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You’re reading this, so suffice to say, we are all MMA fans and frankly, I think this sport breeds a different kind of fan. Now, the nature of professional prizefighting is a little bit different; you don’t just get to sit down on a Sunday and watch 10 football games. There’s something unique about being a quote-unquote “MMA fan.” It decides your day. When you wake up, you hit your favorite site to peruse the news. Then, since you never know when news is going to break, what fight might be announced, who is going to fail a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency test, you’re constantly refreshing your browser.
That said, there is a bit of an insidious nature to loving this sport. Instead of actually caring about the fights, we end up entranced and obsessing over the most deleterious elements that MMA has to offer. I know that you know exactly what I’m talking about and it requires minimal explication. Yes, in a sane and rational world, the Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor beef would have been done in October, when the Dagestan native smashed “The Notorious” one. But, no, there’s never a limit to McGregor being a monster emblematic of MMA, and more specifically, the most base instincts of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
And, so here we are. “Scurrying rats,” “your wife is a towel,” and “Rapist, you are Rapist.”
This isn’t a hand wringing treatise. Again, part of what makes combat sports so unique, enduring and popular -- whether or not we want to concede to it -- is the simple fact that trash talk simply goes to another level. I don’t think I am unique in admitting that part of what grasped me about this sport is that, as a kid who grew up loving professional wrestling, it was like “sports entertainment” was made real. Yes, the fundamental question of MMA is “Who is the best fighter?”, but at the same time, the trappings and theatrics surrounding that question are muddied and often ugly. It is a different essay entirely to point out that fighters are “independent contractors,” but regardless of how you feel about labor unions, it is an essential piece of understanding the fighting landscape. Whether you fight in a cage, box in a ring, or do shooting star presses from the top rope, you’re on your own and if you want to make a living in any one of these pursuits, it is incumbent upon you to make a name for yourself, even if it means stooping to the lowest common denominator and just being downright offensive.
This is not some new, fundamental piece of the fight game that the UFC manufactured. The most beloved prizefighter, the world over, is Muhammad Ali. He is the same fighter who called both Floyd Patterson and Joe Frazier an “Uncle Tom,” not privately or on some secretly recorded video, but rather in public. And repeatedly. And he relished it. Yes, it’s fair to say that our cultural sensitivities are different in the modern era of the western world, and certainly more concerned with demonstrating a tacit respect for other people’s world views, but that is precisely what makes it such a seductive device in a sporting environment where athletes, who are allegedly put in the spotlight by their promoters, suddenly recognize that they have to be out for themselves to get ahead.
Jon Jones has fought three times in a little less than the last three years, all while being a morally reprehensible individual and testing positive for performance enhancing drugs, with all due respect to the phraseology of “pulsing.” Does it make anyone want to see him less? No, and in fact, his last fight against Anthony Smith, a complete unknown to the buying public, did anywhere between 520,000 and 650,000 buys on pay-per-view, which doesn’t even account for global sales and viewership, during an era that the UFC is actively trying to de-emphasize the PPV model. Do you think it’s by mistake or welcome happenstance that the UFC put his former junior college roommate in the oval office with Donald Trump? More importantly, do you think Covington would have gotten an opportunity with the President of the United States if he didn’t wear a “Make America Great Again” hat and go out of his way to be such a caustic personality?
During the pre-“Ultimate Fighter” boom, one of the common charges levied against the UFC was that the company didn’t promote its fighters, it promoted its own brand. Even if your parents still call it “The Ultimate Fighting Challenge” or something similarly silly, everyone knows those three letters: U-F-C. But, in many ways, the promotion has been a victim of its own success: the UFC isn’t some low-key, clandestine, underground fighting circuit in the minds of the public any more. It’s a sport. It is on ESPN. It’s on the television at any bar you walk into in North America. There is just about 40 cards per year and 13 fights per card is the standard. That’s around 500 fights in a calendar year. Unsurprisingly, along the way, the UFC has outsourced the “star making” process to its own athletes. In fact, at this point in the game, when the promotion tries to handpick future stars, it tends to fail, hence why “Sage and Paige” will forever be linked in infamy. But, the minute the UFC can get lightning in a bottle, it will try to capitalize, no matter how antisocial the particulars are.
So, when UFC President Dana White says that the Nurmagomedov-McGregor situation “has escalated to a level that is unacceptable,” sure, it’s “unacceptable” in a general sociocultural sort of way. Certainly, you wouldn’t call a co-worker a rapist, nor would you call their wife a towel. It is disparaging, spiteful and downright hateful. Yet, these are the ticket-selling tenets that professional prizefighting has been built on for a century. It doesn’t make it “right” to say the least, but it is certainly never surprising. Should an athlete’s family, ethnicity and religious persuasion be off limits, subject to reprimand if infringed upon? Yes, of course, in a just and virtuous world.
But that isn’t this sport, and certainly not the sport that the UFC has weaponized and exacerbated the worst traits of. No thoughtful, conscientious person could evaluate the Nurmagomedov-McGregor drama and think it was “righteous” in any way whatsoever, but it is an evil we all tolerate because we love this sport, even at its most debased and debauched. It is the cross we bear: we are here to figure out who the best fighter is and someone else is here to sell us a ticket, whatever that ugly fashion that may take. We may shake our heads and wish for something better, but inevitably, we still open our wallets, wondering what may happen inside the Colosseum.