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UFC 229 will not be remembered for the remarkable display of mixed martial arts at the absolute highest of levels. It will not be remembered for the Fight of Forever between Tony Ferguson and Anthony Pettis, the arrival of Dominick Reyes, the dreaded “Drake curse” making its way to MMA or even the unusually high temperature of Derrick Lewis’ balls. What is believed to be the best selling pay-per-view event in the history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship will not be remembered for the eight finishes and overall stellar action within the Octagon. Instead, it will be remembered for the regrettable events that immediately followed Conor McGregor tapping out to Khabib Nurmagomedov’s fourth-round neck crank.
Of course, the immediate response is to place blame. We can blame Nurmagomedov for throwing his mouthpiece at McGregor’s corner, spitting on the former two-division champion, then leaping from the cage to drop-kick Dillon Danis. We can blame Danis for whatever words preceded The Eagle’s airborne attack. We can blame McGregor for repeatedly using insults charged with cultural digs and tapping into the unpleasant history of Dagestan and the murky political climate in Russia.
We can go even deeper in the blame. How about Nurmagomedov and his team using an obvious mob-style threat of violence against Artem Lobov while he was grossly outnumbered and essentially defenseless? How about the gross overreaction of McGregor involving his own gang of assailants, endangering the safety and livelihood of innocent third parties? How about blaming the UFC for not punishing either fighter? We can even blame the UFC for throwing gasoline on the fire by using evidence in a criminal case as a commercial for UFC 229 because, as company president Dana White said at the post-fight press conference, “It’s part of the story.”
The point is that there is more than enough blame to go around. And instead of using this platform to crucify the four aforementioned parties, I’ll stand up and raise my hand to accept my responsibility in the events of UFC 229. As a fan of the sport and member of its media, I feel as though everyone is culpable.
In the immediate aftermath, television talking heads, writers -- including myself -- and fans proclaimed their disgust loud and clear. Words like “disgusting,” “appalling” and “reprehensible” were probably trending on Twitter as soon as the melee was contained. While I don’t want to go full Gus Johnson and chalk it up as a part of the sport, I will at least give him partial credit because paving the way for this sort of incident is a part of the sport. And we all are part of the machine that creates these situations.
We have seen this road being paved for far too long to act so shocked and offended. As far as the comments in the buildup that hovered very close to indecency and cultural insensitivity, we have been there before. We smiled and laughed out loud as Chael Sonnen described how Americans were superior to the “Brazilian children playing in the mud.” We chuckled and were amused by the demands of a medium rare steak and rear-end slap directed toward Anderson Silva’s wife. As far as the violence not being contained to a sanctioned event in a cage, the shoving match between Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier ahead of their original UFC 178 booking only got us hyped up for the culmination of a years-long simmering feud, even if the chaos nearly sent former UFC executive Dave Sholler careening off a stage. The Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock beef will live on in our memories due in part to Shamrock kicking a chair and Ortiz wearing a profane t-shirt to mock the Lion’s Den training team.
We were all ears when McGregor spewed venom and indirectly mocked Nurmagomedov’s devotion to Islam when he called him a “backwards c*nt” for not accepting a cup of whiskey. We all got butterflies in our stomachs as they nearly came to blows at the ceremonial weigh-ins. How many of the speculated two million-plus pay-per-view buyers grabbed their credit cards upon seeing that?
So when the UFC uses that infamous bus attack in Brooklyn as part of the highlight reel package to promote the fight, we shouldn’t be surprised. Everything leading up to that moment just got us more engaged. The more engaged we are, the more money we're willing to spend. Surprise, everyone: The UFC functions to make money. If the company sees it can make more money with questionable behavior, it will allow it and showcase it in the interest of profits.
Every time we tune in for a press conference or stare-down, hoping to see a confrontation or hear a biting insult we show that we approve of it all. When we retweet the hijinks and share the clips on Facebook, we show that we approve of it all. When we gather around the watercooler on a Friday before a big fight, excited to see the latest blood feud get settled in the Octagon, we show that we approve of it all. Most of all, when we take the time out of our Saturdays to watch the bouts, we show that we approve of it all.
If we disapproved as much the instant reactions Saturday would indicate, we wouldn’t have been watching in the first place. Instead, we would have already left the UFC 229 bandwagon long before Bruce Buffer stood alone in the center of cage to announce a winner. It wouldn’t have taken yet another unsanctioned violent event to suddenly throw off our collective moral compasses.
Saturday night I wrote that this was the worst singular incident in MMA history. I still stand by that but only because the number of eyeballs on the event and the fact it occurred within the confines of the arena and posed a risk to the fans, media and officials in attendance. The actions of War Machine, Joe Son and Josh Grispi make the brawl at T-Mobile Arena look like a game of patty-cake. However, the entire world was not watching, and none of them are likely ever to fight again professionally. That doesn’t change the fact that we happily ran down this path long ago and will do it again.
That doesn’t mean that MMA -- or boxing, which has a much worse track record in every conceivable way -- is any worse than any other sport. Every sport from the NFL to soccer has an ugly underbelly, whether it be the transgressions of its athletes being swept under the rug, rampant use of PEDs or the inner politics that affect personnel decisions. Not to mention that every single sport has had its fair share of bench-clearing fights.
For all the great things sports can achieve, sometimes they can bring the worst out of us. Teams breed tribalism, which can breed division if unchecked. High-level competition blended with business blurs the line between fair play and profit margin. At their core, sports are metaphors for combat. Territory is conquered and one side imposes its will upon the other. Combat sports simply remove the metaphor. With that metaphor removed, there’s no filter to provide any distance from the combat and conflict that we crave.
If -- let’s get serious, when -- the paths of Nurmagomedov and McGregor cross again and they are scheduled to rematch, we will be there for it. When the UFC uses the HD camera angles that were abandoned in the moment as the basis for the commercials to get us excited, we will watch and we will get excited. When they have to stare each other down again, we’ll be part of the crowd cheering and attentively looking on. We won’t be so outraged that we turn off the TV and sit this one out.
As offended as “The Eagle” was at the taunts that were directed his way, he won’t turn down the bigger check that resulted from the madness. In fact, it’s safe to say he will gladly make that walk to the Octagon again. He’ll make the walk to the bank with equal enthusiasm. Without a doubt, the same can be said about McGregor.
When these type of objectionable methods are used to promote future fights, we will do the same. When Tyron Woodley vs. Colby Covington is officially booked and taps into the political and racial divisions in the country, we will be there. I, along with my colleagues in the MMA media, will podcast and write about it. Pay-per-views will be ordered. We will do exactly the same thing that we’ve done every time before: eat popcorn, sip our beverage of choice and happily enjoy the guilty pleasures.
When we support the ugliness with more attention and dollars, it shouldn’t be breaking news that it continues. When the steady and reliable competitors like Ferguson, Woodley, and Demetrious Johnson get passed over for the big opportunities awarded to others who don’t hold up the ideals of respect and sportsmanship we falsely cling to when it’s convenient, the volume being turned up on the antics is the next logical step. When we willingly stay close to and reward the escalation of what we would traditionally consider repulsive, how are we somehow startled when it gets out of control? As my grandmother once told me, if you sleep with dogs, you’ll wake up with fleas.