King Dana, Conor McGregor, and the Mis-Promotion of Demetrious Johnson

The Makings of a Shakespearean Tragedy

Visit any typical MMA blog on any given day and you’re likely to find a number of stories that feature Dana White soundbites as the headline. “Dana White: Fighter X is next in line for a title shot…”, “Dana White: Fighter X is difficult to deal with…” and so on. Lately, though, those same websites are filled with nothing but headlines about the upcoming Floyd Mayweather, Jr. vs. Conor McGregor boxing match, interspersed with Dana White soundbites about that very fight.

Reading and listening to White’s opinions on McGregor and the upcoming fight, I’m struck by how goddamn well Dana White is promoting the fight. As he should; he’s a promoter, after all. Given the opportunity to talk about Conor McGregor, White expertly crafts a narrative about McGregor. He often describes McGregor as a “madman,” some sort of self-belief guru that shies away from no challenge, a man capable of shocking the world through his sheer power of will and bravado. It’s a good way to sell this fight. We can’t be led to believe that McGregor, with his 0-0 professional boxing record, is a boxing savant, particularly after Nate Diaz soundly out-struck the UFC lightweight champ a little over a year ago. However, if we’re led to believe he’s a legitimate “madman,” running on the fumes of his own self-belief, maybe there’s something magical there. Maybe he can shock the world. Whether you believe that line of thinking of not, the truth is that Dana White has created the narrative this fight needs — we need to believe that something spectacular can happen because Conor McGregor is a truly spectacular figure. It’s been an impressive piece of promotion for Dana White and the UFC.

Let’s compare White’s promotion of McGregor to his recent comments on Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson, arguably the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. With Johnson publicly refusing to fight former bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw, White heaped scorn on “Mighty Mouse,” essentially throwing the UFC champion under the bus for failing to accept the fight the UFC wanted to make. Without discussing the rights or wrongs of Johnson’s position, I’m interested in White’s reaction to that position. He seems to be selling a fight that won’t happen (Johnson vs. Dillashaw), while insulting a fight that will (Johnson vs. Borg).

On multiple occasions White has explicitly compared McGregor to Johnson, stating that while McGregor is the ideal, take-on any challenge fighter, Johnson is the fan’s worst enemy: a champion that picks and chooses his opponents and refuses to give fans the fights they clamor for. Never mind that McGregor has never defended either of his UFC championships in favor of leaving the sport altogether, and never mind that McGregor almost certainly strategically chooses his opponents to maximize his chances of winning (as he should!), and even never mind that Demetrious Johnson has dutifully defended his title a record 10 times. The point here is that Dana White, confusingly, has shown us he’s perfectly capable of promoting and creating a narrative for McGregor, yet he actively chooses to demean his longest reigning champion.


 

In almost anything, life imitates art. In Shakespeare’s King Lear (bear with me folks… bear with me), the King needs to bequeath his kingdom to his three daughters, but must decide how to divide it. To determine each daughter’s share, Lear invites the three sisters to tell him how much they each love him. The oldest two daughters say all the right things, flattering Lear with effusive professions of undying love. The youngest daughter, Cordelia, deeply loves her father but refuses to flatter Lear, telling him “I love you according to my bond; no more, no less.” Cordelia’s statement is honest, but it’s not what the egotistical Lear wants to hear, so he divides his kingdom to the two older sisters, leaving Cordelia with nothing.

Of course, as with any Shakespearean tragedy, all hell breaks loose. We learn that the two older sisters were dishonest in their love for Lear, and proceed to thoroughly abuse their new powers and betray their father. Cordelia, despite receiving no inheritance from Lear, remains an honest and sympathetic character — Lear’s only true ally.

 


Back to MMA. Examining the dynamic between Dana White, Conor McGregor, and Demetrious Johnson, I can’t help but think that, like King Lear, Dana White is only setting himself up for betrayal. In this scenario, Conor McGregor follows the lead of the two older sisters in King Lear, as he always seems to say all the things Dana White wants to hear. Of course McGregor tells White he plans to defend his UFC belt. Of course McGregor tells White he wants to fight top contender Khabib Nurmagomedov, in Russia, no less. These are all the things Dana White wants to hear — that McGregor will always want to put on the biggest fights that will earn the UFC the most money. And because McGregor makes these proclamations, White has invested and continues to invest substantial promotional capital in McGregor.

