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UFC 229 Aftermath: Khabib Nurmagomedov is the virtuous villain the UFC needs

Khabib Nurmagomedov points at Dillon Danis
Khabib Nurmagomedov
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Khabib Nurmagomedov was wrong about a couple things in his statement at the UFC 229 post-fight press conference late Saturday night. The one in which he apologized for initiating a near-riot at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, then immediately expressed bafflement over the fact anyone cared about his actions at all.

Despite what Nurmagomedov expressed, you do, in fact, get to talk about subjects like religion and country here in the United States. The freedoms to do so are enshrined in our nation’s founding principles, and even now, in 2018, when it seems like our most basic tenets are under constant assault, you’re free to discuss these subjects.

That these topics are fair game is especially true when your home country, Russia, is one suspected of meddling in our elections, and when that country has a worldwide reputation for squashing dissent.

Matters of speech, faith, and geopolitics have been part of the fight game since long before Nurmagomedov, Conor McGregor, or Dana White were born. The intersection of such subjects made Muhammad Ali the transcendent sports figure of the 20th century. The topics will still be around in another 50 years in whatever form the combat sports landscape takes at that time.

So yeah, when you’re a guest here in this country like Nurmagomedov, you don’t get to dictate to us about which conversational subjects are and are not off-limits.

But if you insult a man’s family? Well, that’s a different subject, one which cuts across nations and cultures. If you belittle someone’s father the way McGregor called Nurmagomedov’s dad a “quivering coward,” well, anyone can understand on some sort of visceral, gut level why the UFC lightweight champion would feel compelled to defend his family’s honor.

And you can also understand why the champion seemed genuinely confused on why he was getting the level of flak he did for instigating the brawl which marred what was unquestionably the finest victory of his career, his fourth-round submission of McGregor in UFC 229’s main event.

After all, the UFC fostered this atmosphere when it let McGregor get off scot-free for his behavior in the New York City borough of Brooklyn back at the infamous UFC 223 media day in April. McGregor committed criminal acts on Nuramgomedov and a handful of people who had nothing to do with their beef when he committed an assault on a fighter van. The UFC not only did nothing about it, letting the courts inevitably coddle McGregor the way they always do for celebrities and the wealthy in this country, but it barely waited until the case was closed before they went and used McGregor’s criminal acts as promotional fodder.

The reason UFC 229 is likely to wind up the biggest-money event in mixed martial arts history is in large part because the UFC deliberately chose to use a shameful incident and make it the focal point of their hype. That’s the message Nurmagomedov has internalized for months: All these insults against his country, his religion, and his family were condoned for the sake of serving’s WME’s debt in purchasing the UFC.

The UFC -- and by extension WME CEO Ari Emanuel, who received an LGBT community award just last year -- even had Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, who made headlines around the same time for brutal human rights abuses against gay men, sit cageside a few weeks back at UFC Moscow. There was nothing in any aspect of this situation that would suggest to Nurmagomedov that he’d be punished for behaving in a manner similar to McGregor.

We’re likely to have the mainstream sports blowhards descend upon the mixed martial arts world like locusts over the next few days. The cavalcade of clowns who wouldn’t know the difference between a wristlock and a wristwatch, because they’re required to act outraged at all times to earn their big paychecks, will pretend like Saturday night’s incident is something from which the UFC will never recover, a shame which should remove them from polite society.

This will go against all available evidence. If anything, bad behavior increases interest in combat sports. Exhibit A is Mike Tyson’s reign as PPV king after both being convicted of rape and after biting Evander Holyfield’s ear during a match. Exhibit B, is, well, the financial success of UFC 229.

It will take awhile to sort out the ramifications of Nurmagomedov’s post-fight actions. He’s had his fight purse withheld by the Nevada Athletic Commission. McGregor may have done the champ the biggest favor of all by declining to press charges against him and his team. At the very least, a lengthy suspension seems at hand.

But Nurmagomedov will be back eventually. And when he returns, remember this: The most effective villains aren’t over-the-top cartoon characters. If they were, Phil Baroni would have been a major draw. Instead, the biggest money-drawing heels are the ones who behave in the wrong, but are absolutely convinced their actions were justified.

