Andrius Petrucenia/ Flickr
Andrius Petrucenia/ Flickr

Conor vs Khabib showed fight promotion should have limits

The promotional tagline for UFC 229 was‘The World is Watching,’ publicising an event that was anticipated to be the greatest showcase in the sport’s history, as MMA’s most infamous and  charismatic superstar in Conor McGregor, faced the most dominant fighter to grace the octagon in the undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov. Yet as the dust settles from the extraordinary scenes in Las Vegas, this contest was overshadowed and tarnished by the much publicized violent and chaotic brawl between the two teams. As MMA’s reputation is thrust into the global spotlight for all the wrong reasons, this event not only raises significant concerns over the ethics and limits of fight promotion, but represented an inevitable culmination of UFC’s dangerous appeasement of political, religious and racial conflict in their attempt to capitalize on economic incentives.

Khabib launched himself from the cage into McGregor’s team to spark a mass brawl

The fight itself was characterized by a flawless wrestling masterclass by Khabib, humbling McGregor and forcing him to submit by the 4th round. However, it was the moments after retaining his lightweight title that captured the attention of the masses. Driven by the emotion of this bitter rivalry, Khabib launched himself from the cage into McGregor’s team to spark a mass brawl with police and security struggling to maintain order.  

The arduous journey of Mixed Martial Arts to realise gain legitimacy across the globe has been well documented and its battle to be embraced is one that still persists. MMA remains banned in France and still fails to be adopted by UK mainstream media. The post-fight antics of UFC 229 do no favours to this contentious image and help and reinforce uninformed perspectives on the sport’s ‘barbaric’ and ‘savage’ stereotypes attributed to it.  The explosive scenes from Las Vegas not only overshadow the magnitude of Nurmagomedov’s accomplishments as an undefeated and undisputed champion, but do a disservice to the skill, dedication, discipline and perseverance of all other fighters in MMA.

The footage of the bus attack was used relentlessly to maximise sales for the fight and encourage public interest

In the aftermath of the brawl, several commentators highlighted the incident as a ‘black eye’ for the sport and said that it ‘set back the sport several years.’   However, while the UFC and its president Dana White condemned the actions of the perpetrators, should we really be surprised by this embarrassing fiasco?

This was not a singular, isolated incident. From April to October, the UFC’s longstanding endorsement and appeasement of McGregor’s antics and use of religion, nationality, and family to stoke conflict and promote the fight paved the foundations for this violent outbreak.  The infamous Brooklyn bus attack in April (where McGregor and his team threw a dolly, injuring 2 fighters and leaving others traumatized) is indicative of the UFC’s problematic stance that appears to be “All is fair in love and fight promotion.” Not only was McGregor not punished by the promotion, but the footage was used relentlessly to maximize sales for the fight and encourage public interest.

By perpetuating familial, cultural, religious and political conflict in the name of fight promotion and commercial incentive, the UFC were the architects of their own downfall

From Muhammad Ali, to Mayweather and McGregor, trash-talk is entrenched into the history of combat sports and is partly what makes such contests so appealing. However, this event has highlighted the need for a serious examination of the ethics and boundaries of fight promotion. Despite their desired public image, the UFC and Dana White are by no means the moral arbiters of this situation. In fact, it is quite the opposite: promotion of the fight played on extremely sensitive ethnic, political and cultural tensions relating to Khabib’s Dagestani heritage. This included accusations surrounding the association between Khabib’s father and Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, a man accused of multiple human right violations and infringements on democratic freedoms.  Undoubtedly, Khabib’s actions should be rightfully condemned. But on Saturday night, the proverbial chickens came home to roost for Dana White. By perpetuating familial, cultural, religious and political conflict in the name of fight promotion and commercial incentive, the UFC were the architects of their own downfall. As MMA journalist for the Guardian Karim Zidan effectively summarised: “When you play with fire, this is the end result.”

As for what’s next, McGregor’s immense popularity and  status as a guaranteed draw mean he still has a wealth of options at his disposal. Although an immediate  rematch with Khabib would show an absolute disregard for the recent criticism of the UFC, it would surely captivate public interest even more. A trilogy fight with Nate Diaz would similarly generate huge anticipation, while rumours of Georges St. Pierre moving down to 155lbs could set up a potentially titanic clash.

Although the company has a lot to answer for, UFC shattered their live gate record and PPV record with an estimated 2.4 million buys. Incredibly, in the long-term, far from the dark day forecasted by some, UFC 229 was a tremendous night for the organisation and demonstrated the power of promotion and conflict as the world continues to watch.

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