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Suspended Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight titleholder Khabib Nurmagomedov and a certain interim Twitter champion did their best last week to fill the void of the first mixed martial artless weekend since January. Not much of a surprise with Artem Lobov making headlines at the Bareknuckle thing. “The Russian Hammer” is our sport’s Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand fists … and the occasional dolly.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably well aware of the timeline: Conor McGregor called Nurmagomedov’s wife a towel -- not the first anti-Muslim insult to come out of his team -- and “The Eagle” responded by calling McGregor a rapist. McGregor deleted the towel tweet and called for a rematch; Nurmagomedov kept the rape tweet up and warned McGregor that he isn’t safe.
As Sherdog columnist Jordan Breen pointed out, this is in many ways the fight game as usual. Prizefighters often have to take it upon themselves to get a chance to fight for the biggest prize, which has resulted in a long history of line-crossing done in the name of promotion. Yet this latest flareup between McGregor and Nurmagomedov has reached an ugliness that is incommensurate with regular rematch buildup: “Rapist vs. Terrorist for the lightweight championship” doesn’t seem like a promotional angle ESPN will want to throw its weight behind.
We’ve reached a point of liminal darkness, one that stretches beyond bad public relations. A lot of people have compared this to the escalation that led to the murders of Biggie and Tupac, and the comparison fits. There’s a similarly ominous air, a combination of authenticity-driven ego and publicity that prevents cooler heads from prevailing. Opponent’s family members have been weaponized, and the violence has already spilled out of the accepted arena of entertainment.
However, another analogy struck me, one that I haven’t been able to shake. At the risk of sounding overdramatic, this reminds me of Eri Hotta’s account of how Japan reluctantly stumbled into war with America in World War II. Of course, this is not to draw any kind of comparisons in gravity or consequence: I’m aware that two dudes beefing is not the same as international armed conflict that ended in nuclear attacks on civilian populations. Still, human folly can scale up and down in significance without compromising its essential shape. As political scientist Richard Ned Lebow has posited, the vast majority of interstate wars have been the consequence of individual needs and desires projected onto government institutions. Indeed, the heart of both interpersonal and international conflict often beats with the same idiot humanity.
In the 1930s and 1940s, it is well-documented that the military leaders of Imperial Japan, as well as Emperor Hirohito himself, found war with America to be a losing proposition. The Japanese government understood that U.S. industrial output was 74 times greater than their own and that they imported 90 percent of their petroleum from America. In a sane world, these facts alone should have prevented Pearl Harbor, to say nothing of Japan’s ongoing military quagmires in Manchuria, China and Southeast Asia. As Hotta writes, however, military leaders and policymakers needed to save face and begrudgingly waded closer and closer to war while waiting for someone else to stop it. As a result, they became prisoners of their own posturing. Emperor Hirohito expressed serious doubts about conflict with America in private, and military leaders hoped that his misgivings would give them a face-saving way out of an unwinnable war. Instead, at an Imperial Conference three months before Pearl Harbor, when a timetable for potential military mobilization was to be deliberated, Hirohito did not outright object to war. He simply recited a poem about international brotherhood and the pointlessness of war, hoping its subtleties would leave an impression on policymakers. It didn’t.
In the same way, it seems that neither McGregor nor Nurmagomedov really want their feud to escalate into the lose-lose proposition it’s slowly becoming. Surely, they are both aware that a for-profit fight in the cage is exponentially preferable to a back-alley rendezvous and that their twitter banter is jeopardizing the possibility of a rematch. Yet neither wants to back down for fear of public backlash. They, too, are becoming prisoners of their posturing, waiting for someone else to intervene. It’s unlikely that two young and wildly successful fighters will back down, so UFC President Dana White needs to get involved -- and I mean actually involved, not empty poetry reading about things becoming “unacceptable.”
I feel alarmist and not just because I’m drawing grave comparisons between the UFC and World War II. After McGregor and Nurmagomedov fought at UFC 229 in October, I didn’t think much about the post-fight brawl. If anything, I was alarmed that I didn’t feel more alarmed. However, this feud has escalated in a particular way, and it no longer seems like “boys will be boys” of fight promotion. It doesn’t feel quite real, but it doesn’t feel like mere entertainment, either. We live in such deliriously weird times, so it’s hard to parse out these things. Kids are being drugged and put in cages, and sociopathic shooting sprees are live-streamed on social media. The fact that you’re reading this is because you and I both enjoy watching people beat the s--- out of each other. If you haven’t taken a moment to grapple with the ethics of our mutually beloved pastime, you’re fooling yourself.
The beef between McGregor and Nurmagomedov may or may not escalate into something truly grotesque, but we shouldn’t wait to find out. These things can happen; they have happened; and they will almost certainly happen again. What makes all human folly tragic, no matter how acute or widespread its fallout, is how preventable it almost always is.
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.