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McGregor-Khabib: Potential legal issues after UFC 229 brawl

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In a scene reminiscent of the infamous “Malice at the Palace” NBA brawl in 2004, the aftermath of Russian MMA fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov defeating Irish MMA fighter Conor McGregor in the fourth round of UFC 229 Saturday night included both fighters as well as their coaches, trainers and supporters partaking in a melee in Las Vegas’s T-Mobile Arena. According to UFC president Dana White, three men associated with Nurmagomedov were arrested. White, however, emphasizes that none of the three have been charged at this time and that McGregor does not wish to press charges against them. Still, the post-fight brawl could pose a variety of legal implications—especially since neither Nurmagomedov nor McGregor is an American citizen and their legal capacity to remain in, and later re-enter, the U.S. is contingent on law-abiding behavior.

Video from the arena indicates that the incident started almost immediately after Nurmagomedov, who is the reigning and still-undefeated UFC lightweight champion, forced McGregor to tap out. Nurmagomedov then climbed out of the octagon and appeared to race toward McGregor’s friend and fellow fighter, Dillon Danis. Meanwhile, McGregor realizes what is happening and then attempts to catch up with Nurmagomedov. However, before getting out of the octagon, McGregor is stopped by two men, who are reportedly affiliated with Nurmagomedov and who had entered the octagon around the same time Nurmagomedov had exited it. McGregor and the two men then scuffled while others entered the fray, both inside and outside the octagon. It was chaos and confusion. Police later escorted Danis and others out of the arena. Mike Tyson tweeted the scene was even crazier than how his 1997 fight against Evander Holyfield ended with Tyson being disqualified for biting off part of Holyfield’s ear.  

In a press conference that followed, Nurmagomedov apologized to the Nevada Athletic Commission and to the city of Las Vegas. He also tried to explain his conduct, noting that, in his view, McGregor’s trash talking had crossed a line into anti-Russian and anti-Muslim hate speech. “He talked about my religion, he talked about my country, he talked about my father,” Nurmagomedov complained of McGregor. Nurmagomedov also reminded the media of McGregor attacking Nurmagomedov’s bus prior to UFC 223 in April and in the process injuring several people. McGregor would be charged by the New York Police Department with 12 crimes, including two felonies, for the bus incident and later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct. “He came to Brooklyn,” Nurmagomedov said of McGregor. “He broke bus, he almost killed a couple of people. What about this s—?”

Criminal law implications

Although the Las Vegas incident seemed spontaneous, it’s possible that it may have been planned. One might have expected Nurmagomedov to be in high spirits after defeating McGregor, who is arguably the UFC’s most famous fighter and with whom Nurmagomedov has a longstanding feud. Instead, Nurmagomedov launched into an attack on someone who was outside the octagon while apparent members of Nurmagomedov entered the octagon to confront McGregor. As mentioned above, Nurmagomedov later told media that his actions were motivated by McGregor’s alleged hate speech and disrespect. Assuming it is true that Nurmagomedov was incensed by McGregor, it’s not immediately clear why Nurmagomedov would respond to those emotions by trying to attack someone who isn’t McGregor.

If law enforcement concludes that the incident was planned, it is more likely criminal charges will surface. At least in the U.S., law enforcement has traditionally refrained from “criminalizing” what takes place during sporting events. Take any UFC fight: Fighters hit each other in ways that, if the same conduct occurred on a street or in an airport, the fighters would be immediately arrested and jailed. The fact that the fighting takes place during a sanctioned and refereed fight essentially converts it into a lawful activity. Fighters must adhere to the unified set of rules and regulations for mixed martial arts. Law enforcement and prosecutors are generally fine with such regulated arrangements.

That is not what happened at UFC 229.

