The fight wasn’t much of a fight but a mauling. Conor McGregor stalked forward on his feet but was really the one being hunted. His opponent was lesser known but four rounds carved his name into the minds of those who didn’t know who he was. A tense first round, theoretically when McGregor would dominate that was shaded by his opponent. A second round that became a brutal onslaught that left the Irish star battered and his fans hushed. A resurrection of sorts in the third when his legendary striking power briefly created an illusionary sense of recovery and hope. But then it ended in the fourth.
Again McGregor was rushed, swept off his feet. Slammed against the cage. Sweat, blood, exhausted lungs and a weary face betraying the battering he had taken. An arm slipped under him, and as the choke tightened and his eyes closed, it was over. McGregor had lost.
Khabib Nurmagomedov had announced himself to those who didn’t know his existence when he made McGregor submit. And when he vaulted over the cage and cannoned into Conor McGregor’s team, he made sure this fight would dominate the headlines for days.
What should have been the celebration of Nurmagomedov’s greatest moment in mixed martial arts turned into a chaotic brawl. As he dove like an arrow into the crowd, a melee erupted, with McGregor ambushed. The crowd, consistently hostile with Nurmagomedov throughout the fight, spewed bile. The champion wasn’t heralded with his belt to avoid more drama.
Though he apologised and explained his actions it’s likely he will be fined and suspended, possibly stripped of his belt. Collectively there was much anger from the MMA world towards him. If you remove context and view the moment purely as an isolated incident then Nurmagomedov deserves all the anger that will come his way. Chaos spilled out like wildfire because of his temper. McGregor was assaulted by members of his own team. What had been a dominant display against the most widely recognised MMA star was marred by his own actions.
But you can’t remove context and view it purely as an isolated incident, which is essentially how his critics have done it. To understand why he did what he did without exempting him from blame is to understand how UFC has tolerated lidless abuse, include towards his religion, race and family. It is also to understand that in the grand scale of things, what Nurmagomedeov did not compare to the trigger moment of this rage-filled feud. It began when McGregor attacked a bus with Nurmagomedov in it and injured multiple UFC stars.
McGregor escaped with a fine and for months nothing happened. But as the fight was announced and the usual procedures took shape, McGregor resumed his hostility. First, he mocked Nurmagomedov for not drinking because he was a practising Muslim, insulting the man’s pronunciation of Islamic phrases. He called him a “Dagestani rat” which he repeatedly returned to. McGregor never stopped, and possibly misinterpreted Nurmagomedov’s muted demeanour as a sign of fear.
McGregor has form for dog-whistle racism having shown it last year against Floyd Mayweather when he called his security team “juiced up monkeys” and said to Mayweather “dance for me, boy”. And mocking tenets of Islamic principles is itself not inherently bigoted but perhaps a distasteful but ultimately necessary showcase of liberal atheism. Insulting the man for being from Dagestan and mentioning his culture however was something entirely else.
The UFC itself has handled this terribly and essentially embraced racism as mere stones to fuel a rivalry, part of a promotional package. Dana White condemned McGregor’s bus attack but happily used it to advertise the fight. Should a rematch be sought, it’s extremely likely that this will also feature in their videos.
But there is a difference in how Nurmagomedov was treated and how McGregor was, both by the UFC and fans. It isn’t necessarily down to racism where it concerns the UFC, although they has shown apathy towards that, but about tilting everything in McGregor’s favour. Ignoring his misdemeanours, promoting his bad behaviour, exploiting it for money. Where it concerns people outside UFC who watched the fight it underlines how normalised racism is where McGregor’s racial slurs both here and against Mayweather were ignored for the sake of promoting fights.
It’s more galling given this is a man who, in an individual’s sport, inspires maddening patriotic fever and the sense of collectivism with his undying love of Ireland. There is a Conor McGregor who drew people to his side: the gritty fighter who resiliently built himself out of poverty into the most recognised combat athlete today. And then there is a man consumed by his wealth and fame who loves his country but mocks others for theirs. What he has though is an army of supporters who did not care about any of this. His racial taunting was seen as necessary elements in building up a fight. And when it turned against him, the blame was shifted entirely to Nurmagomedov. Context again can define everything.
Nurmagomedov was wrong to react as he did and although he ironically might have knitted together a disunited modern-day Islam for one night, there should be no justifying his actions. Yet context means punishment for him has to recognise how McGregor took showmanship into another level and the UFC tolerated it because it was good for promoting a fight.