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A press conference last week in Los Angeles was supposed to promote the Tony Ferguson-Kevin Lee and Fabricio Werdum-Derrick Lewis fights at UFC 216. That it ended up doing more to build Ferguson-Werdum was bad enough. However, the capper was the controversy that has ensued since over Werdum’s repeated use of a Spanish homophobic slur. UFC 216 on Saturday needs all the help it can get, and Werdum did the promotion no favors by bringing about such an undesired narrative.
Make no mistake: Werdum deserves the criticism he has received for his words. There is no shortage of inflammatory and fun to use Spanish expletives that roll off the tongue without insulting any specific group of people. Moreover, Werdum’s use of the word recently against Daniel Cormier came off even worse given the context there and Werdum’s “apology” left a lot to be desired. With that said, MMA is never going to be a genteel sport. No amount of hand wringing is going to change that, and its rogue nature is part of its charm.
The buildup to Conor McGregor’s megafight with Floyd Mayweather in August was a high-water mark for outrage directed at fight promotion. Media members from coast to coast with no interest in or knowledge of fighting watched a few minutes of the media tour and decried it as practically the fall of western civilization. One particularly sanctimonious sportswriter took to morally chastising anyone who would dare order the event, as if they were sending money to a tin-pot dictator who massacres his own people. McGregor was pilloried as a racist for his comments about Mayweather, who was so offended he commissioned a massive painting of the Irishman to be hung in his home.
What Mayweather gets and why he appreciated McGregor so much is that trash talk sells fights. If MMA ever develops a culture where fighters bite their tongues to avoid saying anything that might potentially offend someone else, the popularity of the sport will suffer. This isn’t a team sport where there is a lasting connection to city and team. Each generation of fighters needs to attract its own audience. Personal issues help to build fights in a major way.
Trash talking by its nature is nasty. You don’t convince the audience you hate your opponent if you pull back to avoid offending others, and if you really hate your opponent, it’s desirable to give offense. There are always going to be comments that cross the line, but if fighters aren’t dancing around that line, the build won’t be nearly as strong if they stay safely away from approaching it. The occasional crossing of that line is the price that is paid for the excitement of the promotion.
The Diaz brothers are the perfect example of this. Nick Diaz and Nate Diaz are beloved by many for their attitudes. They say what’s on their minds and don’t shy away from controversy. Just like Mayweather knew McGregor was a great opponent to sell a fight, so too did McGregor see the merits in his fights with the younger Diaz. Georges St. Pierre saw the same money in the older Diaz and targeted him for that reason. That led to Diaz memorably creating interest in the match by expressing his disgust that St. Pierre was faking a personal issue to sell the fight.
Unfortunately, the flipside of this is at times wild and unhinged behavior, like the elder Diaz’s hospital brawl with Joe Riggs and the assault on Jayson Miller on national television. That’s in addition to the skipped flights, failed drug tests and chaotic press conferences. If you want a sport with iconoclasts and outlaws -- and I certainly do -- you have to accept they’re going to sometimes do things that you don’t like or approve of. The safer the sport, the less exciting it becomes.
The calculus would be different were MMA a sport with a closed, homogenous community unreceptive to outsiders. In that case, there would be a more insidious subtext to insensitive remarks. It’s just that isn’t mixed martial arts. MMA is a sport with champions who are black and white, American and European, Brazilian and Pacific Islander. Women compete on the same events with men, and women’s main events often draw more interest than men’s main events. There are many out fighters and it’s pretty much a non-story.
This is certainly not to suggest MMA is some sort of utopia. Werdum’s remarks obviously illustrate otherwise, and African-American fighters in particular have voiced valid concerns at times with the way they are treated. However, this is a global sport with fans and fighters from all sorts of different backgrounds in a big, messy mix. It’s way too diverse to be a good home for the genuinely intolerant. Individuals should be confronted when they do the wrong thing, but there isn’t some larger war that needs to be fought.
Ultimately, MMA benefits from a culture of boisterous personalities who are outspoken and politically incorrect. We can and should call them out when they say and do things that are beyond the pale, but in the process it would be counterproductive to try to root out the zealous confidence that feeds both their good and bad instincts. It wouldn’t work, either.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.