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Toxic Fight Promotion: A case for why the UFC should not book the Khabib vs. McGregor rematch

Karim Zidan delves into the variety of reasons why the UFC should not book a rematch between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor. 

Chad Stanhope

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When Khabib Nurmagomedov defeated Conor McGregor by fourth round submission at UFC 229, few expected that an immediate rematch would take place. However, over the past few months, the two fighters have rekindled their bitter rivalry, including the radicalized slurs, religious attacks, and racial tension that characterized their first encounter, leaving little doubt that their heated rivalry will eventually get a second act.

While the UFC 229 main event was the biggest box office draw in UFC history — estimated at 2.4 million Pay-Per-View buys — it concluded with an embarrassing post-fight brawl that led to both fighters being suspended by the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC). The post-fight melee was a stain on what should have been a celebratory night of fights and emphasized the extent of the damage caused by the controversial promotional tactics employed ahead of the fight. Despite the consequences, the UFC will arguably not be deterred from promoting a rematch between the two fighters, especially since it would likely do even better than the first meeting, and certainly better than any other fight the promotion can book in 2019.

Given the growing likelihood of a rematch between Nurmagomedov and McGregor, this article will attempt to make a case as to why the bout should not take place by taking into account the questionable fight promotion tactics employed, the UFC’s lack of accountability, and the risks associated with the rematch.

Race, Religion and Bigotry as Fight Promotion

Ahead of his UFC 229 title fight against Nurmagomedov, McGregor was not afraid to mix religion, politics, and ethnic tension into his fight promotion.

In the build-up to the anticipated showdown in October 2018, McGregor played up the political and historical tension between Chechnya and Dagestan and posted pictures on social media with captions referencing him “chilling in Jahannam” (the Arabic word for hell). He called out Nurmagomedov’s relationship to Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, and referred to his father as a “quivering coward” for associating with Kadyrov as well. McGregor even called Nurmagomedov a “backwards c***” during the UFC 229 pre-fight press conference after Nurmagomedov — who presents himself as a devout and outspoken Muslim — refused to accept a glass of McGregor’s branded whiskey.

McGregor’s comments quickly drew angry reactions from Nurmagomedov’s entourage, as well Chechen fighters linked to Ramzan Kadyrov, one of whom claimed McGregor would have to “answer for his words” about Kadyrov.

“…When it comes to Chechnya or the Caucasus, you need to think about what to say, and what not to say,” Khusein Khaliev, a lightweight fighter who represents Kadyrov’s Akhmat MMA fight club, said. “You will have to answer for your words, inside a cage or outside of it. We never forgive for attacking the honor of our family. So I suggest you show remorse and apologize quickly, because life does not end with your fight against Khabib. Watch your tongue if you’re not looking for trouble.”

Given the racially-charged statements McGregor had incorporated into his fight promotion, the UFC was forced to increase security for the UFC 229 event to limit clashes between the two teams. This did not stop Nurmagomedov from scaling the octagon cage following a fourth-round submission victory against McGregor and launching himself at the Irishman’s team. A brawl ensued between the two sides, with fans surrounding the scene and police attempting to restore order. While Nurmagomedov’s actions were inexcusable, there is a case to be made that McGregor’s promotional antics — fueled by religious attacks and other disturbing statements — set the stage for the inevitable brawl.

In the aftermath of the brawl, both Nurmagomedov and McGregor were suspended and fined for their respective roles in the brawl. Tensions died down and the promotion moved forward with interim title fights in the absence of their top stars. Few expected the rivalry to flare up again until earlier this month, when McGregor posted a tweet with Nurmagomedov and his wife wearing an Islamic face veil along with the caption, “Your wife’s a towel mate.” The comment was part of a series of tweets that took aim at the lightweight champion’s family and entourage. Despite the immediate backlash the former two-division champ faced for the unwarranted attack on Nurmagomedov’s religion and family, McGregor followed up with another tweet, “Plot Twist: It’s a goat under that towel.” McGregor deleted the tweets shortly thereafter.

McGregor’s string of derogatory tweets was not the first time the former UFC champion incorporated racist remarks into his fight promotion. Back in 2014, McGregor told his German opponent, Dennis Siver, to “kiss them feet nazi.” Ahead of his featherweight title fight against Jose Aldo, McGregor targeted the Brazilian champion with xenophobic statements such as, “I would invade his favela on horseback and would kill anyone who wasn’t fit to work.” Then in the lead-up to his boxing debut against Floyd Mayweather, McGregor was accused of racism when he told the African-American boxer to “dance for me, boy.” When questioned about the remark, McGregor denied being racist because he is “black from the bellybutton down.”

