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UFC 246 preview: Conor McGregor sexual assault allegations addle an industry unfit to manage them

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UFC 229: Khabib v McGregor Photo by Christian Petersen/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC

Conor McGregor is under investigation for sexual assault back in his Irish homeland, which made his inclusion in the UFC 246 pay-per-view (PPV) main event a risky proposition, at least from a public relations standpoint. Fortunately for the promotion, people outside the combat sports bubble rarely pay attention to what happens in mixed martial arts (MMA) so as a sport, if we can call it that (I prefer prizefighting), we’ve never been held to a higher standard.

Not as fans, fighters, media members, or even promoters.

The UFC 246 pre-fight press conference was held on Wednesday in Las Vegas, Nevada, not far from where “Notorious” will battle longtime veteran Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone — no stranger to allegations of sexual assault — in Saturday night’s five-round main event. A strange thing happened during the question and answer portion of the proceedings and I’ve been trying to parse reactions in the ensuing aftermath.

If you missed some (or all) of the presser, respected journalist Morgan Campbell looked to sneak in a few questions for NY Times about the status of McGregor’s investigation, which seems to be the only time anyone there gives any real estate to UFC. I use the word “sneak” because it’s hard for me to believe a reporter of his intelligence and real-world experience did not know what to expect. The fans in attendance showered him with boos, promotion president Dana White browbeat him for the inquiry, and the typically-mouthy McGregor slammed shut like a time-lock at the bank.

There will never be a right time or a right place for those sorts of questions, because UFC is (still) a privately-held company that lives and dies on the strength of its brand. Bankable attractions like McGregor, as well as Brock Lesnar, Georges St-Pierre, and Ronda Rousey before him certainly help pad the bottom line, but UFC is the real star of the show and fighters — in the short window they have to make a living — are mostly props to decorate live sets. “Eat what you kill,” White reminded the less favored fortunate.

During the aftershocks of boo-gate, the Twitter brigade defended Campbell’s line of questioning and chastised the promotion for bungling the proceedings. “MMA fans are the worst,” was echoed more than a few times. But what happened on Wednesday exposed the limitations of MMA from top-to-bottom because in so many ways, everyone was right and everyone was wrong. It’s hard enough to navigate the murky waters of high-profile allegations — particularly involving sexual assault — when everyone in the mix is above board. In an industry as goofy as MMA? It’s damn near impossible.

Folks, a grown man who bills himself as “The Schmo” is a credentialed media member. Let that sink in for a minute and think about some of the other recent press conferences you’ve seen in mainstream sports. Imagine letting fans into the last Patriots’ presser after Tom Brady and Co. got bounced from the NFL playoffs by the Tennessee Titans. Or having Bill Belichick pull credentials from reporters who ask the wrong questions. It’s never gonna happen. But MMA is different and I would say the rules are different as well, but c’mon ... what rules? Veteran analyst Luke Thomas compared this most recent UFC press event to a high school pep rally, but to me, it felt more like a scripted sitcom. Recurring characters barked out dialogue, audience members piped in reactions.

Who can blame ‘em? Fans were invited to the press conference so that UFC could rack up B-roll of them standing and cheering every time McGregor opened his mouth. Ya’ know, Irish flags waving back and forth under the Las Vegas lamps as the jib bobbed and weaved to stay in tune. Comes in handy for slick promotional packages like this. Most of the attendees came for hero worship and nothing else; they don't care about journalism or getting to the bottom of whatever story is currently generating the most clicks. At the same time, it felt a little unsettling to hear people booing when somewhere on the other side of the world, a person is recovering from sexual assault.

That brings us to McGregor. I know it’s easy to sit here and say, “If I was innocent, I would be shouting it from the rooftops,” because I’m not in the hot seat and I don’t have a team of attorneys or UFC specialists telling me to keep my mouth shut. Nor do I have millions of dollars to protect from a lawsuit that may or may not be credible. What I do know is that McGregor — who already denied the accusations last November — has not been arrested nor charged with a crime and is entitled to due process. He’s not obligated to answer questions from the media and I can only imagine how terrible it must feel to believe you are innocent, only to have the world brand you as the biggest piece of shit in combat sports (and it’s happened before). I would say it’s probably as painful as watching a person you believe sexually assaulted you getting paraded around “Sin City” while fans and media lick his boots. None of us know what factually happened nor should we pretend to, so I guess we must instead attempt to locate that hazy middle ground where we temper our damnation of the accused without abandoning our empathy for the victim. From what I’ve seen over the last few days, this industry remains ill-equipped for the job.

That’s why I’m also giving a pass to longtime media personality Ariel Helwani, who dutifully mentioned the sexual assault allegations during his protracted sit down with McGregor for ESPN. I’m not sure why anyone with any understanding of how this industry works can lambaste Helwani for lobbing softballs. He works for ESPN, the same network that recently signed a multi-million dollar broadcast deal to televise/stream live UFC events. Damaging the marketability of the sport’s biggest star is self sabotage and no executive on either side is going to sign off on anything but what we got. Helwani broached it, McGregor stumbled his way across the finish line, and now White has a hill to die on when surrounded by the nosy, advancing reporters still digging for a tweetable take. The few who exist are likely operating outside of MMA because our homegrown talent is only as good as the line they won’t cross in fear of losing their UFC credentials. That’s a dangerous power to give a promotion but also stands as one of the many rewards reaped from building an entire industry from scratch. Yes, I understand other combat sports organizations existed before modern-day UFC, many of them profitable, but the winners write the history books and most MMA fans don’t have the attention span to actually read (kudos if you made it this far).

Allegations of sexual assault carry an emotional weight that most other accusations do not. It leads to impassioned voices in both directions, voices that now have a global audience through the power of social media. When you feel a certain way about something that reaches your core, there’s really no one who can say that you’re wrong or right, particularly in lieu of so many critical facts. If you're angry that McGregor has been vilified prematurely, you can probably make a pretty good case for why. If you’re anguishing over the way the victims have been trampled by the UFC hype machine, I’m not sure an argument exists that can (or should) change your mind. We’re all right, we’re all wrong, and we all have our respective reasons. I just hope the truth, if and when it ever comes out, can serve as the great equalizer. There are lessons to be learned here and as a collective, we all have a responsibility to pay attention.