For at least a few reasons, the melee after UFC 229 probably won’t enjoy the same “hands-off” approach from law enforcement. First, and most obviously, it wasn’t part of the fight. The fight had clearly ended; Nurmagomedov climbing out of the octagon and the chaos that ensued were separate events. Second, the melee wasn’t refereed by a UFC official or regulated by any UFC rule. While security was on the scene, it was “no holds barred” mayhem and thus inherently less predictable and more dangerous than a UFC fight. Third, the incident occurred in the immediate proximity of some of the 20,034 spectators who filled the arena to capacity and who had no idea a post-fight melee would occur. To that point, people who had nothing to do with Nurmagomedov or McGregor could have been seriously and unexpectedly injured, and the misunderstandings and resulting bedlam could have spread as a result—just like 14 years ago when the Malice at the Palace became almost a riot-like affair. Especially given that UFC 229 spectators were stuck in a crowd that was itself confused by what was occurring and especially given that the incident came about so quickly, nearby spectators may have had no opportunity to find safety.

White told media that McGregor declined to press charges against three men who are staff or supporters of Nurmagomedov, but that fact alone doesn’t end the possibility of criminal charges. Stated differently, it is not up to McGregor—or to anyone who was present—whether or not the government will issue criminal charges. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department will likely review available video and witness statements to determine if any crimes occurred. Assault and battery, disorderly conduct and rout and riot are all plausible charges against the melee’s participants, including Nurmagomedov and McGregor but also many others. These types of charges are of varying severity. They all relate to intentionally harming another person and causing pandemonium in a public place. A charge is more likely to occur if anyone suffered serious injuries. At this time, there are no reports of serious injuries, though there is video of someone being knocked out after being kicked in the face.

Tort law implications

Anyone injured in the melee would have the right to bring a lawsuit against the perpetrator(s) and demand monetary damages. An injured person could sue for battery, which would contend that the perpetrator assaulted him or her without consent and placed them in fear of imminent harm. A related claim would be intentional infliction of emotional distress, which would depict the perpetrator as using extreme and outrageous conduct to cause severe emotional distress.

Injured persons could also sue the UFC, T-Mobile arena and any business that played a role in UFC 229’s organization and accompanying security. The lawsuit would depict these entities as negligent in permitting an environment where a fighter would feel empowered to exit the octagon and trigger a ruckus. The degree to which arena security and UFC staff monitored the fighters prior to the incident would be very relevant in any tort lawsuit. Businesses can be held liable vicariously for the failure of employees to act responsibly. They are also vulnerable to premises liability claims when persons who entered the facility were injured due to carelessness or insufficient oversight.

Contract and endorsement law implications

Following the Malice at the Palace, nine NBA players—including Ron Artest, whose charging of a fan would trigger the uproar—were suspended for a total of 146 games. The suspensions were consistent with available punishments to then-NBA commissioner David Stern under the collective bargaining agreement signed by the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association.

The employment relationship between UFC fighters and the UFC itself is very different from that of NBA players and the NBA. UFC fighters are not unionized and are therefore not subject to terms in any collective bargaining agreement. UFC fighters are instead considered independent contractors of the UFC. This means they sign individual contracts with the UFC and those contracts determine the parameters of their labor, intellectual property and compensation with the UFC. Such contracts impact the earnings of Nurmagomedov and McGregor, who reportedly earned $2 million and $3 million, respectively, for their participation in UFC 299 (each also stands to earn millions more in his respective share of pay per view and other sources of revenue connected to UFC 229).

In addition to compensation for participation in fights and use of fighters’ names, images and likenesses, UFC fighter contracts indicate the circumstances in which the UFC could terminate or suspend those contracts. To that point, while Nurmagomedov and McGregor’s contracts are not publicly available, other UFC contracts have included language that requires fighters to obey also federal, state and local laws and engage in moral and decent conduct. It is thus possible that the UFC could fine or suspend Nurmagomedov and McGregor for the melee in Vegas under the terms of those fighters’ contracts. Whether the UFC would do so is a separate consideration. Perhaps revealingly, the UFC declined to punish McGregor in the aftermath of the bus incident and felony charges referenced above.

As an aside, there is on-going legal debate about whether UFC fighters ought to be classified as “employees” instead of as “independent contractors.” The former classification would likely gain UFC fighters access to employer subsidies for healthcare and other benefits but would also alter how they pay taxes on earnings. Further, a federal antitrust lawsuit brought by Cung Le and other fighters in 2014 over whether the UFC has too much market power in professional MMA and whether the UFC has used such power to unlawfully suppress fighters’ wages remains in litigation. Those are important legal considerations, particularly for fighters who are compensated less than Nurmagomedov, McGregor and other stars, but those considerations are not at issue here.

