When Mike Perry's cornerman and UFC middleweight Alex Nicholson shouted out something flagrantly racist at UFC 202, it spirited me to a surprising place: my idyllic youth in Eagle River, Alaska.
Perry was making his UFC debut against South Korea's Lim Hyun-Gyu (typically presented as Hyun Gyu Lim in MMA), and during the pre-fight introductions, Nicholson said (h/t Mookie Alexander of Bloody Elbow, NSFW language), "He can't even open his motherf--king eyes."
Associations are a funny thing. Everyone has experienced the unexpected nostalgia spurred by a song, a place, an object; even a smell can transport you to a long-ago memory. Once, when I was in my teens, I got food poisoning, and during the worst of it, my mom made steaks with a seasoning she always used. Even though it was something else that made me sick, I couldn't eat steak with that seasoning for literally years afterward.
Eagle River is a town just outside of Anchorage that had a population of about 30,000 when I was growing up. It wasn't a diverse place. Predominately white and conservative, those sensibilities largely shaped and informed a culture already made insular by geography, and this was probably particularly true in high schools. For example, I went to school with and was in the same class as the unnamed juveniles among these three idiots. Talk about nostalgia.
Once when I was a senior in high school, I went to one of Eagle River's two Chinese restaurants, a persistently mediocre buffet strategically situated next to the lone movie theater. Two boys from my class were also there, and within moments of walking inside, they started in with the evergreen jokes indiscriminately applied to East Asian "accents," relishing in particular numerous repeats of "flied lice." A classic!
They said this in full auditory range of the employees of the restaurant, all of whom were of East Asian extraction. They said this in range of nearly everyone in the restaurant. They did so without a second thought, and they laughed at their cleverness and, as far as I could tell, didn't pause to consider how callous and dehumanizing it was.
That kind of joking is intrinsically callous and dehumanizing. When you factor in the setting, that the employees were waiting on dumb kids who were making fun of them, that it happened in a town overrun with people who raised those kids and that the restaurant was dependent on that patronage, the implicit power dynamics amount to a new degree of sickening.
The ease with which Nicholson let loose that comment, the comfort he felt in saying something like that despite being surrounded by cameras and microphones, is what reminded me of that incident in the Chinese restaurant. That type of comment, and so freely made, does not just pop out of someone who spends his everyday existence in an otherwise elevated state of social awareness. It doesn't pop out of someone who, at the very least, doesn't think racist insults are in some way an effective weapon to wield.
Nicholson addressed it later on Twitter, saying, "I respect every man who steps in the cage and my comments were insensitive towards lim (sic) I was hype for my brother but It's all love no hate."
Except saying racist things is the opposite of respect; it strips a person's individuality, reducing that person to an "Other" who's easy to marginalize. Nor is it love. It might be hate. It is, at an absolute minimum, prejudice and ignorance permitted to flourish and shape how Perry's camp villainized his opponent. This is also evident in a Facebook post Nicholson made in which he called Lim "Dung Him Kong Jung Foo," per the Bloody Elbow piece linked above. The very pinnacle of respect!
How embarrassing for Perry. Oh man. What a rough spot—torn between loyalty to your cornerman and his egregious use of racism at the fights. Just kidding; Perry never wavered in his loyalty. On The MMA Hour (h/t Alexander) the following Monday, Perry offered an explanation so disingenuous and convoluted, it was insulting.
"I don't think any of my competition can see me, and when I hit Lim, I opened a lot of people's eyes," Perry told Ariel Helwani.
When Helwani clarified that it was said prior to the knockout, Perry joked, "Well, we can see the future." It's asking a lot to believe Perry actually meant what he said. To me, it sounded like desperate mental gymnastics in a misguided spin attempt.
Also in that interview, Perry said, "I think people's opinion on this has been blown way out of proportion, and they need to calm down."
That casts his explanation in an even worse light, flirting with a nudge-nudge-wink-wink, "we all know what he meant but we have to play dumb because of PC culture" vibe.
If Perry has not mastered the art of publicity, that's not shocking. While his explanation was absurd and both his and Nicholson's Facebook pages have numerous instances of slurs and racial epithets, they have done more individually to mediate the blunder than the UFC has. The UFC, unlike Nicholson and Perry or the racists I went to school with, has decades of public relations experience.
Maybe that's actually why the UFC has done nothing, at least publicly. While UFC Vice President of Public Relations, Athlete Marketing and Development Dave Sholler said on Twitter the promotion was "looking into this," as of this writing, it's been a week since that tweet. There is nary a mention of the incident or the UFC's response from any official channel.
Well, to be fair, it did do something. The UFC's penchant for removing unauthorized footage from social media is nothing new, but usually it's reserved for reel from the fight itself. It went the extra mile here and swiftly reported copyright infringement on Jessica Hudnall's tweet with video of the comment. Without a video spreading across the internet, the UFC can easily remain silent rather than directly address this unflattering episode.
Wow. I don't expect cornermen to be elegant but this is some disgusting conduct. https://t.co/Lo0o3Y57ge— Mike Bohn (@MikeBohnMMA) August 21, 2016
The UFC isn't responsible for comments its fighters and their corners make, but it is responsible for acknowledging and condemning them as inappropriate. It either doesn't realize this, or it thinks it's the wiser choice to stay quiet, working to scrub the incident from its records like the Ministry of Truth.
It's not especially surprising; the UFC has stayed mum on a lot lately. After Donald Cerrone said Daniel Cormier fought against Anderson Silva "like a f-g," an unnamed "senior UFC official" told MMAjunkie the promotion was "incredibly disappointed by Cerrone's comment.
"The organization is a proud advocate for equality, and Cerrone will be educated on the issues impacting the LGBTQ community, particularly related to the sensitivity surrounding his choice of words today."
According to the article, the UFC also intended to have a talk with Cerrone about it. If it did, it didn't mention the outcome. When Cerrone later clarified (NSFW language) he only meant Cormier "fought like a b---h," the UFC didn't bother to address it at all.
It also did not acknowledge Michael Bisping's slur-ridden tirade against Luke Rockhold moments after knocking him out and becoming the middleweight champion. In less than 30 seconds, Bisping called Rockhold a "p---y," "c--ksucker" and "f----t." Its silence on this is actually somewhat surprising given the extensive media coverage it garnered.
As is its way, the UFC has chosen a non-response to Nicholson as the best response, banking on the likelihood there will be no lasting implications for it. It's probably right. The fanbase, by and large, isn't bothered enough by hate speech to not watch in protest, and the sport doesn't receive enough mainstream attention yet that a corner saying openly racist things about an opponent directly in front of him is even news outside of MMA sites.
If homophobic and sexist language doesn't warrant any penalty, and neither does overt racism directed at one of its fighters, what will? As it stands, the UFC is as concerned with the problematic language among its fighters as it is with, oh, I don't know, Anthony Johnson's no-contest plea and conviction for domestic abuse. That is to say, not at all. And until it actually implements penalties strong enough to act as a deterrent and back up its claims of advocacy, it's no stretch to conclude the noise it makes about its commitment to equality is in service to its bottom line.
In fact, the UFC is so unconcerned with the whole Perry corner ordeal that just days after Perry knocked Lim out at UFC 202, it booked his next fight. Set less than two months after 202, he will face Danny Roberts at UFC 204 on Oct. 8.
There's been no word on whether the promotion will allow Nicholson to return to the Octagon, either as cornerman or fighter. With the UFC, its silence indicates the answer is probably yes.