The Mac is not back

The mystery surrounding Conor McGregor’s failed UFC return – and what comes next

Conor McGregor vs Michael Chandler has been postponed indefinitely, 16 months after it was first announced. As Alex Pattle writes, fans’ disappointment might have finally dwarfed their hunger to witness the UFC’s ‘main character’ fight again

Friday 14 June 2024 10:25
Conor McGregor ahead of his last win, a 40-second TKO of Donald Cerrone in 2020
Conor McGregor ahead of his last win, a 40-second TKO of Donald Cerrone in 2020 (Getty Images)

Conor McGregor was going to fight Michael Chandler on 29 June. Then there was a chance he would not. Then there was a real chance he wouldn’t. Then no one had a clue. Then the fight was going ahead. Now, it is certain: The bout is off indefinitely.

The decisive factors in the ‘will-they-won’t-they?’ of McGregor vs Chandler, a fight 18 months in the making, have been kept behind closed doors, which only increased the rampant speculation over the fate of the UFC 303 main event. When a pre-fight press conference was cancelled just hours in advance on 3 June, with no explanation given by the UFC, McGregor vaguely hinted at “obstacles outside of our control”. And so, the rumour mill started.

The most sensible theory is that McGregor sustained an injury on 2 June, required a check-up on 3 June, and found out in the ensuing days that the issue was a minor one, only for the injury to be aggravated in the time since. That would line up with the contours of this month’s emotional rollercoaster. But again: That is speculation.

McGregor had never before withdrawn from a fight due to injury; in fact, he has fought injured more than once. He had withdrawn from a press conference before, ahead of his high-stakes rematch and win against Nate Diaz in 2016, but when he has been contracted to fight, he has fought. That was always McGregor’s personal rule, but as journalist Ariel Helwani noted, the Irishman is well within his right to relax the rule – especially now that he is older, at 35, and preparing to return from a devastating injury. And he has relaxed his rule after all.

McGregor sustained a broken leg in his last fight, a second straight loss to Dustin Poirier in July 2021, six months after the American knocked out “Notorious” / “The Mac” / the UFC’s main character. McGregor’s comeback has therefore been three years in the making, and his match-up with Chandler was even announced in February 2023. The Irishman and the American went on to serve as opposing coaches on last year’s season of The Ultimate Fighter (Chandler’s team of athletes beat McGregor’s comfortably along the way), but the show’s usual conclusion of a coach vs coach fight was missing.

McGregor facing off with Michael Chandler on the set of ‘The Ultimate Fighter'
McGregor facing off with Michael Chandler on the set of ‘The Ultimate Fighter' (@TheNotoriousMMA via Twitter)

In fact, McGregor vs Chandler was without a date, location and weight class until April 2024, when UFC president Dana White confirmed – while reading from a small slip of paper – that the bout would headline UFC 303 at Las Vegas’s T-Mobile Arena on 29 June. Five rounds were scheduled at welterweight, above each man’s typical weight class(es) but a division in which McGregor has the greater experience.

It was a bafflingly low-key announcement, with significantly more fanfare typically accompanying McGregor fight reveals. One month later, at UFC 301, a short but chilling teaser video aired. That, surely, should have been the initial announcement. In any case, the fight was official, the promotion had started, and the final stretch of road to McGregor vs Chandler had been paved. It had been a complicated enough journey up to that point, but it was about to get more convoluted.

Despite/due to setting stupendously high ticket prices for UFC 303, the card quickly broke the UFC’s all-time gate record at around $20m, and a press conference was announced for 3 June in Dublin. McGregor, whose legal issues outside of the ring have strained his relationship with the Irish in recent years, had the perfect chance to reconnect with his compatriots.

Conor McGregor announces UFC return for 29 June

Tickets were free but required signing up, with about 10,000 fans expected to pack out the 3Arena. Then, in the early hours of the day of the press conference, the UFC cancelled the event with an apology but no explanation. McGregor offered the same.

Yet many fans had already booked flights, as has a significant portion of the audience expected at the T-Mobile Arena. That, of course, is not to mention the money spent on tickets for McGregor vs Chandler, which all of a sudden looked under real threat. ESPN+ seemingly pulled the link for its UFC 303 pay-per-view page, and the UFC removed its recently published YouTube videos of past McGregor fights. The signs were ominous.

Chandler hinted, in a cryptic Instagram post, that he had left his training camp in Florida to return home to Tennessee; McGregor shared a photo of himself smiling on a treatment table. The caption was simply a flexing arm emoji. The next day, he posted a series of sparring videos – seemingly new footage. The UFC re-uploaded its YouTube videos, and hope was renewed.

Had McGregor been leaning into the confusion and exasperation around this episode? Was the master of self-promotion masterfully self-promoting? Maybe drop the ‘masterfully’.

McGregor suffered a broken leg in his last fight, a defeat three years ago
McGregor suffered a broken leg in his last fight, a defeat three years ago (Getty Images)

This latest delay has put a considerable dent in the hype. On 13 June, the UFC confirmed at last that McGregor is injured, and his fight with Chandler has been postponed indefinitely. A new main event was announced for UFC 303 – one involving neither McGregor nor Chandler.

McGregor is 35 and has not fought in three years; Chandler is 38 and last fought in November 2022, losing to Poirier. How either man will perform if they eventually share a cage, no one knows. Whether either man will fight again thereafter, no one knows.

McGregor has lost several years of his prime, and Chandler has given up a glimmer of the twilight of his career to the Irishman, perhaps in vain. Has this saga been worth it? Maybe we will only know once the fight has played out, if it ever plays out. That is a major ‘if’.

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