Deliberately or Not, Conor McGregor Created the Biggest Grudge Match in MMA

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterApril 7, 2018

Ultimate fighting star Conor McGregor, left, is led by an official onto an unmarked vehicle while leaving the 78th Precinct of the New York Police Department, Friday, April 6, 2018, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. McGregor is facing criminal charges in the wake of a backstage melee he allegedly instigated that has forced the removal of three fights from UFC's biggest card of the year. Video footage appears to show the promotion's most bankable star throwing a hand truck at a bus full of fighters after a Thursday news conference for UFC 223 at Brooklyn's Barclays Center. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Julio Cortez/Associated Press

There's a screenshot from one of the many recordings of Conor McGregor's Thursday afternoon rampage in the bowels of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. He'd just sent a hand truck crashing through the window of a bus, injuring two fighters inside, taking a bad situation and escalating it dangerously.

McGregor was looking for his rival, Khabib Nurmagomedov, who was scheduled to fight for the UFC lightweight title in just two days' time at UFC 223, a belt that was once McGregor's pride and joy. Nurmagomedov was on the bus with no intention of coming out. What McGregor hoped to accomplish was unclear. Boiling rage requires no rationale.

Video contains profanity.

The world's biggest combat sports star screamed an anti-Muslim slur aimed at Nurmagomedov, fists pounding the windows of the bus as he spit the slur like it was nothing and those inside wondered what the heck was going on.

And that's when the glass shattered.

"It's Conor McGregor," someone on the bus said, amazed by the scene.

Video contains profanity.

A few feet away his teammate and friend, Artem Lobov, at the time still scheduled to compete on Saturday's fight card, had a look that required little in the way of translation. It spoke in the universal language of someone who knows he's made a huge mistake.

It was the face of a man who knew things had reached the point of no return and kept right on going, testosterone and God knows what else fueling a rage in his friend that was equal parts terrifying and hilarious. It's the face of knowing that things have escalated beyond reason.

Durracks @durracks

The look of Artem Lobov's realisation. Classic. 😂 @TeamKhabib @RusHammerMMA @TheNotoriousMMA https://t.co/3bbn7KKaEn

McGregor, face contorted in disproportionate anger, screamed at his companions to "smash the windows," and the poor bus driver searched desperately for a way out. McGregor all but skipped away, joyfully oblivious to what was to come. Not Artem. His was the face of a man who knew there was no going back. That the future, whatever it might be, had been altered in ways now beyond his control.

Let's get some things out of the way immediately: This is not a full-throated defense of McGregor.

His actions can't be defended—not once it became clear innocents were injured. Any righteousness McGregor could claim disappeared as Michael Chiesa's blood pooled on a bus seat, the fight he had trained months for evaporating before him. It was gone after Ray Borg developed complications with his eyesight, apparently due to slivers of glass, forcing him off the card as well.

McGregor was wrong. There's no plainer way to say it.

He'll face the consequences June 14 in a New York City courtroom. But the case is already being argued in the court of public opinion, where the verdict will carry much more weight in deciding his combat sports future.

The media world turned on McGregor, with sites racing to write critical articles. So many sports writers love the frothing dog, so long as he stays safely on his leash. And a good preacher needs a sinner to erect their revival tent one article at a time.

But, while his actions were despicable, McGregor's motivations were pure. On Wednesday, Lobov, a close friend, had been cornered by Nurmagomedov in a hotel lobby and surrounded by almost a dozen of his entourage, including manager Ali Abdelaziz.

Nurmagomedov jabbed a finger in the other fighter's face, eventually grabbing and lecturing him in Russian like a small child, even appearing to smack Lobov in the back of the head at one point.

"Don't say my name," Nurmagomedov said, according to MMA Focus (warning: Link contains profanity). "You understand me? You got it or not?"

Enveloped in a mass of fighters and hangers-on, Lobov looked very, very alone.

