Next month will mark 25 years of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a quarter-century of major mixed martial arts in the U.S. There will be plenty of retrospectives, reviews and evaluations of everything that has taken place since that first night in Denver, back in a time when nobody knew what the hell to expect. Turns out, we still don’t. In some ways, the sport is far more refined and professional than it used to be. In others, it continues to devolve.
While the in-cage action has never been better, athletes have moved to extremes in promoting their careers, saying outlandish, even offensive things in hopes of pushing their careers forward.
This has been epitomized by Conor McGregor, who has said and done pretty much whatever has come to mind without filter. While he is frequently quick-witted, funny, even original, McGregor has never been shy to test the line, and has occasionally crossed it. He’s used homophobic slurs (he later apologized), and said racist things. He jumped a cage and shoved a referee. More recently, he chucked a steel dolly at a bus, injuring multiple people. None of this is championship human behavior but it has mostly been excused as a means of promotion. To some degree, that is true. Some of the things McGregor says are predetermined to generate interest. But other times, he’s just an arsonist with a match, with no idea which way the wind will blow the fire he’s lighting.
The whole McGregor-Khabib Nurmagomedov dynamic was building toward last night at UFC 229, an evening which should have catapulted the undefeated Dagestani into a household name but instead left him cast as a hooligan after he instigated a wild brawl in the crowd just moments after tapping McGregor with a neck crank. In case you were wondering what would have happened if Nurmagomedov had gotten off that bus in Brooklyn, you now have an answer.
If we’re being fair, any examination of Nurmagomedov’s roots could have predicted that this little war between them would blow up into a full-blow one. He is from an honor culture, and when McGregor took the rivalry to religious and ethnic and family places, we could have guessed that Nurmagomedov would not let the slight go with a championship win.
Even though, yes, he absolutely should have. He is a professional, and what he ultimately did was incredibly unprofessional. He won; he got the last word in the rivalry. That should have been enough. Turns out, the prizefight between them last night was just some athletic competition between fights. So after winning, Nurmagomedov marched across the mat, tossed aside a security guard, climbed the cage and threw a flying kick into McGregor’s cornermen, igniting a brawl that spanned four or five rows deep into the crowd and eventually spilled into the cage. He did this and then later had the audacity to suggest he wants to bring respect back into MMA. Maybe his thought is that now, we have nowhere to go but up?
Even in a sport that prizes chaos, it was as low a moment as we’ve seen in years, perhaps since the April 2010 Strikeforce brawl that featured the Diaz brothers and Jason “Mayhem” Miller.
“Sometimes, these things happen in MMA,” Strikeforce announcer Gus Johnson had said at the time, to much ridicule. These things do not happen in MMA. (Until they do.)
Last night, Conor and Khabib things happened again. There is plenty of blame to go around for it. First and foremost, it goes to Nurmagomedov. For weeks, McGregor had been spewing venom his way, and Nurmagomedov had paid him little mind, stoically staring ahead to the challenge ahead of him rather than focusing on McGregor’s attempts at mental warfare. Until that moment, he had stayed poised for every second of the rivalry. Even when McGregor tried to get one final rise out of him at weigh-ins, slapping Nurmagomedov’s hands and throwing a kick that purposely landed short, Nurmagomedov kept composed.
In the fight itself, Nurmagomedov was controlled and clinical. He never rushed into shots; never supplied McGregor the openings he wanted. The post-fight melee was the first time Nurmagomedov completely lost self-control.
McGregor deserves blame, too. He is the one that fanned the flames with his ill-advised bus attack. It was impossible to hear White say he was “disgusted and sick” over Nurmagomedov’s action and not think back to what McGregor had done to the people in the bus, to little penalty. Not only was McGregor’s punishment minimal, but the bus attack became a focal point of the UFC 229 marketing strategy. And so the UFC deserves blame, too.
White explained that it had to be included in the numerous commercials that aired worldwide. It was, after all, “part of the story.” That is true. It happened and it could not be ignored, but this is also the environment that the UFC has helped to build. Hiring extra security does not absolve you of your role in fanning the flames of conflict. True, it is a difficult balance to simultaneously promote a prizefight and encourage peaceful competition but there are moments that bring us here. Remember, what promotional repercussions did McGregor face for his bus assault? Exactly zero. While they may not explicitly condone such behavior, they don’t condemn it, either.
That’s how you end up with the right elements for what happened last night, an evening in which MMA put its best and its worst feet forward. An evening when Nurmagomedov did the same. The biggest rivalry the sport had to offer was settled, and then the settlement was torched, This may be the future progression of things. When megafight promotion always has to be bigger and better, what else is there?
Twenty-five years into this experiment of a sport, the athletes are faster and stronger, but bolder and mouthier, too. Even that is not always enough to capture and hold attention. Even if cage fighting has never been only about cage fighting, the current appetite for chaos may be unsustainable. Anniversaries are usually a time to reflect and to think ahead, and after a quarter-century, there is much to celebrate and much to reassess.