Saturday night’s UFC 229 event, from the start of the show to the finish of the main event, was looking like one of the best days in the history of the company. Until it wasn’t.
With what was likely the largest audience ever watching the UFC’s product at one time, performances by Khabib Nurmagomedov, Tony Ferguson, and Derrick Lewis should have been the talk of the sports world the next day.
Instead, the narrative of the show centered around the brawl that ended it — the visual of Nurmagomedov climbing the cage and going after Dillon Danis in McGregor’s corner, of punches being thrown inside the cage, including by Conor McGregor, as well as members of Nurmagomedov’s team, and Dana White refusing to strap the lightweight title belt on Nurmagomedov for fear of a riot.
In the end, while there were a number of reasons why it was very much justified that Nurmagomedov should dislike McGregor, perhaps even hate him. It was a great miscalculation for Nurmagomedov to take it that far after just scoring the biggest win of his career. It ruined what could have been his career’s high moment, and left him not being able to savor his crowning achievement inside the cage.
In a world where people want black and white, this is really a lot of shades of grey. McGregor being portrayed as the innocent party is ridiculous given that he flew himself and more than a dozen friends from Ireland to Brooklyn to presumably attack Nurmagomedov in April. His throwing a dolly at the window of the bus was far more dangerous than anything Nurmagomedov actually did. Perhaps, because it was in an arena with 20,000 fans, the potential of Saturday’s brawl leading to a riot was worse, but with glass breaking everywhere during McGregor’s UFC 223 attack, everyone in the bus was in far more danger of getting a career-ending injury if the glass had broken the wrong way than anyone else.
And even though Dana White called criticism of UFC’s marketing the dolly incident as silly, and was completely unapologetic about it, it made the company look low rent to many. At the same time, it was also probably the key component of what looks to be an event that destroyed the company’s previous best pay-per-view marks, and did so with very minimal promotion until the last few days before the show.
It was also among the many reasons why things played out as they did. The actions of the UFC turning a blind eye to what McGregor did — whether it was in the Bellator cage, backstage in Brooklyn, or showing up late for press conferences and weigh-ins — created the belief that stars are above discipline. That’s the advantage of having the ability to draw two million or more buys one month after the company did around 130,000 for UFC 228.
When you teach stars that there are no consequences for their actions, it’s hard to take things seriously when the company gets mad at stars who act like there are no consequences for their actions.
The reality is that stuff like this sells. And the brawl ended up almost camouflaging the scene of McGregor tapping to a neck crank to end the fight in post-fight discussion and in the eyes of the average fan.
And this leads to example No. 135 of giving the fans the fight they most want to see versus rewarding fighters who have earned themselves a championship shot.
Ferguson (25-3), was fighting six months off major knee surgery. He survived a brilliant bloodbath of a fight with former champion Anthony Pettis (21-8). The win was his 11th in a row in the UFC. In this sport, if you win 11 in a row in the UFC, let alone win an interim championship, you are long past due for a title shot.
But there are still many question marks.
Whatever discipline Nurmagomedov will get for starting the brawl at UFC 229 will be decided upon by the Nevada commission. The UFC has made it clear, like in other cases involving top talent, that the company is leaving the punishment to the local commissions.
Really, it is the length of Nurmagomedov’s suspension that determines what is next for not only himself, but possibly McGregor, and almost certainly Ferguson as well as the championship picture. If the suspension is six months or less, it would be the latest slap-on-the-wrist. If his suspension is longer than one year, the UFC would have no choice but to strip Nurmagomedov of his championship.
White has made it clear that he doesn’t expect a lengthy suspension, and that the company has no intention of stripping the title from Nurmagomedov.
Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five Stars of Saturday’s show:
KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV — Going 27-0 and only losing one round in your UFC career (the third round on Saturday) is a level of dominance unprecedented in company history. Instead of celebrating that, more questions are being asked about the repercussions of Nurmagomedov’s actions.
By all rights, Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson is the fight to make. But it’s not the business fight to make. Watching the UFC scramble on the matchmaking front so much over the past week, you can’t rule the rematch with McGregor out. Still, that doesn’t need to be made right away, and if it’s not, there are no guarantees. McGregor could lose his next fight and walk away. He’s rich, and he wasn’t nearly as sharp as in his previous fights on Saturday.
If Nurmagomedov’s suspension is lengthy and he’s stripped of the title, it’s more likely that when he comes back, not as champion, they’d roll back McGregor as the money fight. If Nurmagomedov’s suspension is brief, that fight would still be the financial goal, as it represents the biggest fight the UFC could put on, and the only question is whether they’d do it right away and not risk losing it, or hope to do it after a Ferguson fight.
CONOR MCGREGOR — Even with the loss, McGregor (21-4) holds the UFC’s most important championship: The champion of the box office. With no title to defend, it’s a question of what money fight there is next. He’s talked Anderson Silva, but that fight is ridiculous because of the size difference. Georges St-Pierre is as big if not a bigger fight, and also a no-lose. If McGregor loses, the reality is he’ll have lost to a bigger fighter not in his weight class. There’s also the trilogy fight with Nate Diaz that will draw big under any circumstances.
TONY FERGUSON — The obvious match is Nurmagomedov. Ferguson himself called out McGregor after his win over Pettis. If he’s not getting a title shot, Ferguson against Diaz would make sense, particularly since Diaz’s fight with Dustin Poirier fell through.
DERRICK LEWIS — Lewis (21-5, 1 NC) had both a legendary come-from-behind victory over Alexander Volkov (30-7) and a crazy interview where he took off his ring shorts and stood there in his underwear. Volkov seemed to be cruising to an easy victory until being caught and finished with 11 seconds left in the third and final round.
Lewis will be getting a title shot against Daniel Cormier on Nov. 3 in Madison Square Garden. On the surface, the fight is ridiculous, as Lewis has a bad back and admitted himself that his is cardio isn’t at the level for a five-round title fight. The talk had he had not gotten the late knockout over Volkov would’ve been that his cardio wasn’t even ready for three rounds. He also took tremendous punishment, nearly being finished by Volkov before his come-from-behind win.
Still, he’s won nine of his last 10 fights, even if some of the wins weren’t pretty.
JUSSIER FORMIGA — Formiga (22-5) came to UFC six years ago with a reputation as perhaps the best flyweight in the world. He was groomed for Demetrious Johnson, but never got there, going 8-4 with losses to Joseph Benavidez, Henry Cejudo, John Dodson and Ray Borg.
The next flyweight contender for Cejudo has to be Johnson, because of his long reign on top. But the win over Sergio Pettis (17-4) has to make Formiga the next man down. He should face the winner of the Nov. 10 fight between Benavidez (25-5) and Borg (11-3) to determine the follow-up challenger.