In addition to their contractual relationship with the UFC, Nurmagomedov and McGregor enjoy contractual relationships with sponsored companies. McGregor, for example, has signed lucrative endorsement deals with such major companies as Burger King, Anheuser-Busch and Monster Energy, while Nurmagomedov signed a deal with Reebok in 2015. Those contracts almost certainly contain “morals clauses.” Such clauses would permit the endorsed company to exit or suspend payments on account of the fighter engaging in conduct that violates the law or that brings the fighter or athlete into public disrepute.

While the Vegas melee is controversial and raises questions about the fighters’ judgment and adherence to law, it’s unclear if any of the endorsement companies would predict consumers of their products to become less inclined to value those companies’ relationships with the sponsored athletes on account of the melee. In fact, consumers and fans might not regard Nurmagomedov and McGregor’s reputations or brands in a worse light after the melee. Both fighters have attracted controversy in the past and both are known to dislike one another and their entourages. One might go so far as to predict that the melee and accompanying drama only increases fans’ interest in the inevitable re-match between Nurmagomedov and McGregor (a topic which McGregor has already tweeted about). Furthermore, McGregor did not appear to lose any endorsement deals in the wake of the bus incident and criminal charges earlier this year.

Nevada Athletic Commission compliance implications

The Nevada Athletic Commission—the governmental authority that regulates and licenses MMA fights, boxing bouts and other kinds of contests in the state—is investigating whether the melee violated relevant compliance rules. In a sign that the investigation is potentially consequential, the commission is reportedly withholding pay to Nurmagomedov pending the investigation’s results.

If the commission finds Nurmagomedov (and others) at fault, it could issue fines and impose additional kinds of penalties, such as compelling participation in public service announcements and in “volunteer” work. To illustrate, the commission fined McGregor $75,000 in 2016 as a penalty for him throwing a water bottle at fellow fighter Nick Diaz. McGregor was also ordered to record a public service announcement and perform 50 hours of community service. Media reports indicate that McGregor has complied with this penalty. Failure to comply could have rendered McGregor ineligible to fight in Nevada. The same would be true of Nurmagomedov should he be sanctioned.

Immigration law implications

Should either Nurmagomedov or McGregor face criminal charges over the melee, his immigration status in the U.S. could be adversely impacted. By all accounts, Nurmagomedov is a citizen of Russia and McGregor is a citizen of Ireland. Assuming that is correct, there are two ways these fighters can enter the U.S. One way is through a green card, which makes a person a permanent resident of the U.S. Such a status means that a person can stay in the U.S. indefinitely. A green card can be challenging to obtain, as there are government-imposed annual caps on how many are awarded each year and green cards are only awarded upon a showing of an eligible circumstance (such as having an immediate family member who is a U.S citizen or after being in the U.S. for a period of time on political asylum status).

A green card is superior to a visa, which only allows a person to remain in the U.S. for a limited amount of time and for a specific purpose. World-class athletes such as Nurmagomedov and McGregor can qualify for O-1 or P-1 nonimmigrant visas. These are assigned to athletes and other entertainers who seek to enter the U.S. for a particular purpose and limited duration (such as participating in an MMA fight) and who have internationally recognized abilities.

Whether they are in the U.S. on green cards or visas, Nurmagomedov and McGregor could find it different to re-enter the U.S. if they are charged with crimes and convicted or plead guilty to engaging in violent acts. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has scrutinizing policies on persons who are not U.S. citizens and who engage in criminal acts. These policies can lead to a person’s removal (deportation) or rendering them inadmissible upon attempted re-entry into the U.S. McGregor is already aware of this consideration: his plea deal with New York prosecutors, in which McGregor pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct and accepted community service and anger management but avoided jail or probation, was designed to avoid potential immigration consequences.

SI will keep you updated on the fallout of the UFC 229 melee.

Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also Associate Dean of the University of New Hampshire School of Law and editor and co-author of The Oxford Handbook of American Sports Law and Court Justice: The Inside Story of My Battle Against the NCAA.




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