And the biggest-money sweet spot in all of this is when half the audience agrees with you, and the other half disagrees with you, but everyone care one way or another. McGregor’s long since been there. Nurmagomedov is getting there now. The UFC is going to have to tread carefully with its promotional practices, since we’ve clearly gotten into dangerous territory. But it’s just as clear that by the time Nurmagomedov and McGregor both get back into the cage, whether it’s against one another or in separate fights, it’s going to be just as big an event as UFC 229.

UFC 229 quotes

“I’m disgusted and sick over it.” — White, who also proclaimed McGregor’s van attack “disgusting,” on the near-riot after the fight.

“I do not understand how people can talk about ‘I jumped from the cage.’ Worry about, he talked about my religion, he talk about my country, he talk about my father, he come to Brooklyn and he broke bus, he almost killed a couple people. Worry about this. Worry about this sh*t. Why people talk about ‘I jump over the cage?’ Why people still talk about this? I don’t understand.” — Nurmagomedov states his case.

“The way that that works is, Conor was one of the guys who was attacked and things like that. Conor refused to press charges. The guys that they did have, they were released.” — White explaining that McGregor declined to press charges against his assailants.

“I’m the f*cking champ. You guys realize that, right?, I’ve been the champ. I am the champ. You have these two knuckleheads over there making this sport look bad. … I don’t have a belt up here, I don’t need to have a belt up here to be the champ. So if you guys want to feed that, go ahead, put that in your pocket and take it with you. — Tony Ferguson states his case.

Stock report

Down (but not out): Conor McGregor. There are those who going to point at the fact that McGregor has now lost three out of his past five fights (including last year’s boxing match with Floyd Mayweather), and say that McGregor is a fraud, or a hype, or something else of the sort. There’s a word for those people: Idiots. McGregor easily could have returned after 14 months away from combat sports and 23 removed from his last MMA bout, taken a tuneup fight against a lesser opponent, shaken off his rust, and collected a seven-figure payday, simply because his return was going to be an event all on its own. But that’s never been McGregor’s M.O. Conor McGregor will go down as a legendary figure in combat sports because of his boldness during a time in which so many contemporaries play it safe. McGregor was bold enough to go for two division titles and get them. He was bold enough to challenge Floyd Mayweather and turn what seemed a preposterous idea into reality. Of course he was going to aim for the biggest and toughest goal he could possibly find upon his return. Of course, he was going to try to vanquish one of the greatest competitors in the sport’s history after being out for two years. Conor McGregor knows no other way, and it’s why his drawing power is and will still remain bullet-proof even after taking another loss.

There are factors out of his hands in determining if he gets the next lightweight title shot, but Tony Ferguson controlled everything under his power on Saturday night.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Up: Tony Ferguson Can you blame Ferguson for getting emotional after his Fight of the Night win over Anthony Pettis? “El Cucuy” was on the very brink of the mountaintop when he tripped over a production cable and tore his knee on the FOX lot during that fateful late March day, which set the wheels in motion for all the craziness we’ve seen from McGregor and Nurmagomedov since. Ferguson returned from LCL surgery after just six months (a fact harped on for far too long by commentators Joe Rogan and Dominick Cruz well after Ferguson was plainly pushing forward at full speed and throwing kicks), and Pettis tested the knee right away. Ferguson responded by going full out, 100 percent Tony Ferguson with a willing dance partner, putting on the difficult-to-describe tornado of violence for which he seems uniquely suited. Ferguson still has some factors out of his hands when it comes to the making of his next fight, but at least he left T-Mobile Arena secure in the knowledge he did everything in his own power to state his case.

Up: Derrick Lewis If the brawl after the main event was the reminder of the ugly side of this weird sport, then Lewis standing in his underwear for his post-fight interview after his miracle knockout of Alexander Volkov, telling Joe Rogan he took his shorts off “cause my balls was hot,” was the reminder of the lighter side of our favorite wacky pastime. The “Black Beast” had already made a name for himself with his ridiculously funny social media posts, his inhuman ability to absorb punishment, and his propensity for against-all-odds comebacks despite a limited skill set. But it’s going to be hard for him to top last night, pushing through what appeared to be an orbital bone injury and winning the fight with 11 seconds remaining after basically dropping the first 14:40 or so of the fight. If there is any justice left in the MMA world, then some day Lewis will find his way into a UFC heavyweight title shot on heart (or, umm, balls) alone. They broke the mold when they made Derrick Lewis.

