There's something empowering about a conspiracy theory.
The more far-fetched it is, the better. Cloaking yourself in a conspiracy theory is like moving behind an aegis. You're safe from all rational argument. If someone doesn't buy it, why, they're just not in the know. If someone is only going on the same facts everyone else has, they're simply being naïve.
It is quite possible that no group of people, at least in the sports world, has a sweet tooth for the secret plot like MMA fans. The biggest recent example comes to us courtesy of one Mr. Conor McGregor.
MMA's conspiracy mind is understandable. The sport has a long-held reputation for behind-the-scenes manipulation, dating back to Japan's Pride promotion, which was operated by an impresario, Nobuyuki Sakakibara, with ties to the country's Yakuza crime syndicate. Pride long faced strong allegations of fight fixing.
Last but not least, there is professional wrestling. There are major commonalities between pro wrestling and MMA. Pro wrestling, of course, is entirely scripted, with athletes following character arcs and storylines created by a dedicated team of writers. It even has its own term, kayfabe, which refers to the realistic portrayal of these fabricated people and their actions.
Put all of this together, and the average MMA fan's preoccupation with the place behind the curtain is understandable.
Sometimes, though, it borders on the ridiculous. Enter McGregor.
McGregor is the most famous MMA fighter who has ever lived. He is unassailably successful and wealthy. MMA fans view him as a special and singular figure. The Irish regard him as a living legend. Irish MMA fans only question his ability to age and die.
So the reaction was a strange mix of shock and insouciance when a turbo-boosted McGregor vaulted himself into the Bellator cage early Saturday morning after a victory by training teammate Charlie Ward. He wasn't supposed to be in there; just a VIP spectator. People, including referee Marc Goddard, took issue with his presence. McGregor responded by shoving and slapping people.
There's a valid argument to be made that McGregor is generally out of control at this stage of his career. McGregor has since issued a half-apology, with the UFC taking its own kinda-sorta action, but that has little, if anything, to do with fan reaction in the wake of the incident. That reaction very much reflects the average MMA fan's outsized obsession with conspiracy: McGregor premeditated all of this to facilitate his release from a restrictive UFC contract. (Warning: NSFW language)
Several in the MMA media rejected the claim, but that didn't make it go away.
First of all, if you look at the sequence of events, and the hyper state in which McGregor found himself, it's pretty difficult to see anything to suggest this was "planned." Second, a falling-out with the UFC would submarine his two largest publicly stated goals: to defend his lineal lightweight title and become an MMA promoter. It's not impossible that McGregor would box again, but after a not-so-promising debut against Floyd Mayweather, the law of diminishing returns would quickly kick in, and the business-savvy McGregor has to know that.
Respect and glory are big keywords in the McGregor narrative, right alongside wealth. His Bellator stunt appeared to supply none of the three, and a subsequent UFC release would only provide, potentially, one. Jumping into the cage and shoving a referee is not exactly the work of a puppet master masterfully guiding his own strings.
The blind loyalty afforded McGregor by so many of his fans helps to foment these conspiracies. But he's not the only fighter, then or now, who has benefited from the MMA community's willful unwillingness to accept things at face value. This kicks in most particularly when a fighter behaves badly.
When a fighter makes a disparaging public statement or pulls a dirty move in the cage, those actions are routinely applauded. It's known as a "heel turn," when a fighter deliberately "becomes a bad guy" to raise his or her profile.
The most recent example arrived in the form of UFC welterweight Colby Covington. After taking a decision from Demian Maia on October 28 in Brazil, Covington called all of the assembled Brazilians "filthy animals" and then jogged off under a hail of garbage. He drew plenty of criticism. He also drew plenty of kudos for a brilliant heel turn, a marketing masterstroke from an honored member of the kayfabe cognoscenti.
On the Saturday of Veterans Day, Covington doubled down on the insult—just as he did in his public non-apology immediately following the incident—by saluting the military for protecting Americans from the "filthy animals abroad." Again, plenty of media types and fans cheered, not for the sentiment but for the kayfabe shrewdness that purportedly spurred it.
None of this is to say that things never happen behind the scenes. They do, in all sports and walks of life. This is not to say that people don't make conscious decisions to take certain actions or consider their statements or display certain sides of their personalities ahead of time (Chael Sonnen and Jon Jones come to mind as good MMA example). But that's different from "kayfabe," which implies whole-cloth fabrication. It's entirely possible Covington turned up the volume on his own personality and spoke his mind to pick up some cheap heat. But I would wager that it was still his own personality and his own perceptions that generated the hateful comments. It can "work" as a "gimmick" and still be the person's actual personality. I would wager that's the case far more often than I would wager otherwise. To imagine Covington sitting backstage with a pipe between his teeth, thoughtfully plotting his own road map to UFC supervillain status like some Bond movie character, is a little silly.
More than anything else, chalking up this kind of behavior to "kayfabe" may be an easy way of shirking responsibility for accountability. Calling it a conspiracy makes it not real, thus requiring no meaningful action or reaction from the observer. It lets the perpetrator off the hook. Pretty convenient for someone like Covington to go around insulting people and then say, "Oh, I'm only playing a role," as unaffected onlookers nod and clap.
The conspiratorial mind of the MMA public is not entirely unfounded. Sometimes, though, if you go behind the curtain, all you find is an emperor with no clothes. Occam's razor exists for a reason. Sometimes a bad guy is just a bad guy. If you don't believe that, who's being naïve now?