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It turns out Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov weren’t exaggerating when they asserted, in the build up to their blockbuster fight at UFC 229, that there would be no shaking hands after all was said and done.
Rather than let the dust settle after the formal face punching had concluded on Saturday in Las Vegas, “The Eagle” kicked it up into a cyclone by scaling the cage and hulk jumping into the crowd to assault McGregor-lackey and Bellator MMA fighter Dillon Danis just moments after he’d forced “The Notorious” one to submit to a neck crank in the fourth round. From there, a number of other brawls broke out. McGregor took a swipe at one of Nurmagomedov’s cornermen as he surveyed the carnage from the top of the cage, only to be sucker-punched several times in retaliation by two different members of the Dagestani’s team.
For a minute there, as the camera pulled back on the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s official stream, the Octagon and the surrounding area resembled rolling waves, with an army of Nevada Athletic Commission officials and Nevada Metropolitan Police officers desperately attempting to contain the violence and the persons laboring to inflict it. By the time Nurmagomedov was announced as the winner by Bruce Buffer several minutes later, the Octagon had been completely cleared of the fighters and their camps; such was the fear of further hooliganism if the lightweight champion had been adorned with his title.
The melee and the fact that it book-ended the biggest night in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s history has already been the source of much keyboard mashing, moronic hot takes and the UFC’s predictable renunciation of responsibility for the delinquency. When questioned whether he had any regrets about how the fight was promoted, including using footage of McGregor committing criminal assault on a bus containing Nurmagomedov in April, UFC President Dana White repeatedly demurred, dismissing the suggestion the company had played an enabling role in the boiled-over acrimony. The bus-affair -- which White originally deemed “the most disgusting thing that has ever happened in the history of the company” -- was described simply as “part of the story.” Meanwhile, calculated verbal attacks by McGregor against Nurmagomedov’s father, his religion and long-simmering tensions between Dagestan and Chechnya were played down as “mean words.” The suggestion that the company may have suspended McGregor for his behavior back in April, which had been gradually escalating in seriousness and criminality since the Dubliner’s crossover boxing fight in August 2017, was similarly shut down. White seemed incapable of connecting the UFC’s permissive attitude towards his felonious antics and the likelihood someone on the opposing end of them might think it appropriate to return the favor.
None of this cognitive dissonance will be of any surprise to anyone who has followed the UFC for the past 10, five or even two years. While White has attempted to represent the brawl as an aberration -- he insisted “this is not what we do, this is now what we are about” at the post-fight press conference -- the truth is that its only distinguishing feature is that it happened in real time during an immensely popular UFC broadcast, rather than in a forum more amenable to PR-spin or, better yet, behind closed doors.
Surely, the assault orchestrated by McGregor in April, when he and his entourage jeopardized the safety not only of Nurmagomedov but women and UFC staff, too, is at least as morally culpable as the violence Nurmagomedov and his team perpetrated. In fact, given that McGregor had nine hours to reflect on the attack he was coordinating on the flight from Dublin to Brooklyn -- whereas Nurmagomedov and his ilk had mere seconds in the heat of the moment -- its arguable that McGregor was significantly more blameworthy than his Eastern counterpart. Yet in the week leading up to fight, White was gleefully providing commentary on footage of the attack on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” as excerpts of the tape played endlessly on UFC 229 promos across every conceivable medium. In light of this freewheeling approach, is it any wonder that Nurmagomedov seemed genuinely perplexed when he came under fire for simply emulating his adversary’s behavior? That he and his team seem not only unapologetic but convinced that their actions were justified, even righteous?
Other examples of the UFC’s lenient if not morally bankrupt behavior are numerous and provide ample context for why the company will find it hard to rationalize disciplining Nurmagomedov when the public furor over the episode has subsided.
Among these case studies would be the hear-no-evil-see-no-evil approach the company has taken to Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, who in between committing mass human rights abuses and purges of homosexual men, was spotted sitting cageside at the UFC’s event in Moscow last month. To the consternation of many in the MMA community, over recent years Kadyrov has used the sport and many of the star athletes in its orbit to shore up his legitimacy and popularity both domestically and within the Russian Federation; and his state-sponsored fight club Akhmat MMA is represented by no fewer than five fighters currently under contract with the UFC. At the same time that the promotion has taken transparent acts of retribution against members of its roster who were advocating for a fighters union, the UFC has consistently failed to comment on much less address the fact that its brand is being used to prop up a dictator -- a chilling demonstration of how low the promotion will stoop to pick up a blood-stained dollar.
The UFC’s conspicuous embrace of multiple-time domestic abuser Greg Hardy also gives a fair indication of its tolerance for iniquity, as has the promotion’s absurd attempts to obfuscate Hardy’s backstory to ignorant members of the public. News that UFC welterweight Abdul Razak Alhassan managed to compete at UFC 228 despite being indicted on sexual assault charges raises similar unsettling questions about the UFC’s attitude towards such behavior when there’s nobody holding it to account.
None of this is to permit, much less condone, the behavior of Nurmagomedov and his team. Their conduct marred an otherwise phenomenal event littered with incredible fights, hilarious post-fight sound bytes and the kind of energy that has been lacking in many of the promotions’ recent events. However, if you think this brawl is some kind of abnormality, detached from the culture the UFC has allowed to gestate within its ranks, you would be wrong. This was absolutely par for the course.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.