Khabib Nurmagomedov applied the rear naked choke, choked out Conor McGregor and held on for an uncomfortable second or two before leaving the lightweight title challenger in a sweaty, defeated mess. So far, too good. Then, in a moment of stupidity, the Russian leapt out of the cage and on to McGregor’s teammate, sparking a melee. The Irishman, in turn, went after Nurmagomedov’s cornerman and received sucker punches for his efforts. In the span of a minute, UFC 229 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas went from one of the best mixed martial arts card put together to a bar room free-for-all.
While the brawl made for a bitter aftertaste, a certain ‘baddest man on the planet’ was left with bouts of nostalgia. “Watching the (McGregor) vs (Nurmagomedov) fight. Unimaginable never thought it would go down like this. Crazier than my fight riot,” tweeted Mike Tyson.
Perhaps it’s a case of recency bias, but what transpired on Saturday was was not crazier than the riot that ensued when Tyson bit off a piece of his opponent Evander Holyfield’s ear in 1997. In the ensuing melee that July evening, the policemen were assaulted and trampled by the crowds that swept through the casino area after a riot began among members of both fighters’ entourages and the public. The heavyweight legend wasn’t the only one struck by nostalgia though.
“I was at the Tyson-Holyfield fight,” UFC president Dana White told reporters at the post-fight press conference. “That thing was crazy. Spilled out into the crowd, spilled out into the casino. (Security officials) did a great job today.”
That’s White’s way of distancing himself from one of the ugliest episodes in MMA history, one that he helped create by unleashing his top star on an unassuming soft-spoken Russian.
“People have been saying mean things to each other for 18 years here in the UFC. This is not the last time. This is not the last time two guys are going to say mean things to each other.”
Dismissing McGregor’s antics as “mean things” shows where exactly White’s head is at. McGregor attacked Nurmagomedov’s family, country and religion in the build-up to a fight he essentially secured by throwing a dolly at a bus carrying his rival and injuring other fighters. Calling the attack “criminal, disgusting, despicable”, White said in April, “We need to make sure that this never happens again”, and then used the footage liberally in promotional videos and highlights.
“I’d do it again,” said White. “It was the story of the bad blood. The incident today was with a guy who had nothing to do with the fight. He was yelling stuff through the cage. It had nothing to do with Conor.”
Minutes later, Nurmagomedov punched a hole in his theory. “This is not my best side. He talked about my religion, my country, my father. He came to Brooklyn, he broke bus and nearly killed two people. So why do people still talk about me jumping over the cage? I have shown respect,” said Nurmagomedov. “You cannot talk about religions and nations. This for me is very important.”
There are layers to McGregor’s trash-talking. He plays an obnoxious, caricaturish, foul-mouthed Irishman to sell himself (or his whiskey) along with the upcoming fight. You either expect him to back his words and destroy opponents, or for somebody to shut him up. Either way, the mayhem seems well worth the 65 dollars — the steep pay-per-view.
Then there are the mystic ways in which he gets into his opponent’s head, all of which Nurmagomedov seemed impervious to. While McGregor arrived characteristically late at press conferences, Nurmagomedov turned up on time and didn’t stick around. He sat stoically in the face of abuse from McGregor and his countrymen, refusing to engage in a back-and-forth. In the cage, he was similarly calculated, dismantling McGregor instead of rushing in like an incensed Jose Aldo or staying back like an unsure Eddie Alvarez. But as it turned out, McGregor’s shtick had affected him deeply.
Case in point, his meltdown after winning the fight and the petty brag he made later, in reference to McGregor’s photos with Russia president Vladimir Putin at the World Cup final. “He took a picture with Putin. But Putin just called me and told me he is proud of me. And he said congratulations… I want to change this game. This is a respectful sport. This is not a trash-talking sport.”
If Nurmagomedov, a Sambo champion and arguably the best grappler in Mixed Martial Arts, actually believes that he is in the wrong game. Just ask his boss.
“This is the fight game,” White said. “This is the fight business. It’s about trash talking, and they do it at the NBA, they do it in the NFL, they do it in baseball. This is the business of it.”
The comments are in line with George Orwell’s ‘The Sporting Spirit’ essay, in which the author argued: “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules, and sadistic pleasure in violence. In other words, it is war without shooting.”
It is at least promoted as such. There’s no other reason for official broadcasters of an India vs Pakistan cricket match to go to army base camps for reactions of the soldiers between innings. Or for Test matches to be inexplicably marketed as ‘revenge series’. For some reason, larger-than-life sportsmen mouthing the choicest of cuss words make for good slow-motion replays and highlight reels. Those too quaint run the risk of getting lost in the shuffle. It’s a vicious circle. The fans want to see aggression and primal emotions, channeled at a safe distance through artful display. And that’s where McGregor slots in.
The cost of money
McGregor has put on MMA clinics, and delivered truckfuls of money to the UFC. He has also used racially charged insults, thrown water bottles at a public press conference, held the organisation to ransom in order to negotiate for a multi-million-dollar boxing match, jumped the cage and shoved an official at a rival event, endangered other fighters to further his feuds and has only been reprimanded with independent lawsuits and short-term community service. These actions have not only been encouraged by slaps on wrist, but rewarded too. And in the years to come, he will undoubtedly become an iconic figure, a cult of personality humanised through books and documentaries, revered by reporters and young fighters both alike. Like Mike Tyson.
Khabib Nurmagomedov, on the other hand, knows “my father is gonna smash me when I go home” and faces a heavy fine and possible suspension from the Nevada athletic commission. Unwilling to part with McGregor anytime soon, UFC might sour on the Nurmagomedov instead. But by flipping the script on Saturday, the Russian left both UFC and its monster with a black eye.
Fight before the brawl
The brawl overshadowed what a dominant — perhaps career-defining — performance by Khabib Nurmagomedov, who was 26-0 going into the bout. Here’s how it panned out.
1st Round (10-9 Khabib): Conor McGregor threw a couple of strikes early on but, as expected, Khabib Nurmagomedov shot for a takedown and grabbed hold of McGregor’s ankle. The Irish tried to snuff the attempt, but the Dagestani Sambo artist pushed him against the cage and overpowered him. There wasn’t much ground-and-pound but the ease of the takedown suggested the signs were bad for McGregor.
2nd Round (10-8 Khabib): Coming into the fight, McGregor was thought of as the superior striker, but it was Nurmagomedov who rattled him with a big right hand on the chin. Nurmagomedov pounced on his prey and unloaded on him with some vicious ground-and-pound, looking for a finish. It appeared the ref would stop the bout, but McGregor survived.
3rd Round (9-10 Conor): Having expended his energy trying to finish McGregor, Nurmagomedov was noticeably slower. Consequently, the Irish fighter managed to snuff his takedown attempts. Standing up, McGregor had more success, and it looked like he had turned a corner.
4th Round: But the longer the fight goes, McGregor’s gas tank diminishes rapidly. The break revived Nurmagomedov just enough to complete the takedown. With hard blows raining from top, McGregor gave up his back, and Nurmagomedov applied a rear naked choke and made him tap.