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The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) wants to be taken seriously as a global promotion, representing a legitimate sport that has one of the most booming fanbases in the world.
However, what we saw at UFC 229 last weekend was nothing short of farcical, nay, disgraceful. In fact, it belonged more in the squared circle of WWE and its scripted storylines rather than the octagon.
A few seconds after Conor McGregor tapped Khabib Nurmagomedov’s arm and submitted to the lightweight champion’s choke, Nurmagomedov climbed the cage and leaped at the men in McGregor’s corner, setting off a prolonged brawl inside and outside the octagon.
McGregor tapped out in the fourth round of his comeback fight, and almost immediately Nurmagomedov scaled the cage and scuffled with another fighter manning McGregor’s corner. Meanwhile, two men apparently from Nurmagomedov’s entourage climbed into the cage and attacked McGregor, who defended himself before security personnel separated everyone.
Order was restored with no apparently serious injuries, but the scuffles immediately dwarfed one of the biggest and most lucrative shows in UFC history.
“I’ve been doing this for 18 years, and on the biggest night ever, I couldn’t be more disappointed,” UFC President Dana White said. “I’m not even mad. I’m just really disappointed.”
Nurmagomedov’s purse has been withheld by the Nevada Athletic Commission pending an investigation, White said. He also claimed three members of the winner’s camp were detained and released by police because McGregor refused to press charges against them.
White acknowledged the UFC might strip its title from Nurmagomedov (27-0), a Dagestan-born Russian fighter who trains in San Jose, California. “If he gets suspended, it depends on how long his suspension is,” White said. “And if it’s a long suspension, yeah, he’s probably going to get it stripped.”
Nurmagomedov appeared briefly at a post-fight news conference after midnight. He apologised to the Nevada State Athletic Commission, saying the brawl was ‘not my best side’, but also condemned McGregor’s barbed pre-fight taunts.
“You cannot talk about religion,” Nurmagomedov said. “You cannot talk about nation. You cannot talk about this now.”
Nurmagomedov also said he got a congratulatory phone call from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who ‘told me he is very proud of me’.
The wild scene occurred after McGregor (21-4) got caught in a choke by Nurmagomedov, who punctuated this simmering rivalry with an impressive victory over the superstar who infamously attacked a bus carrying Nurmagomedov in Brooklyn last April. McGregor shattered the bus windows with a hand truck because he was angry about Nurmagomedov confronting one of his teammates earlier in the week.
The post-fight trouble started when Nurmagomedov stepped away from the prone McGregor and immediately pointed at the Irishman’s corner, shouting and throwing his mouthpiece.
The men in McGregor’s corner appeared to respond with taunts, and Nurmagomedov climbed over the fence and fought with Dillon Danis, a Bellator welterweight who trains with McGregor.
One of the two men who attacked McGregor in the cage was widely identified as Zubaira Tukhugov. The Chechen featherweight is scheduled to fight in three weeks against Artem Lobov, the McGregor team member who was confronted by Nurmagomedov in April.
White said if Tukhugov was the man in the ring, he will never fight again for the UFC.
Nurmagomedov and McGregor both left the ring before the championship belt could be put around Nurmagomedov’s waist, and fans in the pro-Conor crowd threw debris at Nurmagomedov on his way out. White said he feared a melee in an arena if he awarded the belt to Nurmagomedov.
UFC heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier is Nurmagomedov’s teammate at their gym in San Jose, and he calmed the fighter after the bout.
“Two wrongs don’t make it right,” Cormier tweeted after the brawl. “Conor didn’t deserve that. No one did. But some things aren’t for fight promotion. Religion, family, country. Throwing stuff in Brooklyn. For Khabib it wasn’t fight promotion, it was really personal. Different culture, man.”
Nurmagomedov and McGregor made no secret of their mutual loathing in the past few months, and the UFC used footage of McGregor’s attack on the bus to promote UFC 229, which could be the best-selling pay-per-view card in UFC history.
McGregor lobbed several insults at Nurmagomedov during the promotion of this match-up, including labelling Nurmagomedov’s manager, Ali Abdelaziz, as a ‘snitch terrorist rat’.
In my opinion, both fighters are at fault here. On the one hand, McGregor’s mouth has run far too volatile to promote this fight.
Fresh from his promotional tours around the globe for the money-spinning boxing match with Floyd Mayweather, he seems to target whatever he can to wind up his opponents and generate hype. Not only that, his attack last April was bound to cause some sort of reaction from Nurmagomedov. He reaps what he sows in my eyes, whether that’s millions of dollars or a harsh wake-up call.
But on the other, nothing can excuse leaping into the crowd after a fight and inciting brawls. The Russian, who trained with the KHK MMA Team in Bahrain in 2015, must face repercussions for his actions and should be at least suspended, if not stripped of his belt.
The biggest culprit, though, is the UFC itself. You could say this incident was the most disgusting thing that has ever happened in the history of the company. But if you said that, you’d just be repeating yourself from six months ago. It was McGregor’s bus attack that the UFC giddily used as part of the hype machine leading up to the bout.
None of this is an excuse for what happened at UFC 229. I don’t bring up Conor’s wrong as an appeal to hypocrisy. It’s an appeal to culture, actually. White has come out and called this moment disgusting. He said: “This isn’t what the sport is about.” But that begs the question: what is the UFC about? Simply fighting?
If it were just about fighting, there would be no need to attract people to the sport, and certainly no reason for people to devote their livelihood to being a competitor within it.
Presumably, what separates the UFC from a bare-knuckle brawler in an alley behind the gym, or some backyard wrestler violently jumping off a rooftop onto a burning truck with another human strapped across his shoulders, is professionalism.
However, no matter how you spin what happened last weekend … professionalism was lacking on all sides.