows of the night.
On his blood brother.
I am happy with how the contest went and the lessons learned.
In my fighting and more importantly my preparation.
Time will reveal all. https://t.co/VNxbrfk6qx
His quote about how he nearly returned in July, potentially against Justin Gaethje, also falls in line with Gaethje’s manager Ali Abdelaziz claiming McGregor was offered the fight back in April.
McGregor also told Helwani that he wanted to avoid going “down that path” of other notable prizefighters who had a dramatic downfall. This is not that different from what he told Tony Robbins earlier this year, including comments about how he ceased lavish spending and had changed his mindset.
Reaction to the interview was mixed. There were comments about how McGregor sounded remorseful, contrite, and focused on shaping up his life to return to UFC competition once more. Helwani had that takeaway on his own show earlier this week. Other outlets like Deadspin — never one to shy away from lambasting journalists and the state of media coverage — had a much harsher assessment of what transpired.
“You appeared to get into an altercation with another man,” is a pretty generous way to describe a video that shows a man sitting calmly at a bar and McGregor unexpectedly socking the man in the face. There’s no credible reason to frame it that way—it fails utterly as a description of what took place—but Helwani’s job here is not to interrogate or otherwise address with any journalistic seriousness McGregor’s penchant for violent, antisocial behavior. His job is to provide a cozy platform for McGregor to engage in some image rehabilitation.
Sherdog’s Eric Stinton expressed similar sentiments.
Helwani is the most prominent media member in MMA and works for the biggest media brand in all of sports, so it was sensible for McGregor to seek out this platform. However, there’s more to it than just good sense. Helwani also happens to be king of the media softball league, known more for cozying up to fighters and managers than for any substantive journalistic effort. For McGregor, who in the last two and a half years has inflicted more violence outside of competition than inside of it, Helwani was the best possible sparring partner to make him look good since Paulie Malignaggi.
Luke Thomas had an in-depth reaction video published the following day, with a poignant assessment of the state of MMA journalism.
The absence of any question about McGregor’s alleged sexual assault seemed particularly egregious given the interview started with his uncouth public behavior. It’s one thing to not breach the subject because of Ireland’s vastly different laws concerning active rape investigations, but this story should’ve been fair game the moment the New York Times ran their own report. ESPN, Helwani’s employer, cited the NY Times story, and even ran a segment on SportsCenter with Brett Okamoto, so it’s not as if the network was avoiding covering this entirely.
And yet, it took until August 27th to get a comment from either McGregor or Dana White for a report published in March. MMAjunkie’s John Morgan asked White in a media scrum about the NYT article, with White saying McGregor told him that “it’s not him.” It seems like something that could’ve just as easily been addressed directly to Conor by Helwani himself. McGregor’s resulting answer (or non-answer) isn’t the point—asking the question in the first place would’ve been sufficient.
But this all speaks to a much broader issue concerning the shaky relationship between MMA media and the UFC. It is no secret that the UFC has a near authoritarian approach to media, and in a field where access is the grand prize and the #1 content driver, they can revoke privileges in a heartbeat if the line is not towed. We’ve seen how they can universally dictate what cannot be asked at pressers. To a lesser extent, we’ve seen prominent UFC fighters use a similar playbook. Ronda Rousey’s team famously forbade questions about her fighting career in the wake of the Holly Holm defeat, while Jon Jones is probably never going to answer any Luke Thomas questions again. Maybe access to McGregor was at risk for Ariel had he brought up the reported investigation, and it wasn’t worth slightly shaking the boat, let alone rocking it.
As of late, it seems as if anything that is (or can be construed as) critical coverage or negative press involving a UFC fighter is met with silence. This is hardly isolated to McGregor’s alleged sexual assault investigation; we have yet to see an official UFC statement on Desmond Green’s DUI manslaughter charge, likewise for Abdul Razak Alhassan, who was indicted on rape charges in Texas shortly after his UFC 228 win over Niko Price.
Bloody Elbow and other outlets submitted multiple requests for comment from UFC officials, with none of them yielding what was asked. Not a single question concerning either fighter’s status on the UFC roster has been fielded, as the promotion seems to be taking the PR strategy of “if no one says anything, it will go away.” Imagine NFL journalists not asking (or being prevented from asking) the Kansas City Chiefs or the league about Tyreek Hill’s recent child abuse investigation, or NBA journalists on Demarcus Cousins’ alleged threats towards his ex-girlfriend. That can be perceived as irresponsible if not outright complicit in acting in the league’s best interests to suppress bad PR.
This is not to say the NFL, NBA, or other major sports leagues are angelic and fully cordial with media, but the UFC has long operated with far greater, unchecked ability to “control the narrative” without ever facing significant scrutiny or pushback. If that doesn’t change, then tame, unchallenging interviews like the one broadcast last week will continue to be the norm in a model that seems systemically designed for tough but necessary questions to be avoided.