UFC 229: Dana White must decide if Khabib vs. McGregor aftermath is what he wants UFC to be
How a hallmark event for UFC turned into a black eye for the sport in just seconds
With the disgust of a father coming to terms with the disgraceful actions of his own children, UFC president Dana White addressed the media late Saturday in Las Vegas following a dark melee which stained the close of Khabib Nurmagomedov's victory over Conor McGregor.
"I've been doing this for 18 years, and this is the biggest night ever, and I couldn't be more disappointed," White said. "You know me, I'm usually mad at everything. [Tonight] I'm not really mad, I'm just disappointed.
"This is still one of the biggest moments of my career, and I should feel a lot better right now than I do. We should be celebrating right now. I don't give a shit how many pay-per-views [buys] we have done right now. I don't care. I can tell you from the bottom of my heart it has been all I talked about all week, and now, I don't give a shit."
A week-long celebration of UFC 229 being the biggest card in mixed martial arts history -- with White extending his PPV buy prediction based upon internal numbers to an astounding 3.5 million -- ended with a dramatic and largely one-sided victory for Nurmagomedov in defense of his UFC lightweight title.
But the repugnant brawl that followed, initiated by Nurmagomedov's leftover contempt for McGregor and his team following the most contentious build in UFC history, quickly turned T-Mobile Arena into an unsafe environment for fighters, personnel and fans alike.
What should have been a series of post fight narratives focused on Nurmagomedov's ascent to the top of the pound-for-pound throne and McGregor's rather pedestrian performance following a two-year layoff was instead replaced by an endless loop of videos capturing the brawl from various angles.
Let's get a pair of indisputable facts out of the way: First, this was nothing short of a black eye for UFC and the sport of MMA. Second, Nurmagomedov (27-0) deserves the unquestioned majority of blame for inciting a riot in lieu of basking in the glory of his biggest victory like the respectful man of honor he has been for much of his career.
Furthermore, both White and UFC were able to escape -- narrowly, mind you -- the kind of putrid stain to their brand that dissuades sponsors and forcibly pushes a sport from the front page to the status of damaged niche that UFC once knew all too well. That line is an incredibly precarious one to walk. Just ask the sport of boxing, which was effectively declared persona non grata from network television and the public eye after nasty brawls following Riddick Bowe-Andrew Golota I in 1996 and Evander Holyfield-Mike Tyson II in 1997 led to riots in the crowd.
It can be argued that it took boxing nearly two decades to return consistently to mainstream television (although there were multiple competing factors). Yet it can't be overlooked how big of a bullet UFC dodged by coming so painfully close to seeing its paying customers, including a who's who of A-list celebrities in the front rows, injured due to the belligerence of its own fighters.
The same can certainly be said for the incident that fueled the beef between fighters and created UFC 229's opportunity for record-breaking sales -- McGregor's reckless felony attack on a bus holding Nurmagomedov in Brooklyn, New York, that injured two UFC fighters and a company employee, affecting four separate bouts at UFC 223. Not surprisingly, that incident doubles as the root of Saturday's problems.
While seemingly nothing can make Nuramagomedov's actions acceptable or justified, they are far from shocking. Not after a fight promotion that was built upon the sensationalizing of felony assault and the escalating acrimony between the fighters' camps and the fans of their respective home countries.
Speaking after the incident, White defended his constant use of footage showing McGregor's maniacal attack as promotion, calling it "the story of the fight." But UFC's decision to sensationalize the very real tension between camps gambled on the hope that all parties involved would have the self-control to operate as sportsman and keep the fighting to the sanctioned grounds of the Octagon.
"What Khabib should have done [after the fight] is pick Conor up, pull him up from the ground and hug him," White said. "Even if you're the biggest Conor fan ever, you at least have to respect it. [Nurmagomedov] won the fight, and he looked great doing it. He had the opportunity to walk out of that place a champion and look like a stud. It should have been a very different night."
While White's notion is certainly idealistic, it's somewhat tone deaf following a promotion that painted McGregor as a returning hero and allowed its brash Irish star to constantly use the kind of personal, religious and cultural slander against Nurmagomedov that, to the Dagestan-born fighter and his team, was anything but hollow promotion.