Floyd Mayweather Jr. v Conor McGregor World Press Tour - Toronto Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Given that McGregor has been criticized for racist comments against four separate opponents over the past five years, it is evidently clear that McGregor is more than willing to use bigotry and racism to sell fights. Not only does this shine an ugly light on the promotional side of combat sports, it can also bring out the worst in his opponents.

McGregor’s personal attack on Nurmagomedov and his family led to inevitable responses from both Nurmagomedov and his manager, Ali Abdelaziz. Nurmagomedov tweeted a photo of McGregor standing with a unnamed woman with the caption “Rapist, you are Rapist. You are a hypocrite who is not responsible for your actions. Justice will find you. We will see.” Nurmagomedov’s tweet was in reference to the fact that the former UFC champion is being investigated over sexual assault allegations in Ireland. The UFC lightweight champion followed up by saying “if you think that insulting entire religion you be safe, you are mistaken.”

Combat sports such as MMA and boxing have an extensive history of exploiting racial and national tension for profit. While this helped create unforgettable rivalries such as Muhammed Ali vs. Joe Frazier, it also set a terrible precedent for the extreme measures promoters and athletes can employ to promote a fight. The UFC 229 saga is a primary example of the consequences that arise from such extreme fight promotion.

Potential Security Concerns

During the now-infamous UFC 229 pre-fight press conference, McGregor took aim at Nurmagomedov by making light of the shady figures linked to the current UFC champion. He brought up Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov and labeled the champion’s father a coward for associating with him, labelled Nurmagomedov’s manager a “terrorist snitch,” and made references to the Russian oligarch who sponsored Nurmagomedov until his arrest on embezzlement charges earlier this year.

“When money got pumped into your camp by that little scumbag that’s now in the little 8×10 cell, you thought you were a don,” McGregor stated at the presser. “Now look at you. No money left.”

McGregor’s decision to mention the unsavoury aspects of Nurmagomedov’s career shed light on the questionable company he keeps, and the shady figures who have provided him with financial support during his career. These include Kadyrov, who invited Nurmagomedov to host seminars at his fight club in 2016. McGregor called Kadyrov a “crazy dictator,” which drew an official response from the Chechen government labelling him an “outrageous clown” who acts like a “Mexican rooster.”

UFC 229: Khabib v McGregor Press Conference Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

While the Chechen government’s reaction may seem strange, the fact that they were willing to publicly comment on McGregor’s promotional tactics was enough of a concern. Kadyrov’s list of human rights abuses is extensive and well-documented, including multiple deadly crackdowns on LGBTQ+ people within Chechnya. These anti-gay purges resulted in summary executions, honor killings, and torture. Therefore, his comments towards McGregor, as well as his longstanding relationship with Nurmagomedov, should be scrutinized ahead of a potential rematch.

Outside of the questionable company he keeps, Nurmagomedov also has a significant global fanbase, particularly within Muslim-majority countries. While his fanbase has proven to be remarkably loyal, a portion have also shown themselves to be unhinged and downright dangerous.

In August 2018, Nurmagomedov criticized the existence of rap concerts in Dagestan, which led to rising tension across his native republic. Rapper Egor Kreed was forced to cancel his performance in Dagestan after being threatened with rape on his Instagram account. When Nurmagomedov refused to denounce the threats, he was accused of “inciting ethnic conflict on the basis of religion” by one of Russia’s most popular rapper, Timati.

A second incident took place in February 2019, when Nurmagomedov criticized a controversial play held in Dagestan that featured a scene with a woman seducing a man while dressed in lingerie. The UFC championlabelled the display as “pornography” and demand an investigation into all those involved with the play, which helped stoke outrage among the local population. As a result, several members of the play’s creative team were threatened and were forced to issue an apology.

Nurmagomedov’s comments and the subsequent threats that took place emphasize the influence Nurmagomedov enjoys within his native republic. While he did not personally incite violence against those he criticized, his comments are used by some as the basis for an attack on others. In the wake of Khabib’s remarks regarding the play, a Dagestani blogger was arrested for inciting violence and extremism. The blogger, who manages “Imamat Dagestan” on various social media networks, incited extremist activity against the same concerts and theatrical performances that the UFC champion had spoken out against.

In light of the fact that McGregor has incorporated racial, religious, and ethnic tension into his fight promotion against Nurmagomedov (both ahead of and following UFC 229), it is possible that the Irishman will face even more security concerns ahead of a potential rematch. While this is not to say that Nurmagomedov will personally incite violence, McGregor should be concerned about the more extreme portion of his opponent’s fanbase.

