The last time Artem Lobov got himself into a scuffle with one of Conor McGregor’s many rivals, McGregor hopped a plane from Ireland and created a mess of UFC 223 in Brooklyn (as well as the biggest UFC pay-per-view of all time). That was last April. One year later, as his teammate Lobov this time ended up on the receiving end of a Paulie Malignaggi slap at the Bare Knuckle FC press conference, McGregor didn’t exactly fly into action. After all, he is retired from the grim trade and happily pushing Irish whiskey.
So instead of rallying a goon squad to confront Malignaggi, McGregor merely posted a series of photos from the Infamous Sparring Session from a couple of years back, showing him landing punches on Malignaggi through an uncaptioned installation of stills, with Malignaggi looking bewildered at the details as they were unfolding.
If that weren’t enough, he also took a shot at Khabib Nurmagomedov for good measure, like a man with a death wish. Did he learn nothing from his dealings with Nurmagomedov before? That crossing certain lines shoots right past the sporting aspect and ends up in the darkest of theaters? A little bad blood is good for fighting, but hate is as excessive as McGregor’s tastes. His willingness to go there is his unraveling.
And what is it about a Lobov dust-up that brings out the ugliest side of McGregor anyway? Why are these things interlinked?
From a promotional standpoint, one thing is for certain — all of this benefits the upstart Bare Knuckle FC, which is angling for a share of the fight market via an action dial that goes to eleven. The kooky thing about Tuesday’s press conference was that it had symmetry to last year’s Dolly Incident. The more ridiculous element? That Lobov was there to promote a fight with UFC castoff Jason Knight, who is an incidental bystander in all of this. Lobov is fighting Knight on Saturday night out in Mississippi as a passageway to Malignaggi, who is sitting in the backdrop, mashing his knuckles into his palm and muttering, “why I outta…”
That’s one hell of a set-up.
For starters, even though he’s lost a few fights of late, Jason Knight is a demon of Southern fury. And everybody is looking right past him. Why? Because there’s gold over yonder, that’s why.
A Lobov-Malignaggi fight in a bare-knuckle setting is exactly the way the BKFC can distinguish itself from its gloved competitors. Pull together a couple of affiliated forces that would otherwise never meet, and turn them loose on one another. Make it a kind of corral for family feuds, camp disputes and vendettas. Lobov, who has achieved a cult status as the MMA’s ironic “GOAT,” is a McGregor man who likes to throw down. That he’s at the center of so many of McGregor’s nastiest impulses gives him the vicarious shine. Malignaggi belongs to boxing, to New York, and really to a different age altogether. He isn’t just a throwback to boxing’s early days, he’s a throwback to early animation. He’s as loveable as he is annoying, a regular Mugsy cracking wise.
That’s why Tuesday’s scuffle was interesting. Malignaggi knew he’d encounter Lobov, and BKFC founder David Feldman didn’t exactly hold them back when they started yapping at one another. He got in closer, so as to make sure he would show up in the frame. Most people on hand pulled out their cell phones and began recording immediately, just like they did when Nurmagomedov leaped over the cage and tried to kick Dillon Danis’ head off after UFC 229.
Malignaggi snapped off a quick slap, and Lobov was held back from retaliating. Former UFC light heavyweight Anthony Johnson — now a BKFC brand ambassador — held Malignaggi back while recording on his phone.
All of this was tapping into a well-known secret that the UFC has known forever: Fighting yearns to resolve its conflicts, but it positively thrives through anticipation. On Tuesday, the anticipation of a Malignaggi-Lobov fight was established. It went from a novelty fight in an arcane theater to a heated, must-see fight regardless of where it takes place.
Hovering over all of it, of course, is the cackle of McGregor, who can help any promotion just by having an interest (even if he’s constantly hurting himself through dubious actions). Malignaggi wants to punch McGregor but can’t, so he’ll take aim at his proxy. Lobov is only too happy to work the subterranean stage to handle McGregor’s dirty work, and can more than hold his own without gloves. The players may be different, but bad blood can be redistributed in equally gratifying ways. It doesn’t have to be the giants of the industry, it can be camp versus camp, faction versus faction, sport versus sport.
The BKFC was smart to get Malignaggi and Lobov in the same room, knowing damn well that something was bound to happen. It did. And the bare-knuckle stepchild of MMA might have discovered an identity in the process.