The ultimate employer-employee relationship lessons from mixed martial arts

On December 12th 2015, sports fans from around the world tuned in to watch the biggest fight in mixed martial arts history between Conor McGregor and Jose Aldo. The precocious Irishman with a reputation for trash-tralking versus a man unbeaten for over ten years and the only ever champion at Featherweight the UFC has had since its inception.

The result if you don’t already know is that McGregor won by K.O. 16 seconds into the first round.

The outcome of the fight may have been decided in a few relatively short moments in the Octagon, but reaching the pinnacle of his sport was the result of significant time and effort expended by McGregor and the UFC. In many ways, Conor McGregor and the UFC have the perfect Employer-Employee relationship.

There are several lessons that companies can learn from by analyzing McGregor’s success.


McGregor has been coached by the same man, John Kavanagh for over ten year’s. That relationship of trust and care is something that can only be built over time. It is the perfect backdrop against which to prepare for future challenges and achieve success.

Lesson 1: Not all change is good change. Often employees value stability and flourish in a secure environment.

Learning and Development

You might think someone who has gone undefeated in his UFC career to date might be tempted to rely on the skillset that got him to where he is. However in the lead up to the Jose Aldo fight, Conor McGregor utilised renowned movement coach Ido Portal to improve his pre-fight preparation.

Lesson 2: Both employers and employees should always be open minded to new ways to develop and improve your skills. No matter how well you are performing there are always aspects of your “game” that can be advanced.


The UFC has worked extremely hard to reward Conor McGregor’s success and incentivise future achievements. From a financial point of view, the UFC pays fighters through payments for showing up to fights and for winning. There are additional payment for good performances – being part of the fight of the night for example. This is not unlike most regular companies paying a basic salary or a bonus.

However, the most popular fighters like McGregor also earn a % of the pay-per-view sales and the arena or stadium gate proceeds. This is a significant financial incentive to promote the fight and sell more tickets.

Lesson 3: Whilst financial reward is by no means that full story when it comes to motivating employees, nobody would deny it is an important factor. Designing a compensation structure that rewards performance or even ties an employees own financial upside with that of the company could be extremely beneficial for both sides. 

Recognise and Invest in Employee Potential

The UFC quickly identified McGregor as someone who they could build a significant part of the promotions business around. Not only because of his fighting skills, but his personality. In particular his ability to not handle the media but to engage them for the purposes of fight promotion and generating interest in the UFC as a whole. The UFC spent a large amount of money investing in McGregor’s social media profile – he has over a million Twitter followers for example. He has also made appearances on some of the best known TV shows in the US, all paid for by the UFC.

Lesson 4: Once you identify a high potential employee, invest in them. Recognise their unique skills and attributes and work out how your company can leverage these talents.     

Career Path

Having achieved success for himself and the UFC, McGregor has been given a free hand as to which direction he takes his career. He can remain in his current weight division or move up. The choice is his.

Lesson 5: Having options as to how to develop your career can be extremely empowering. Instilling the idea that success in your current role will be rewarded with autonomy over how you move up the company ladders is a powerful driver for employees.

Author: Richard Hanson

Richard Hanson is CEO and Co-Founder of Jobable, Asia's data-driven career platform, based in Hong Kong. Recognised by Asiamoney Magazine as one of the top headhunters in the Asia-ex Japan region, Richard is a well-known figure within the HR Technology space in Asia, making regular appearances at industry round tables and entrepreneurship events.

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