Getty Images

What a long, strange trip it has been to International Fight Week, Conor McGregor's never-ending return and the two-week fire drill that was the chase to save UFC 303.

For a promotion which used its recent Roku documentary series, "Inside the UFC," as a public victory lap surrounding its ability to deal with the last-minute stresses of matchmaking and cancellations, UFC brass can certainly pat itself on the back, once again, for how it turned lemons into lemonade by replacing both the main and co-main event of UFC 303 -- along with repairing next week's main event for its debut in Saudi Arabia after Khamzat Chimaev fell ill -- as the rest of the MMA world sat in the dark about what the truth really was.   

Now, nearly two weeks after a McGregor press conference with Michael Chandler in Dublin, Ireland, was canceled in the 11th hour without any explanation at all in terms of the reason why, what we do seem to think we know is that an unspecified injury suffered just days before the event by McGregor is what led to his ultimate withdrawal, with hope that the fight, which would mark the return of the UFC's biggest star in history for the first time since 2021, will get rescheduled in the fall. 

UFC, however, has yet to actually comment on the injury, what part of McGregor's body it affected or whether any of the knee-jerk conspiracy theories being tossed around -- including the debate over if this was actually a contract dispute, and not an injury at all, that was unable to save the promotion's biggest summer blockbuster -- might actually be true. 

Business as usual for UFC in 2024 includes not just an aversion to the media by CEO Dana White but an admitted hatred for those whose job it is to report upon the company's day-to-day business developments. But UFC's unprecedented silence over the past two weeks, while fans who helped pay the exorbitant ticket prices to help make UFC 303 the largest gate in company history waited anxiously to see whether their non-refundable airline tickets and hotel stays might be heading toward disaster, felt like an all-together new low of bush league behavior for a brand whose behavior doesn't quite match up with its boast of making MMA a "Big 4" sport in the eyes of the general public.    

And if you're wondering, just two months after UFC was barely able to salvage a main event for its landmark UFC 300 card by calling two-division champion Alex Pereira to save the day at the last minute, whether a pattern is developing here, you wouldn't be far off.

White and company went to the bullpen once more to call on Pereira to save UFC 303, as he sets to defend his 205-pound title in a rematch with former champion Jiri Prochazka. A Brian Ortega-Diego Lopes featherweight clash will also replace the co-main event after Jamahal Hill, who helped save UFC 300 by fighting Pereira, pulled out with an injury after his own original opponent, Khail Rountree Jr., had already done the same. 

For as successful as UFC has become, setting record financial numbers year over year on an annual basis, why has it become so hard for it to keep the pipeline of superstar, headlining fighters fresh and on the ready? And why has the promotion been so cryptic and clandestine in its own dissemination of information which affects, not just the MMA news cycle, but the travel plans of its paying audience?

Crisis management has become the new norm for UFC. But the recent stretch of interlocking snafus have exposed a few curious issues with the current state of the brand that too few are debating amid the programmed discourse about less pertinent topics like whether it's too late for McGregor to recapture the magic of old or whether cageside mainstay Donald Trump's favorite fighter is actually Colby Covington or Sean Strickland.  

The answer for the issues regarding star power seem to play hand-in-hand with the difficulties in keeping advertised fights intact despite the unavoidable realities of injuries and happenstance. The modern UFC vehicle, which has been fueled since 2018 by a record output deal signed with ESPN, is much more of a faceless, content churning machine than star-making incubator of old. 

This UFC is much more focused on keeping up the minimum number of dates in order to satisfy the deal, which is why White was so brazen in how he successfully willed the product back onto the airwaves in 2020 amid the breakout of the pandemic. That's why UFC dipping back into its playbook of old to stage a press conference in Ireland to promote McGregor-Chandler felt so 2010, back when the company relied on breakthrough PPV stars like Ronda Rousey and Brock Lesnar to reach new corporate heights, felt so refreshing. 

If you think UFC has too many fight cards per year and not enough elite talent to populate the marquee, despite the fact that ticket prices and live gate records seem to rise on a monthly basis, you are probably right. And even though McGregor hasn't even been active enough this decade to really consider him still an active fighter, the promotion's change in going away from its commitment to build crossover stars is catching up with them, creating a myth to the general public of how badly -- similar to Tiger Woods' relationship to golf -- that the UFC still relies on McGregor to stay afloat. 

The McGregor era appears, sadly, to be over, regardless of whether he actually returns to fight Chandler later this year. But his curious and still fully unexplained exit from UFC 303 has exposed how badly the UFC needs to refocus its efforts -- away from things like Power Slap and politically laced walkouts -- to focus on actually feeding the monster it worked so hard to create.