This Saturday sees UFC superstar, ‘The Notorious’ Conor McGregor, return to the cage for the first time since 2018 to face fan favourite, Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone.

As their nicknames suggest, both fighters have built on their successes inside the Octagon by being larger than life characters outside of it, none more so than Irishman McGregor. An unorthodox mixed martial artist who burst on to the world stage following his 13-second knockout of UFC great Jose Aldo in 2015, ‘The Notorious’ was arguably the first UFC fighter to transcend the sport. New fans were attracted to the sport, drawn to McGregor’s brash character and controversial yet compelling trash-talking, as much as for his skills in the cage.   

The UFC’s Indispensable Cash Cow

As his brand has continued to grow, McGregor has become an almost invaluable asset to the UFC. In spite of incidents outside the Octagon that include shattering the window of a full coach with a metal dolly, attacking a referee at a Bellator MMA event, and assaulting a man in a Dublin bar whilst touting his whiskey, McGregor’s stock has continued to rise, in part because of his antics outside the cage. Whilst other UFC fighters might have faced lengthy bans, UFC president Dana White knows the same treatment can’t be applied to the organisation’s star fighter. McGregor is the only UFC fighter to appear on the Forbes Highest Paid Athletes 2019, ranked at #21 – in a field made up of athletes who compete in sports with far higher revenues – so losing him would have huge financial implications for the rightsholder. To put it into perspective, McGregor made more money from losing a boxing match with Floyd “Money” Mayweather in 2017 than the combined net worth of the next five richest UFC fighters.  McGregor famously said that he wasn’t here to take part, he was here to take over, and take over he has. Fans tune in, intrigued by what McGregor will say or do next, with his controversial past leaving people compelled to keep watching.

And it’s no new concept.

In Boxing, UFC’s primetime forebearer, trash-talk has been a staple part of the build-up to fights, big and small, with Mohammed Ali taking this to the next level. ‘The Louisville Lip’, as the media dubbed Ali, would customarily court controversy with hyperbolic comments about his own greatness or by throwing shade on one of his upcoming opponents.

In combat sports like these, there’s definitely an argument that this aggressive behaviour is part of the fight-night persona coming out. Whether knowingly nurtured or not, there’s little doubt that controversy like this sells seats, and, more importantly, pay-per-view passes. It’s clear that since the first major PPV event back in 1981, when Sugar Ray Leonard beat Thomas ‘Hitman’ Hearns, the build-up sell has become more important than ever.

Controversy Beyond Combat

Indeed, the deliberate cultivation (or curation) of controversy isn’t restricted to sports like UFC and Boxing, with every sport having their own characters and flashpoints to build buzz, audiences and – critically – commercial value.

What would the Premier League be like without Eric Cantona? A mercurial mastermind on the pitch, with a caution from not just the ref, but the police under his belt. Naturally controversial par excellence, for sure, but his subsequent work with brands has seen him play on this persona to sell boots and beer alike.

Former Liverpool striker Luis Suarez – known as much for biting defenders as beating them – had his ‘overly competitive’ nature harnessed by Uruguayan business Abitab.

Tennis wouldn’t be the same sport if it hadn’t harnessed the controversial behaviour of some of its icons, whether McEnroe’s tantrums, Kyrgios’ meltdowns or Serena’s (relatively recent) spat with umpire Carlos Ramos. Not forgetting the infamous ‘Battle of the Sexes’ exhibition match between (knowingly?) controversial showman Bobby Riggs and staunch advocate of equal prize money for women, Billie Jean King. While Riggs’ wilful chauvinism stoked the fire, King’s victory – and the 50 million viewers who tuned in to watch it – sparked significant change for the sport.

Even Golf – another sport where traditional and etiquette rule has seen declining audiences return thanks to controversial characters like Patrick Reed (whose rap-sheet includes allegations of cheating and a ban for his caddie for shoving a spectator at The Presidents Cup 2019) and a resurgent Tiger Woods attract new (and old) eyeballs. This was evident when television coverage of Woods’ comeback to win the 2019 Masters Tournament was the most-watched Masters  since Woods’ second victory at the tournament back in 2001.

Controversial Athletes Are Here To Stay

Whatever you make of the arrogant demeanour, or questionable views of athletes such as Conor McGregor, controversial athletes may well continue to play a key role in growing sports, both financially and by attracting new fans. Most recently, McGregor’s brand has become the blueprint for other fighters, such as Colby Covington, who has described himself as the “super villain” of the UFC. Covington’s deliberately inflammatory statements – such as calling a Brazilian crowd in Sao Paolo “filthy animals” whilst wearing a MAGA in support of Donald Trump – highlight how other athletes have cottoned on to the fact that using controversy, whether being genuine or not, can increase their stock.

Indeed, Covington later took part in arguably the biggest UFC title fight of 2019, walking away with a healthy payday for himself, whilst swelling the coffers of the sport.

Many sporting purists would argue that how the athlete performs is all that should matter. However, with the lines between sport, culture and entertainment more blurred than ever, an athlete’s brand is now built just as much on their character when not competing as it is on how they throw a punch or drive off a tee.

Controversial characters like Conor McGregor divide opinion yet even those who hate ‘The Notorious’ will probably tune in this Saturday to see what happens, whether it’s inside or outside of the cage.

Love them or hate them, fans can’t ignore them. Brands – and the sports themselves – are banking on it.

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