UFC may not be directly to blame for Nurmagomedov making a leaping kick off the Octagon platform aimed at McGregor's team after he hurdled the cage wal,l but White certainly helped foster an environment where such a negative scene was possible, and he did so by making a controversial short-term decision with long-term consequences -- the kind UFC has increasingly become known for of late.
By choosing not to punish McGregor for his April attack and subsequently rewarding him with a starring role in the richest fight in history, White declared his biggest star untouchable while tilting the scales of justice within his own promotion in a potentially dangerous manner.
In some ways, the decision was no different than recent talk of rewarding both Jon Jones and Brock Lesnar with immediate title shots following the bad press of failed drug tests. Only the McGregor decision has a much more dangerous end game, especially if White follows through on his threat late Saturday to strip Nurmagomedov of the title should the Nevada State Athletic Commission hand down a lengthy suspension.
Does Nurmagomedov deserve to be suspended and fined by the company for his actions on Saturday, separate from whatever discipline he may face by the commission and/or local authorities? Without question. But the fallout would be a public relations nightmare should Nurmagomedov be treated publicly as a villain by UFC while McGregor subtlety shifts into the victim role (despite replays showing it was McGregor who threw the first punch in the Octagon against Nurmagomedov's team).
The only way to ensure Saturday's incident never happens again would be to throw the book at Nurmagomedov and treat him as an example of what not to do for other fighters. The problem for UFC is that a decision to do so after letting McGregor skate free (he accepted a plea deal to avoid jail time) would be the kind of hypocrisy that makes stripping Nicco Montano of her flyweight title -- and not doing the same to Amanda Nunes the previous year in a similar situation -- an afterthought.
White was asked by media members late Saturday whether disciplining McGregor originally could've helped avoid the situation UFC now finds itself in.
"No, it had nothing to do with that," White said. "[Nurmagomedov] wasn't coming back and saying he wanted to jump the fence because we didn't suspend Conor. He wanted to jump over the fence because the guy on Conor's team talked shit to him.
"Do you have any idea how much [his April attack] cost Conor? F---ing millions of dollars ... millions of dollars. These guys don't care about suspensions and stuff like that. This is so much bigger to them. This is some street shit that's going on. This isn't sport. Suspension and whatever, none of that stuff matters. And a suspension might have pissed off Khabib more because he wanted to fight him and a suspension would've taken longer."
Nurmagomedov appeared at the post-fight press conference but didn't field questions. He made a statement which opened with an apology to the commission and city of Las Vegas, admitting "this is not my best side." But even though he barely had a leg to stand on by doing so in the face of an unforgivable decision, Nurmagomedov cut right to the heart of the lingering fallout of White's prior decision making.
"I don't understand how people can talk how I jump on the cage," Nurmagomedov said. "How about how he talk about my religion, my family and my father? He come to Brooklyn and attack bus and almost kill a couple of people. What is this shit? How come people don't talk about this?"
Sadly, UFC's decision not to punish McGregor for what was essentially a felony assault on his own co-workers created a new era for the promotion and a wildfire that badly needs extinguishing. It was also the reminder of the not-so-distant past when an incident such as this would've been snuffed out before it could multiply into anything more.
In 2010, Jason "Mayhem" Miller triggered an ugly brawl (featuring Nate and Nick Diaz) inside the cage at a Strikeforce card in Nashville, Tennessee, that was broadcast nationally on CBS. The fallout of the Strikeforce event saw White, then a competitor of the promotion before Zuffa purchased it, publicly criticize all parties involved, saying, "When was the last time you saw that at a UFC event?"
One month later, UFC did have a similar brouhaha when welterweight Paul Daley sucker punched Josh Koscheck following his decision loss at UFC 113. The result? White instantly fired Daley and went on to claim the British-born slugger would never fight for the promotion again. Eight years later, Daley never has stepped foot in the Octagon again.
Had Daley been the level of star that McGregor is and as integral to the company's financial bottom line, it's an interesting argument as to whether he would've been so demonstratively banished. Either way, because no one was seriously injured, UFC will likely only benefit from Nurmagomedov's actions in the long run, in the form of a lucrative rematch that could lead more record-breaking results.
"Maybe I'm taking it harder than most people would because this is not who we are and this is not what we do," White said.
It's time for UFC to clean up its own house and correct its emerging image problem to avoid any further incidents that produce the kind of repercussions that can't be reversed, cleaned up or used for promotional gain.
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