Does the Conor vs. Khabib Chaos Prove the UFC Has an Accountability Problem?

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterOctober 10, 2018

Khabib Nurmagomedov after UFC 229.
Khabib Nurmagomedov after UFC 229.John Locher/Associated Press

By now, you've likely seen Khabib Nurmagomedov's eagle swoop into the Las Vegas crowd following his win over Conor McGregor at UFC 229. Police arrested three Nurmagomedov associates for attacking McGregor, but they were released after the Irishman reportedly refused to press charges.

The dust is settling a bit, with the narrative now centering around a potential rematch between the two men. But there's more to discuss. After all, a professional MMA fighter jumped into a crowd. For a few tense moments, T-Mobile Arena seemed to be on the brink of a riot. And yet, Nurmagomedov and Co. appear to be getting off scot free.

Is that OK? The UFC did nothing. Was that the right call? Why or why not? What's the company's role here? And what are the implications of this moving forward for the UFC, its fighters and everyone who follows the sport?

Chad Dundas and I are here to look under the hood. We may not agree, but we are a gentlemanly bunch and shall comport ourselves accordingly. Swooping of any kind is hereby forbidden. Chad, what say you on this?

         

Chad Dundas: An unfortunate side effect of McGregor's rise to superstardom was his convincing the world that fight promotion is a no-holds-barred mud-wrestling match. The last few years in MMA have slowly but surely normalized the notion that the fight game is a scripted, make-believe show akin to pro wrestling. Along the way, we came to accept the idea that no topic is off-limits and no behavior is unacceptable so long as it turns a profit.

With one giant leap, Nurmagomedov reminded us Saturday that not everyone agrees.

What Nurmagomedov and his team did following UFC 229 was wrong. But it was also the natural consequence of what the UFC and MMA fans have allowed McGregor to get away with.

MMA fans largely either laughed or shrugged when McGregor mocked Jose Aldo's Brazilian upbringing leading up to their bout at UFC 194. We proclaimed him a promotional genius when he chucked water bottles at Nate Diaz before UFC 202. He repeatedly called Floyd Mayweather Jr. "boy" leading up to their August 2017 boxing match, and that spectacle became one of the top-selling pay-per-view events of all time.

The UFC did nothing when McGregor slapped a ringside official at a Bellator event in Dublin last November. It didn't react when McGregor allegedly punched an Irish organized crime associate at a pub the same month. When he showed up at the UFC 223 media day in April and tossed a metal hand truck through the window of a charter bus full of UFC athletes, the UFC made it the centerpiece of its efforts to sell UFC 229. 

Conor McGregor after the melee
Conor McGregor after the meleeJohn Locher/Associated Press

McGregor then came to the pre-fight presser for this bout swilling his new line of whiskey and poking fun at Nurmagomedov's religion, his family and his homeland. That made Nurmagomedov mad, which led to what happened after the fight Saturday night.

Seeing as the UFC (and fans) either ignored or openly celebrated McGregor's escalating sequence of off-color and bizarre personal behavior, I can't blame Nurmagomedov for thinking he could get away with it, too. 

And you know what? He probably will. At least until the UFC decides there needs to be some kind of accountability or limit with regard to how its fighters are allowed to act.

                

Scott Harris: As the gentlemanly, non-crowd-stomping human being that I am, I do see your points. I definitely agree that this MMA-is-just-grittier-than-pro-wrestling fetish can go a shade too far. 

Here's the rub, though: This is still a business, especially as long as the UFC is running it with no meaningful checks or balances. This was the biggest boom that could have occurred to said business, with the possible exception of McGregor winning by bicycle kick.

Whether the rematch happens or not, it's on everyone's lips. Paydays in the tens of millions are now on the table for both men. Those sums are unheard of in the UFC, and their very existence speaks to the Fort Knox that UFC leaders see on the horizon.

Simply put, it's money. That's all it is. That's all that stops the UFC from holding fighters more accountable. The police are out of the picture if McGregor won't press charges. The Nevada State Athletic Commission is withholding Nurmagomedov's pay and initiating disciplinary action against both fighters, but it's anyone's guess as to whether any of it will have teeth.

Either way, those are fig leaves for the UFC's inaction, at least in the UFC's mind. It might take a stand like it did with Jason High, but as long as capitalism continues, there's no reason to expect the UFC to hold anyone accountable here.

Let's face it: We'd all plunk down our dollars to see the massive rematch.  

            

Dundas: From a purely pragmatic standpoint, I understand what you're saying. I also know you're right about the UFC, which can always be counted on to do whatever will earn it the most money and nothing else.

I also think if money is our only guide, well, that's both shallow and a bit cynical. Since I'm not part of UFC ownership or one of the people who directly profits from it, I don't care how much money it makes when McGregor tosses a hand truck through a bus window.

UFC president Dana White
UFC president Dana WhiteJohn Locher/Associated Press

I don't want to sound moralistic and self-righteous here, because I enjoy MMA chaos as much as the next guy. But I think it stinks when innocent bystanders get hurt and we all just shrug and carry on because a bunch of millionaires are going to make even more money as a result.

And not for nothing: That's my money they were counting on to make UFC 229 the top-selling PPV in company history. That's your money they'll be trying to take the next time McGregor or Nurmagomedov step into the cage.

Even if it stokes mainstream interest, I think we're playing a dangerous game here if MMA fighters feel like they need to top themselves each time they go out to sell a big fight. I can't imagine it ends well.

           

Harris: That's what all this boils down to, doesn't it? No one denies that it's all about the money. It's more a question of how one feels about what is or isn't attached to that.

In this non-gentlemanly world in which we live, one side looks at the other and sees cynicism, while that side looks right back and finds naivety. Neither one is fully correct.

We're both lucky enough to do this for a living, so when it comes down to brass tacks, we're mainly playing the hypothetical game when it comes to what we would or wouldn't pay for. But the last line on the receipts has shown time and again that serious fansincluding objectorspony up once the shiny new thing is trending on social media. Even if a few don't, new buyers more than make up for it.

At least that's the model to this point.

I do think we agree the UFC isn't going to hold anyone accountable on this. Athletic commissions are opaque spheroids that sometimes make you wish they hadn't earned your trust whenever they show their work, intentionally or otherwise. Looking to them is arguably more of a pipe dream than looking to the UFC.

To bring it home, this isn't about what the UFC will or won't do. It's what should or shouldn't happen. No one wants to see anyone get hurt, but there's occasionally a notion in MMA that a flawed fighter must be allowed to become his or her own worst enemy for true change to be affected. Was Steve Mazzagatti ever the one who was going to hold Steve Mazzagatti accountable?

The UFC should do what it does until the market that buoys it so firmly today flexes its not-always-so-invisible hand tomorrow. There are limits. Maybe the UFC is the one to help us find them, but it probably isn't the one to help us set them.

The solutions should be as out of the UFC's purview as the problems are in it. Let the show go on, the money roll in and the great experiment continue.

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