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Sherdog.com columnist Todd Martin a few weeks ago took on the difficult task of tackling Fabricio Werdum’s homophobic remarks toward Tony Ferguson during a promotional stop ahead of their respective bouts at UFC 216. Unfortunately, the sport of mixed martial arts finds its way back into this uncomfortable space. Reigning Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight titleholder Conor McGregor on Saturday dropped the infamous f-bomb multiple times to his teammate Artem Lobov in the immediate aftermath of his decision loss to Andre Fili at UFC Fight Night 118 in Gdansk, Poland.
For the record, I’d rather not spend time dissecting this issue. As someone who covers the sport, I’d prefer to simply opine about MMA in ways directly related to the action on fight night. However, this is something that should not be swept under the rug and needs to be addressed as often as these instances occur.
While it’s not surprising that alpha males competing at the highest levels of an alpha male dominated sport would stick to using outdated and offensive language associated with stereotypical alpha male ideals of sexuality, masculinity and machismo in a moment of heightened emotion, it certainly is disappointing. This is especially true when considering McGregor publicly lent his platform in support of gay marriage in his native Ireland. It’s even more disappointing and less surprising that a large number of fan responses have been supportive of McGregor’s remarks. Although the comment sections in many articles, forums and social media posts are far from havens of forward thinking and intelligence, this time around they were more of a disgusting dumpster fire than usual.
McGregor is no stranger to this negative spotlight. While his trash talk has been entertaining and a big part of the fame and fortune he enjoys today, the world promotional tour for his bout with boxing champion Floyd Mayweather set a low mark for the hyperbolic insults that accompany pre-fight talk. The racial and homophobic undertones from both men in the over-the-top circus-type presentation were certainly not missed by a worldwide audience and sparked a good deal of debate and conjecture in many mediums as the cringe-worthiness ramped up with each stop on the tour.
This is far from new territory for the UFC. Aside from the aforementioned verbal altercation between Werdum and Ferguson, we’ve seen names like middleweight champion Michael Bisping and UFC President Dana White come under fire for similar statements. To once again refer to my esteemed colleague, the bottom line is we should do better as a sport. Despite the overly simplistic thought process which seems to be popular among a good segment of observers, these are not just words. They are representative of the pain and struggle fellow human beings endure on the road to achieving equality.
Can the MMA community remember a time when fans, fighters and media wanted to be accepted by the overall sporting community? Remember when boxing promoters like Bob Arum dismissed MMA as a gathering place for “white skinheads” and “guys rolling on the ground like homosexuals?” The very same bigoted and close-minded ideas were used to cast our sport in a negative light and keep us away from the mainstream acceptance and respect that was necessary to elevate it. Why would we so willingly and casually dismiss the hurtfulness and exclusion to which this sort of thinking leads?
Now that MMA has been thrust into the collective consciousness of the sports world, it’s even more important that we do our best to limit these displays of ignorance and bigotry. With the UFC’s ongoing negotiations for a new TV deal, any unflattering portraits of the sport could do serious harm. Comments like McGregor’s are exactly what the UFC should be cracking down on for the sake of future business, if human decency isn’t a compelling enough of an argument. One of the repeated defenses of his words to Lobov was that this took place in a private conversation. This does not excuse his choice of words, and while McGregor was speaking to his defeated teammate, it’s a lazy and meritless argument. This so-called private conversation was held between the sport’s best-known fighter and another fighter backstage at a UFC event, with cameramen documenting what was going on. Assuming privacy in this situation is laughable.
The sport is also uncomfortably close to the real-life consequences of hatred from which it should be attempting to create further distance. Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, continues his crusade to rid his population of homosexuals while simultaneously becoming a more influential figure in the global MMA scene. He has been widely reported to wine and dine numerous UFC fighters, Werdum included, while promoting his own events with Akhamt Fight Club. Just as recently as UFC 216, prized entourage member and AFC alum Magomed Bibulatov competed under the UFC banner. The promotion’s turning a blind eye to these human rights violations while doing little to nothing in response to bigoted remarks is not consistent with the basic public relations needed for any brand to expand and thrive.
Everyone has the right to use whatever language they want. That includes racist, homophobic, sexist and hateful words. Free speech is an important component of a free and progressive society. However, as a collective, the MMA world must look at who we are, what we want to be and what we are becoming. Would we like for our sport to continue to fight for the scraps left by the NFL and whatever coverage ESPN can spare across its on-screen ticker? Would we like the fighters to continue to fight for small purses that are not representative of what they risk in the cage?
Mixed martial arts will likely never reach White’s goal of being bigger than soccer due to the visceral nature of the violence and rogue nature of many personalities. However, more incidents will only push that divide further as potential fans, sponsors and corporate partners are turned off by the hear-no-evil- see-no-evil approach to misguided ignorance (McGregor) and actual evil (Kadyrov). This will limit the reach and success anyone in the sport can hope to enjoy.
This isn’t a change that will affect the fights themselves, nor is it an artificial attempt to change the perception of the action -- i.e. spray painting over blood stains on Fox. Vigilance in this matter will do no harm to the final product or its presentation. Instead, it will serve to boost the overall image and profile of MMA at a crucial time. If our community is content with the current status of the sport and revenue it draws, which is directly reflected in fighter pay, then the status quo will do. If we want better, we must be better.