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UFC 229 Opinion: Thugs and beasts before the law, event was just business as usual for its rotten culture

UFC 229 was a stain on a sport all too willing to embrace, and promote its stains.

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UFC 229: Khabib v McGregor Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

I’ll tell you what animals in France being put on trial in 15th century France have to do with Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor in just a second, but first let me talk about animals in France being put on trial in 15th century France.

And yes, it’s true. Unlike a brawl breaking out between an Irish hothead recently charged with three counts of assault and a Dagestani athlete with connections to war criminals — this piece of world history is shocking. In 1494, a pig was arrested and put on trial in Clermont, France for strangling a child in its crib.

The process didn’t come cheap either. In order to bring the pig to justice, the community had to pay for keeping the animal in jail, the executioner, the carriage to transport the animal to the guillotine, the middle-aged restraints (probably not unlike a BoJack Horseman / Hannibal Lecter crossover), and however much it cost the lieutenant of the bailiff to sign off on it all. I’m sure that sounds insane to most people. What’s next? Herbivorous beetles getting defense attorneys? Well — yes, actually (with a historical precedent no less: ancient Greece had a court for judicial proceedings against animals called the Prytaneion).

The UFC 229 brawl looked insane to the viewing public too. And yet...

These Violent Delights

UFC 225: Whittaker v Romero 2 Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

I mean, it was insane.

How can you forget Zubaira Tukhugov attacking McGregor while Islam Makhachev and Khabib’s brother — Abubakar Nurmagomedov — stormed him from behind? Who hasn’t watched Nurmagodev fly into the air at Dillon Danis like CGI spiderman fighting with Pride rules on repeat?

It was MMA’s version of Andrew Golota vs. Riddick Bowe; like Khabib vs. Conor, it was a fight steeped in ethnic tensions that simply reached their natural, stupid-ass conclusion.

You could say it 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 — provoked by Khabib’s own Tony Soprano impression — that the UFC giddily used as part of the hype machine leading up to the bout. Blowback, you say? Well, using CIA internal coinage for the unintended consequences of political violence is a tad hyperbolic, but we’re talking about fighters who have less than six degrees of Kevin Bacon attached to modern day concentration camps for gay men. So let’s not be too diplomatic about what we’re dealing with...

MMA: The Ultimate Fighter-Lima vs Taylor Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

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. Dana White will come out and call this moment disgusting. He will say “this isn’t what the sport is about.” But that begs the question: what is the UFC about?

More Than Fighting

Well, it’s about fighting you moonie!

Well, sure. But if it were just about fighting, we might as well just livestream idiots and innocents alike getting knocked the f—k out. Or put two men in a ring and wrap tasers to their fists. Which, yes, we’ve had. 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 some backyard wrestler violently jumping off a warehouse rooftop and onto a burning truck with another human strapped across his shoulders — is professionalism.

However, professionalism is a bit hard to find in the Octagon. Here’s UFC president Dana White talking about a journalist’s anonymous source: “First off, whoever gave you that quote is a p—sy and a f—king fa—ot and a f—king liar.”

It wasn’t just about fighting when the UFC gleefully allowed Colby Covington and Chael Sonnen to race-bait their way into title contention. As Bloody Elbow’s own Tim Bissell so exhaustively documented, it wasn’t just about fighting when women’s MMA got started in the Octagon; popularity and opportunity have largely been contingent on the proverbial male gaze (fighters who are on record as being uncomfortable about it). If it were just about fighting, titles would be more than just ceremonies, and fighters wouldn’t have a clause in their contract about how the UFC doesn’t officially sanction titles, and therefore fighters have no legal stake in their own achievements. If it were just about fighting, fighters might even own their own rankings like boxers do.

I could probably go on, so I think I will. I wish I had a better selective memory, but I don’t. My memory warehouse has filed things like: Female Fighter Scoffs off Husband’s Nazi Tattoo. Speaking of — remember when a UFC fighter was sponsored by actual Nazis? Or when UFC welterweight champ, Tyron Woodley, said “if you look at the history of our sport — and it’s not even just our sport — the history of the American culture, certain things are subliminally racist that people don’t understand are racist” and Dana White (with an assist from Michael Bisping) responded by calling him a drama queen? Why is James Vick allowed to bring indicted but acquitted because of impotence rapist Lloyd Irvin into the cage again?

None of this is counting the outside fighting the UFC has happily run outside of the cage for: from union bashing to minimize the percentage of league revenues that go to the fighters to launching an all out legal war on a hapless gym owner for illegally screening UFC 156.

It’s all within the UFC’s legal right, of course. But you get the point. The UFC has never stood for anything more than Just Bleed. There are no principles except the principles of percussion.

Some people didn’t see this coming. Who could have predicted this?

Well, anyone paying close attention. I don’t consider Brendan Schaub a paragon of expert analysis (though he’s a swell guy, and can provide an insider’s view: sometimes to disastrous results), but he didn’t attend UFC 229 precisely because he assumed a brawl would break out.

Our own Karim Zidan, writing in The Guardian, was much more calibrated.