And make no mistake: every time White builds up McGregor, he is investing promotional capital in McGregor. That is, White has created a narrative around McGregor that will follow him wherever he goes. McGregor can monetize that very narrative in future fights, whether they are in the UFC or not.

On the other hand, Demetrious Johnson follows the lead of Cordelia, the youngest sister that does as duty commands. “No more, no less.” Johnson views his obligation to the UFC to regularly defend his belt against the division’s top contenders, and he has done exactly that. Johnson doesn’t say that he’ll fight any and all challengers at any weight class. For Johnson, those types of statements are empty, without any real weight behind them until a plan is in place. If he doesn’t intend to fight out of his weight class or against challengers that aren’t the number one contenders, he won’t say so. Johnson merely wants to fulfill his duty to defend his belt against credible challengers. Just like King Lear couldn’t handle Cordelia’s honesty, Dana White can’t handle Johnson’s honesty; it seems to enrage him.

Instead of promoting Johnson’s upcoming fight against Ray Borg (as the title “promoter” would suggest), Dana White chose to sarcastically demean the fight — an interesting tactic for a man tasked with selling the event. Like King Lear, White seems blinded by McGregor’s puffery while he entirely dismisses Johnson’s honest, dutiful statements. In response, White lashes out at “Might Mouse.”

Spoiler alert: everybody dies in King Lear. If there is a lesson to be learned from the play, it’s to be suspicious of overt flattery, to question the motives of people that always seem to say exactly the right things, and by that same token, trust those people that take honest yet less appealing stances.

I can’t help but think Dana White and company will end up like King Lear. In every interview, White pushes this fantastic narrative about McGregor: he’s a “madman,” capable of anything through his own will power. It’s a compelling narrative. But after investing so much promotional capital in McGregor, and after McGregor says all the “right” things, McGregor may very well betray White and the UFC, taking his substantial promotional capital with him, never to return to the UFC. Whether McGregor promotes competing fights or finds a way to fight for his own promotion, I get the sense that McGregor will soon stop saying all the things White wants to hear, and will instead do all the things he doesn’t want.

Likewise, it’s evident that White will regret failing to invest the proper promotional capital in Demetrious Johnson. If and when McGregor leaves the UFC for good, I suspect White will still have Demetrious Johnson on his roster — a dutiful champion and perhaps the best fighter in the world. Yet White continues to demean the champion, even though Johnson does exactly according to his bond. And there are certainly compelling narratives White could create for Johnson, just as he has about McGregor. Johnson has a myriad of “every man” interests — video games, craft beers, home improvement — yet is a seemingly unbeatable fighting machine. The narrative is there, yet the “promoter” Dana White refuses to promote.

Of course, McGregor and Johnson are different people. And of course McGregor is an easy figure to promote; he’s boisterous and confident in a way we rarely see in all of sports. It would be difficult to not promote McGregor. But by putting all his trust and promotion into McGregor, White may be setting himself up for betrayal. Meanwhile, Demetrious Johnson does all the right things, but White insults him to his detriment.

Maybe McGregor is perfectly honest that he wants to return to the UFC and fight Nurmagomedov in Russia; maybe Dana White should trust McGregor and continue to poor promotional capital into him. But if life imitates art — as it often does — I won’t be surprised when we see King Dana end up like King Lear, regretful that he put so much trust into mere flattering words.

And where does this leave Demetrious Johnson? Without the promotional capital of Dana White and the UFC behind him, Johnson may struggle to command top dollar to fight elsewhere. It would be a shame if “Mighty Mouse” never gets the promotional push nor payday he deserves. Indeed, he may be stuck fighting in the UFC for the very promoter that seems to take his dependability for granted — a true Shakespearean tragedy.

 

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