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So a fight broke out at a fight, huh? Who could have seen that coming? Even though a number of people could give the rest of us the I-told-you-so treatment, it was still a genuine shock when Khabib Nurmagomedov leaped out of the cage and jump-attacked Conor McGregor’s cornermen at UFC 229 on Saturday in Las Vegas. Why would he do such a thing after winning the biggest fight of his life, in dominant, legacy-defining fashion, no less? Didn’t he get ample revenge in the cage? Apparently, he didn’t.
There is a reason why McGregor’s trash talk was more than just trash talk to the defending champion. “The Notorious” one mocked his religion and then offered him whiskey at the pre-fight press conference, knowing that as a devout Muslim “The Eagle” does not imbibe. He mocked sensitive sociopolitical tensions that have powerfully impacted life in the North Caucasus throughout Nurmagomedov’s life. He called the Dagestani’s father a coward for cozying up to Chechen dictator/warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, when opposing such a man has very real and fatal consequences. Nurmagomedov’s home of Dagestan has been shaped by guerilla violence, geopolitical instability, ethnic and religious conflict and economic hardship. In the midst of all of this, combat sports has been a proud heritage in the region. Dagestan accounts for about two percent of the Russian population but regularly accounts for more than 50 percent of the national wrestling tournament finalists, and wrestling is one of the most viable paths to improving one’s life. Simply put, Nurmagomedov comes from a background that is much more familiar with a level of physical violence that is only theoretical to the rest of us. Naturally, he sees the world in a very different way than McGregor and did not receive the Irishman’s verbal jibes as mere fight promotion. His actions, as well as his words, are evidence of it. This isn’t to justify or condone anything, but understanding is important.
Nurmagomedov, McGregor and the Ultimate Fighting Championship are all at fault in one way or another -- it was more than a little ironic that a rivalry promoted with bad blood and street fighting ended up in more bad blood and street fighting -- but it’s both tedious and fruitless to try and mete out which party deserves exactly how much blame. It’s more interesting, and perhaps a little more enlightening, to instead look at why people responded to the incident the way they did.
As the scene unfolded, fan and media reactions ranged from “lol” to “lock him up.” There were calls to strip Nurmagomedov of the title, cut him from the UFC altogether and even send him to prison for assault. McGregor and his team could have pressed charges but decided not to. Though there is some irony and, in some cases, outright bigotry behind the fact that many of these same people had a much easier time swallowing McGregor’s antics, it’s important to note that genuine concern is the correct first stop for an emotionally stable person. The potential for true mayhem to have broken out in the stands and comingle with the beef between the two fight camps was legitimate and dangerous. Had the boulder started rolling in that direction, the worst-case scenario could have been gruesome. That I didn’t feel an initial wave of outrage and disgust is probably indicative of an MMA-shaped callous ossifying over an important part of my brain.
When the hysteria started to settle, the next phase was to collectively ask MMA’s apparently unkillable question: Was this bad for the sport? It’s our version of “What about the children?!” and part of a bizarre quest for mainstream acceptance, whatever that means, that continues to pull on the UFC’s decision making from a distant and more insecure past. Psychologies that develop and mature in certain conditions do not easily adapt to new ones. The immediate response was that the brawl not only ruined the night but was also a substantial stain on the sport entirely. Commentator Joe Rogan condemned the stupidity of it all. UFC President Dana White grieved for the poor soccer moms who would never buy another pay-per-view. There was wailing and gnashing of teeth.
The more overtly performative concern was less about the situation itself and more about the context in which it occurred. This was a huge event and expected to be one of the highest-selling cards of all-time, which of course means it was expected to be seen by a lot of people who had never watched fighting before. With so many new fans tuning in for the first time, embarrassment and somber condemnation felt like the correct and serious response. Better to be too concerned than too insouciant.
Not to trivialize the situation -- it was, in fact, unprofessional and unnecessary and could have caused real harm to innocent spectators -- but I don’t think a brawl between rival teams like this is any more shocking to new fans than the sport already is. I just so happened to watch the fights in the company of that exact demographic, people who had never watched a single fight before, and they didn’t bat an eye when Nurmagomedov jumped out of the cage. It seemed like a natural conclusion to the night. They were, however, absolutely and uniformly mortified by the amount of blood leaking from Anthony Pettis’ head in the co-main event against Tony Ferguson. I’m guessing none of us thought twice about that since we’re used to a little blood in the cage. This is obviously anecdotal, but I’m not convinced it’s at all exceptional.
No matter how much it was insisted that the brawl was not what mixed martial arts is about -- a dubious claim on its face -- those of us familiar with MMA don’t even realize that what the sport is actually supposed to be about is still really, really off-putting for a lot of people, and those people are probably more normal and stable than we fight fans. The fact that we routinely ask “Is this bad for the sport?” is because of a collective insecurity; other sports don’t have to worry about how their inherent integrity is perceived. Because we know MMA for its many beauties and complexities, we often forget and ignore its obvious ugliness.
I’m not sure what the right response to any of this is. Genuine outrage seems just as valid and appropriate as laughing at those who feel genuinely outraged. What I do know is that fighting, for all its undeniable allure, is a morally indefensible spectacle. As fans of combat sports, we are too comfortable with a level of violence that is shocking to those who don’t regularly imbibe. It’s easy to forget that seeing someone break his hand punching another man while a gash on his head pours blood down over the both of them should be more grotesque than it is, and there’s probably something wrong with us for not realizing that. Whether it’s the blemish of occasional post-fight brawls, the scourge of weight-cutting, the cancers of exploitative contracts or even the act of competitive violence on its own, ours is a dirty game. I’m not justifying or condoning anything, but understanding is important.
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.