Not long after, McGregor and his crew were in the air on a private plane, flying across the Atlantic in a vain attempt to make things right. Lobov was his guy, a fact known to all. By confronting him, Nurmagomedov had stepped over a line invisible to most people but painted in fluorescent yellow and visible to all involved.

To most, it looked like a situation you could let go. But, to McGregor, a fighter powered by an impossible confidence, it was likely seen as a slight, not just to his friend but also to him and his place in MMA's unspoken power structure. His friend, a man who has been loyal to him, was alone in a hostile world, enemies all around.

It was not something McGregor could let stand.

"This had to be done" McGregor texted UFC President Dana White, who recounted the incident on FS1's First Things First on Friday morning.

"It's not that I don't think he understood what happened," White said. "He justified it. It was justified to him."

White seemed baffled by the escalation into violence. But he shouldn't have been. Perhaps because he's more than a dozen years and hundreds of millions of dollars removed from his own sketchy past, White doesn't remember the law of the jungle that motivates many of the athletes he promotes.

Other fighters, like McGregor's nemesis, Nate Diaz, understood immediately what was going on:

Nathan Diaz @NateDiaz209

He shouldn't have been trying to punk his boy when he was alone, like a bully. Then he expects not to get rolled on fukn rookie.. And then stay on the bus haha u guys got punked ....

There's a scene in the movie The Untouchables, where Sean Connery's hard-bitten detective is explaining to Kevin Costner's fancy FBI investigator how things go down on the streets.

"He pulls a knife, you pull a gun," Connery says, voice rising. "He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way."

It's a statement that rings true, not just for Al Capone-era Chicago, but also for anyplace around the globe where swaggering men battle for a fleeting sense of control.

There's been an attempt to recreate the sport of mixed martial arts, but it amounts to a gleaming coat of public relations shine on top of something dark and ugly.

At the core of fighting isn't necessarily violence. That's just the mechanism. Fighting is about imposing your will on another, about dominating them and making them small.

That's McGregor's world. It's Nurmagomedov's world, too.

The men, though rivals, are more alike than different. Both have a burning need to control the other. And both seem to sense their destinies will be written together in the cage. This was just the first foray in a war that will yield what will likely be the biggest MMA fight of all time.

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

On Friday, McGregor appeared before Brooklyn Criminal Court Justice Consuelo Mallafre Melendez, charged with misdemeanor counts of assault, attempted assault, menacing and reckless endangerment and one count of felony criminal mischief, per the New York Post. All told, he could face seven years in prison for the attack, though a plea arrangement and probation are more likely, considering his lack of criminal record.

Supporters packed the building. One asking the bailiff if they were allowed to cheer when McGregor entered the room.

Adam Hill @AdamHillLVRJ

Bailiff was explaining rules of the courtroom and a Conor fan seriously just asked if it would be ok for him to cheer when McGregor enters the courtroom. #conorwatch

"A cop told me that Mike Tyson was in this very courtroom a few years ago," MMA Fighting reporter Ariel Helwani tweeted. "And there is way more people here for McGregor."

McGregor was granted a $50,000 bail and given permission to travel home to Ireland.

"He's the most visible face on the planet," defense attorney Jim Walden said, arguing for permission to travel freely, per the Post. NBC News, the BBC and even the New York Times reported on the arraignment, lending credence to his claims. BetDSI Sportsbook placed odds on everything from jail time to how much he'd eventually pay out in inevitable civil suits.

A cynic could easily believe that all of this hubbub was about something even more powerful than pride—it was about American dollars, piles of them, enough to swim in Scrooge McDuck style.

McGregor's star shines bright, almost too bright, threatening to overshadow anyone he might fight. Boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., his last opponent, was able to meet him on even terms, promotionally. No one in mixed martial arts even comes close.

The bus incident, with its international audience and reams of free publicity, immediately elevates a prospective Nurmagomedov fight, making it potential box office catnip. In his mind, McGregor didn't just do the right thing—he also did what was best for business.


Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.


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