Up: Aspen Ladd. If you’ve been around this business awhile, you know there are few fighters tougher on a pound-for-pound basis than Tonya Evinger. The former Invicta bantamweight champion has been doing this since before Gina Carano helped put women’s MMA into the sporting consciousness, and until recently, she was on a 10-fight win streak. But you’d never know that if the first Evinger fight you saw was last night’s bout with Aspen Ladd. The 23-year-old Ladd just might be the next breakout women’s bantamweight star the UFC’s been waiting on. She showed off fighting form well beyond her 23 years, and continued to display a finisher’s touch with the first-round TKO, giving the undefeated Ladd finishes in six of her seven pro fights.

Up: Dominick Reyes Ladd wasn’t the only one who put on a coming-of-age show Saturday night, as this light heavyweight put a one-sided show against a tough veteran in Ovince Saint Preux. But the unanimous-decision win that was nearly a knockout also should be a valuable learning tool, as it showed the native of Southern California’s High Desert region what he still needs to work on. Reyes, who had won all three of his previous UFC bouts via first-round finish, threw everything but the kitchen sink at OSP in the first round, outstriking him 62-6, but then appeared to tire over the rest of the fight. That would have put Reyes in trouble against the highest-level opponent. Still, a statement win over a fighter like Saint Preux that also provided information on what he still needs to do is about as good a scenario as Reyes could have asked for.

Official matters

We’ve already spoken our piece on the post-main event brawl in the lead item, and until the NAC weighs in, there’s little left to add on that front.

Referee Dan Miragliotta took heat for the lack of a stoppage in Reyes’ victory over Saint Preux, but I’m not convinced the criticism is justified. It is not on the fighter to call off the fight (ask Anderson Silva or Rousimar Palhares about that some time). Reyes dropped OSP in the last second or two of the third round, Reyes walked away, and Miragliotta had not waved off the bout. Thus, the fight was still going when the horn sounded, so Miragliotta was correct in letting the bout go to the scorecard. Look at this another way: If Reyes had starting moving in on OSP after the knockdown, and the horn sounded before Miragliotta could intervene, would we even be having this conversation right now?

Let’s also take the time to give kudos to Pettis’ coach, Duke Roufus, for waving off the fight after the second round. We’ve seen too many instances of coaches letting pride get in the way of doing what’s right -- think Raquel Pennington in the fifth round of her bout with Amanda Nunes -- and taking an unnecessary beating. Pettis has shown his old “Showtime” spirit in his recent fights, more so than in quite some time. I’d rather Roufus save his fighter for another day so we can enjoy a few more “Showtime”-style fights than see him get sent out into a bad situation with a shattered hand just for the sake of old-school notions of machismo. Good job, coach.

Fights I’d like to see next: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson and Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz

Okay, I have to start off by stating the obvious: We don’t know how long the principals from last night’s incident will be on the sidelines, for multiple reasons, and it will be awhile before it becomes clear.

But let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that the lightweight division will continue to proceed at something near it’s current pace, with all it’s usual wild twists and turns.

There’s going to be a push to make Nurmagomedov-McGregor rematch, simply because of the absurd amount of revenue the fight will generate. The tell came when White wouldn’t rule out the fight, even while acknowledging how bad things got last night. McGregor, for his part, can chalk up his performance to ring rust.

But there’s another case to be made for letting there be a cooling-off period. Both competitors’ next fights are going to be gigantic. So with that in mind, I say, let’s finally get that Nurmy vs. Fergy fight, the one which has fallen out four times, onto the front burner. And let’s hope that all those fight fallouts were the universe repeatedly sending the signal that this fight needed to be saved until both men were at the peak of their powers.

And from there? The McGregor-Diaz trilogy fight is still out there waiting to be had. McGregor and Diaz’s rivalry exists in its own universe. It may even be a bigger deal if Diaz loses to Dustin Poirier next month at UFC 230, as it would give both fighters the impetus to come off high-profile losses.

So I say give us the fight we’ve constantly been teased with but never gotten; settle the trilogy; and then if Khabib-Conor 2 is meant to happen, so be it.

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