Lack of Accountability

One of the main concerns following the UFC 229 post-fight melee was the UFC’s lack of willingness to discipline their fighters and hold them accountable for their actions. Instead of penalizing Conor McGregor for throwing a dolly at the bus in Brooklyn, the UFC used the footage to help promote the fight; instead of fining McGregor for stoking ethnic and religious tension ahead of UFC 229, the UFC ignored or downplayed the fighter’s behaviour, forfeiting punishment for profit; and instead of taking action against Nurmagomedov and his team for their role in the brawl, the UFC deflected the responsibility of delegating punishment onto the Nevada state athletic commission (NSAC).

Ahead of UFC 229, UFC president Dana White dismissed McGregor’s antics as simple “trash-talking” and insisted that it was no different to what occurs in other sports.

“There is trash-talking in every sport,” White said at the UFC 229 post-fight press conference. “They do it in the NBA and the NFL. They do it in baseball. It is part of the game. That is never going to change here. We’re never going to tell anybody what they can or can’t say. That’s never going to change.”

While White admitted he was “one of the most upset guys on the planet” following the UFC 229 post-fight brawl, he was reluctant to place any direct blame on the promotional tactics employed in the lead-up to the fight, instead claiming it was all a part of being in the “fight business.” White’s comments emphasized the promotion’s unwillingness to take responsibility for their role in the infamous incident, or to reprimand their biggest draws. This inability to hold fighters accountable for their actions sets a terrible precedent for what the UFC will allow their top stars to do in the name of selling fights.

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

As a result of the UFC’s refusal to regulate fighter behaviour in such situations, the NSAC has suggested it may introduce regulations aimed at penalizing certain types of trash-talking ahead of fights. White has since been a staunch opponent of this proposal, and even went so far as to call it “unconstitutional.”

“I think it’s crazy,” White said at the UFC 235 press conference. “I think it’s insane. I think it’s unconstitutional, first of all. I don’t think you can legally do that. These guys get into a cage and they punch each other in the face, they can knock each other unconscious, they can choke each other, but they can’t say mean things to each other? It’s pretty ridiculous.”

It should be noted that the UFC is more than capable of regulating fighter speech if they choose to do so. The UFC’s Code of Conduct, which was introduced back in 2013, includes a prohibition on “derogatory or offensive conduct, including without limitation insulting language, symbols, or actions about a person’s ethnic background, heritage, color, race, national origin, age, religion, disability, gender or sexual orientation.” This also includes “inappropriate physical, verbal and online behavior (such as inappropriate statements made via email, text messaging or social networks).”

While the UFC holds the legal capacity to enforce the code of conduct, it has rarely been used to curtail fighter behaviour. In 2013, the promotion suspended Matt Mitrione after making transphobic statements about MMA fighter Fallon Fox, and suspended Nate Diaz for 90 days for tweeting a gay slur. Comparatively, UFC light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones was fined $65,000 after testing positive for cocaine during an out-of-competition drug test in 2015.

Throughout the course of the UFC 229 saga, the UFC has been reluctant to apply the code of conduct as a form of punishment. However, McGregor’s latest comments managed to draw a reaction from the UFC brass. In a statement released to BloodyElbow.com on April 3, 2019, White revealed that he is “aware of the recent social media exchange between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor. The ongoing situation has escalated to a level that is unacceptable. As such, we are taking the necessary steps to reach out to both athlete camps and this situation is being addressed by all parties internally.”

Despite White’s comments, the UFC is yet to take any public action against either fighter.

***

Beyond the toxic promotional tactics and potential risks associated with a Khabib vs McGregor rematch, McGregor is no longer the dominant force that rose through the UFC ranks five years ago. The Irishman has not won a fight in the Octagon since 2016 and is coming off back-to-back losses in his most recent outings, which has allowed for fighters like Dustin Poirier and Tony Ferguson to replace him as title contenders.

Another interesting development is the UFC’s media rights deal with ESPN, an agreement that saw the sports channel purchase exclusive rights to broadcast UFC content on their platforms. The deal includes exclusive rights to UFC PPVs, which would be broadcasted on ESPN+ in the United States, in exchange for a guaranteed revenue stream for the promotion. This means that McGregor, who headlined four of the five highest selling UFC PPVs in history, is at a significant disadvantage during negotiations with the UFC. Since the UFC is no longer in the business of selling PPVs – instead focusing on regular content that will draw in new subscribers to ESPN+ – McGregor is arguably no longer essential to the UFC. While the UFC has taken plenty of risks before in the name of profit, it remains unclear whether a rematch between McGregor and Nurmagomedov would be worth the reward.

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