In Amy Tan’s classic short story “The Rules of the Game”, a young Chinese girl living in America, Mei-Mei, is taught how to get what she wants by her mother.
“Bite back your tongue,” scolded my mother when I cried loudly, yanking her hand toward the store that sold bags of salted plums. At home, she said, “Wise guy, he not go against wind. In Chinese we say, Come from South, blow with wind-poom!-North will follow. Strongest wind cannot be seen.”
This is how most people have been raised to behave. Be nice, quiet, and respectful; that’s how you get the salted plums you are after. Don’t show your hand, or be vocal or obnoxious about what you want. Most fighters ascribe to these rules. After a fight, they turn down the opportunity to call someone out. “I’ll fight whoever the company puts in front of me.” They respect their opponents. They don’t talk about their game plan. “I’m training to be ready no matter where the fight goes.” Independent contractors, they refer to their promoter as their boss.
“Wise guy, he not go against wind.”
Mei-Mei’s mother tells her that as an immigrant, she needs to learn the American rules, so those in power cannot use them against her. As the story unfolds, Mei-Mei learns to play chess at the local park with the savvy old street players and convinces her mother to let her into a local tournament. All else fades out of her consciousness, and she hears the wind her mother talked about in her head as she beats the middle-class boy in front of her.
“Blow from the South,” it murmured. “The wind leaves no trail.” I saw a clear path, the traps to avoid. The crowd rustled. “Shhh! Shhh!” said the corners of the room. The wind blew stronger. “Throw sand from the East to distract him.” The knight came forward ready for the sacrifice. The wind hissed, louder and louder. “Blow, blow, blow. He cannot see. He is blind now. Make him lean away from the wind so he is easier to knock down.”
Mei-Mei wins her first tournament and wins some more, each one further away from home. She becomes a celebrity in her community. Her mother begins giving her preferential treatment over her brothers. When her brothers complain, her mother tells them Mei-Mei is wringing out her head for chess, so they can wring out the towels. She no longer plays in the park; she comes straight home to practice after school. She makes the cover of Time Magazine and is on her way to becoming the first female Grand Master.
“We’re not just here to take part. We’re here to take over!”
Conor McGregor has understood from the beginning that the rules of sports entertainment, and self-promotion in general, differ from traditional social norms. He is loud, brash, disrespectful. He gets what he wants by asking for it, boldly. He isn’t afraid of being obnoxious. He calls out fighters, insults them. “My thoughts on Dennis Siver are, he’s a midget German steroid head.” He talks about his game plan and what he plans to do in a fight “I don’t just knock them out, I pick the round!” He refers to himself and the UFC on the same level constantly. “I’m speaking Spanish. I’m dressed like El Chapo in his prime. I’m running this company…. I’m up here verbally destroying this man. I am a multi-cultured individual.” And he does everything possible to set himself apart from other fighters that follow social norms:
“I am out on my own. I am in a league of my own. The game… the game is on its knees. The game must hold seminars every weekend to pay for the training costs, and I’m out here rallying around California in a car that spits fire, dressed like El Chapo, with anacondas on my feet.”
Back in our story, the only concession Mei-Mei must make is to be paraded around in public by her mother on Saturdays when she doesn’t have a tournament. “That my daughter”, her mother tells anyone who looks their way. However, one day Mei-Mei decides she is sick of this. She confronts her mother about it. Her mother does not take that well. Mei-Mei runs away, disappears for hours. When she finally returns home, her mother tells her brothers to ignore her. Mei-Mei goes to her room. She has violated the one rule of the game she couldn’t break.
Any time Conor McGregor talks, you will hear him mention “the game”. The fight game -not just what happens when the cage doors are locked, but everything that comes with navigating a career in prizefighting, from promoting fights, to experimenting with novel training methods- McGregor has always known exactly what he wants, and through application of his talent for loquacity -even more than his striking prowess- he has gotten nearly all of it. He recognizes that at the end of the day, what matters is the value that you can bring. In this industry, that value is entertainment value. The respectful, nice fighters on the roster, even the ones that have unparalleled skill like Demetrius Johnson, aren’t capturing the imagination of the public. McGregor does, and so he has been able to bend the rules that usually apply to the point that it often seems he is playing by his own set of rules.