While Nurmagomedov-McGregor is a financial boon for the UFC, it remains a risky venture. The Irishman and his entourage have already caused havoc during the Barclays Center incident. A handful of those men may be present with McGregor this time around, and given that Nurmagomedov also walks around with a sizeable team that has been known to intimidate and confront fighters, the lead-up to the PPV may be explosive.

McGregor has also spent the last few weeks stoking religious and ethnic tensions. He posted pictures on social media with captions referencing him “chilling in Jahannam” (the Arabic word for hell) – Nurmagomedov is Muslim. He also posted a picture of one of Nurmagomedov’s training partners, Chechen fighter Zubaira Tukhugov, with the caption: “A true Chechen would never take orders from a Dagestani man.” Nurmagomedov is from Dagestan.

Zidan ended his piece by calling the fight a high risk “gamble.” How prescient he was (not that he ever isn’t)...

As Thugs Begin to Thaw

Fine, whatever. The UFC is about more than just fighting. Okay. Whatever you say, Cathy Newman. That doesn’t mean the UFC is responsible for Khabib’s actions. The UFC didn’t tell him to flying double stomp Conor’s corner like Lo Pan’s enforcer, they don’t condone racism and sexual assault, and it’s not their fault that the domestic violence arrest rate is alarmingly high in MMA.

That’s true. The UFC will condemn the actions of everyone involved. There will be serious consequences for Khabib on his team (especially with regard to getting a visa) moving forward that will be beyond Dana’s control. I have no doubt that Dana is sincere when he says he’s disgusted by what happened. It’s not just Khabib. Despite some confusing angles regarding the portion of the brawl between Conor and Khabib’s crew, McGregor clearly initiated some of his own hostilities.

The point is that the UFC is largely disinterested in creating a culture of professionalism. Without the language to challenge its own indecency, the solutions are left to whatever artificial decrees fighters must follow. The company’s moral compass is pretty much Do You Wanna Be a F—king Fighter?

Nine Killed And 46 Wounded Over Labor Day Weekend In Chicago Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

If your only way to sell fights is to promote disrespect among combatants, that disrespect will branch out into a wider community than the one intended.

This isn’t Lego Batman staged in a 12 year old’s backyard. These are fighters with fanbases who see not just what it means to be a fighter, but what it means to be Irish, or Dagestani, or Muslim, or Catholic, etc. Heck even Mexicans were caught in the rhetorical crossfire somehow. If fans watched for just fighting, they wouldn’t see Conor’s success as Irish success, or Khabib’s success as Muslim success.

And so they don’t just see fighting. They see it’s meaning.

They see human beings competing against one another, and that competition is as much theirs as it is the fighter’s. It’s silly, dumb, and tribal but it’s easier to get fans involved and have them throw punches at each other when one guy doesn’t stop at insulting his opponent but insults his religion too — fans may not be fighters, but they’ll fight for what they believe when you challenge them while no one is around to stick up for them except themselves.

Going back to weird history, Cambridge psychologist Nicholas Humphrey has a theory on what those late middle aged antics of bringing animals before the law to answer for their crimes meant. It wasn’t that people back then were dumber — not that holding a bird on trial for “talking” in church doesn’t make a strong case. It wasn’t about crime, punishment, and potential deterrence. Rather, “its concern was to establish the meaning to society’s of the culprit’s past behavior.”

In other words: to remind others (however awkwardly) that chaos doesn’t reign in this world. The UFC won’t ever promote peace, love, and understanding, and I’m not asking them too. I don’t consider myself innocent. You think I’m gonna look away if Khabib vs. Conor II happens? Of course not. But they can remind the public that chaos no longer reigns in and outside the octagon.

It can start with keeping Lloyd Irvin away from the cage (forever). It can grow into fines, statements, and new protocols with enforcement that is consistent with a set of values even if it’s just Ok Guys, From Now On, Lifetime Bans on Anyone That Goes Full Chedder Goblin on Innocent Bystanders. It can start with easing up on the sadomasochism of promoting each fight as a dumb blood feud — after watching the brilliant action of Tony Ferguson vs. Anthony Pettis, are we not already entertained?

Dana White doesn’t have to write the UFC’s version of Kant’s categorical imperative. It can be something as simple as knowing who the hell you’re dealing with. This was a matchup between two fighters whose mere mention provoked an actual assassination attempt.

What that means for the UFC is anyone’s guess. I doubt it’ll be the source of any serious reflection. But the UFC doesn’t have to slap the little devil off their moral dilemma shoulders. The devil can stay, and occasionally whisper in Dana’s ear from time to time. But if — as they say — culture really is the arts elevated to a set of beliefs, there’s no lack of art for the UFC to elevate. The UFC has nice things. Like Nick Newell’s awesome Twitterary; Derrick Lewis’ post-fight quotes; and you know what? Come to think of it, that Khabib vs. Conor fight wasn’t half-bad either. At least until the end.*

*I’ll try to convince Phil to do a Review with me, but as an aside: the fight itself was a great example of smart scouting turned into efficient tactics. It wasn’t the most exciting (early on), but in a perfect world, the rematch is already set and I can’t wait to watch.