Policing MMA Trash Talk Is an Astoundingly Bad Idea

Jeremy Botter@jeremybotterMMA Senior WriterFebruary 1, 2019

Conor McGregor speaks during a news conference in New York, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018. McGregor is returning to UFC after a two-year absence. He fights undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov on Oct. 6 in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Seth Wenig/Associated Press

On Tuesday, the Nevada Athletic Commission met to determine punishments for three of the UFC's top stars: Conor McGregor, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Jon Jones.

McGregor and Nurmagomedov were there to face the music for their participation in the pier-six brawl that unfurled following Nurmagomedov's easy-peasy shellacking of McGregor last October. Jones was there because of picograms and pulsing; if that sentence confuses you, trust me when I say you'd be no more informed after receiving an explanation.

Nurmagomedov and McGregor were each fined and suspended, while Jones received a conditional license to fight at UFC 235.

It was no different than your usual Nevada Athletic Commission meeting, which is to say it was both mind-numbing and approximately 165 hours in length. But one interesting (and infuriating) item did emerge from the morass of bureaucratic gibberish: Commissioner Anthony Marnell's musing about whether the commission should look into "fining and/or suspending fighters for inappropriate speech."

Marnell, it seems, was concerned with much of the language McGregor used when building up the Nurmagomedov fight, and Marnell wondered if the commission should issue guidelines to let fighters know which insults are allowed and which are not.

This is silly, of course, and likely only served to perk up the ears of First Amendment lawyers across America. The athletic commission is an arm of the Nevada state government, and the notion that the government would tell anyone what they can and cannot say is untenable. If the commission actually tried to follow through on Marnell's musings, the whole thing would be shot down in the blink of an eye.

John Locher/Associated Press

But let's take a closer look.

McGregor is a prodigious user of flowery verbiage. He is this way all the time, but especially so when the bright lights are shining on him. He used to be funny and creative with his insults, but as the money piled up and his fame eclipsed the promoter he works for, that creativity was replaced with an unending stream of expletives and slurs that are only differentiated from one another by the volume used to shout them. I became numb to it long ago, which is perhaps one reason it doesn't bother me.

Here is another reason it doesn't bother me: It's the fight business.

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Despite the UFC's best attempts to put itself in the same category as other major sports, the fight business will always be the fight business. It has seedy roots. In boxing and mixed martial arts, there will always be a seedy underbelly that exists below whatever gloss and sheen is used to try to cover it up.

The whole point of the fight business is to fill the public with desire to see two people do great harm to each other; it is rare that two people who respect each other and say nice things about each other before a fight will be able to command any sort of public attention.

That's why you have the cursing and the insulting and the spittle and, every so often, the brawls; because it has proved, over more than one hundred years, to be the most effective way to part a customer with their cash.

The most interesting part of Marnell's hand-wringing is that it came from the same man who oversees a commission that often adjudicates using different sets of standards based on how much money an athlete can pull in for the state.

Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

Superstar boxers and mixed martial artists are not treated the same way as lowly athletes who ply their trade on the midcard. It has been this way for years. If you don't believe me, just look how quickly it changed its rules on glove sizes to ensure that Floyd Mayweather Jr. and McGregor kept their lucrative boxing match in Nevada, or watch replays of pretty much any Mayweather appearance before the commission, ever. You'll be hard-pressed to find a more fawning group of politicians, which is quite a thing to say in 2019.

You can't clean up the fight business without ruining the fight business. If there's one thing Nevada is a fan of, it's money, and it'll never do anything to harm its ability to make money for doing almost literally nothing. Even if it does somehow decide it has the right to regulate the things athletes say, it'll find out pretty quickly how wrong it is when it's sued by every fighter under the sun.

So what's the point, then?

I suspect Marnell's comments were made for the same reason so many other commissioners have spoken the same kind of fraught, hand-wringing comments about athlete behavior and performance-enhancing drugs and violence over the years: so they look like proper caretakers of the fight business and maybe keep the rest of us distracted enough that we'll ignore their double standards and greed.

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