Usually, those rules revolve around reciprocation of respect, and fighters view their career as a simple exchange of services. I fight, you pay me. McGregor knows this isn’t true, and because of his larger-than-life persona and his willingness to talk whenever a media opportunity presents itself, has gotten extraordinary concessions from the UFC. Other fighters aren’t treated the same way as Conor. He gets special treatment, like a world tour and the biggest disclosed payday in UFC history, because of what he brings to the table.
Until just recently, that is. Rumors of a rift between McGregor and UFC brass have been lurking beneath the surface for a while now, but now the drama is playing out in the open, right in public view. Despite being the company’s biggest active star, McGregor has had his rematch with Nate Diaz, the lynchpin of UFC 200, canceled, because he refused to leave his training camp for a half-hour press conference and some photoshoots. “It’s not fair to the other fighters”, Dana White maintained, ignoring the fact that Conor participating at UFC 200 would directly benefit those very fighters with added attention and eyes on them.
Conor’s reply on Twitter, and what most of the media at the press conference seemed to want Dana to understand, was that none of the other fighters generate the kind of income for the company that he does. While his $400 million figure may be overstated, it is a valid point.
The stance of Dana White is familiar to anyone who has ever held a job in the workplace and dealt with a boss who upheld senseless mandatory policies. The UFC maintain that they have spent ten million dollars promoting this fight, and already scheduled the photoshoots. Conor McGregor MUST show up. Never mind the wondrous technology of video chat, or the fact that they will lose money by taking this stance, or the fact that his retirement tweet garnered more retweets than Kobe Bryant’s retirement did last year. Conor McGregor violated the one rule of the game he couldn’t break.
Or has he? For once, the UFC may not have the upper hand. Conor may be out in the cold, pondering his next move in Iceland, but he has some advantages. For one thing, he doesn’t NEED to fight. He got more than ten million for his last fight, and that was on top of a 2015 that saw him headline two top PPVs, both of which he earned multi-million dollar checks for. Unlike many previous standoffs with fighters, the UFC doesn’t have any financial leverage. Conor actually has the leverage there. The UFC doesn’t NEED him to promote their fights, but he makes them more money than they pay him. Far more, even with his unprecedented pay. For another thing, other fighters are on his side. Nate Diaz punked Dana White hard at the press conference, waiting till he had the cameras in front of him to say he is either fighting Conor, or taking the weekend to vacation in Brazil. Rory Macdonald, who after his five-round war with Lawler last year appears to have realized this sport can take more than it gives if you let it, has tweeted his support for the Irishman, along with several other fighters.
Has Conor finally broken the one rule he couldn’t touch? Nate Diaz’s press conference statements were perhaps particularly barbed because his own brother was famously pulled from a title fight for skipping a press conference as well. While we are discussing the rules of the game, however, it is important to note the way Conor played it is different from the way Nick did. Nick just failed to show up. Conor got out in front of the UFC by tweeting his retirement and then defied the UFC openly. Which is worse in the company’s eye? Who knows, but compared to Nick, Conor comes off better in the public eye. He can make a reasonable case, and has. Moreover, it is worth noting that Diaz did end up headlining that card, and eventually got his title shot even off a loss. At the end of the day, money is money.
Who will we see headlining UFC 200? He tweeted he is back on the card, but Dana White has denied that, so apparently it was another power play by McGregor Promotions. What we can be certain of is that this fight, the one outside the cage, between Conor and his promotion company, is one we care about, because it’s a fight we can all relate to. The bone-headed boss against the frustrated worker. The establishment against the outsider. Man against the corporate machine. The lion against the wind.
“In my head, I saw a chessboard with sixty-four black and white squares. Opposite me was my opponent, two angry black slits. She wore a triumphant smile. “Strongest wind cannot be seen,” she said. Her black men advanced across the plane, slowly marching to each successive level as a single unit. My white pieces screamed as they scurried and fell off the board one by one. As her men drew closer to my edge, I felt myself growing light. I rose up into the air and flew out the window. Higher and higher, above the alley, over the tops of tiled roofs, where I was gathered up by the wind and pushed up toward the night sky until everything below me disappeared and I was alone. I closed my eyes and pondered my next move’”
Photo: MMA Weekly