The chaos at the UFC 223 media day could possibly have been prevented, and moving forward, the UFC needs to ensure any confrontation between athletes outside of the cage comes with consequences attached.
The chaotic scene that unfolded in Brooklyn this past week was something right out of a movie. If you think that’s hyperbole, place your bets. There’s a good chance, some day, you’ll be reliving that moment via a feature film. If you have any notion of sporting history, you’ll realize that the instant Conor McGregor smashed the window of a bus carrying rival Khabib Nurmagomedov and other athletes at the Barclays Center, the moment became etched in the annals of combat sports lore. It will be talked about and replayed for years to come. It made front page news pretty much everywhere. UFC 223 suddenly became overshadowed, despite the company being the talk of the town.
That’s not to celebrate the petty destruction and lack of human decency McGregor and his cronies displayed in Brooklyn. Yet there’s more to this story than an out of control ego-maniac. The obvious answer in the blame game is Conor McGregor. That would be too easy, however.
McGregor has his share of the blame, without question. His antics were repugnant, vile, short-sighted, reckless, unprofessional, and downright childish. He looked little more than a rampaging teenager in a riot as opposed to a martial arts champion. He could have caused permanent injury to any number of athletes, UFC employees, and others on that bus. Coach John Kavanagh was no doubt shaking his head when all this unfolded. As an aside, this should behoove the man to sit down with his star pupil and read him the riot act. Fighting is for inside that cage, not out.
I once called Conor McGregor a monster of the UFC’s own making. At the risk of saying “I told you so,” that statement seems almost prophetic at this point. The dual-weight class champion, the promotion’s biggest star, has figuratively speaking grown into something akin to the monsters battled by The Rock in the recent Rampage movie. Only, there’s no Dwayne Johnson around to help keep Conor McGregor in line.
The UFC has only themselves to blame for for what he’s become, however. Well, perhaps the fans do, just a little. We celebrated McGregor’s raucous personality early on, we cheered as the Irish fighter forced the UFC to pay him like a star should be paid. But mostly, it’s on the UFC. The personality isn’t the issue. The money isn’t the issue. It’s the fact that, thus far, there have been few real repercussions for the man when he does cross the line.
Even that, however, isn’t the biggest issue here. It’s not just a McGregor issue. The issue the UFC is really facing is its inability to enforce its own policies.
Simply put, the McGregor rampage could have been prevented before it ever happened. When Khabib Nurmagomedov and members of his entourage cornered Artem Lobov in a hotel lobby earlier in the week, the UFC had the opportunity to speak out. They had the opportunity to fine those involved, or suspend them. In this case, a suspension would have been overly harsh and wrecked an already troubled main event. Yet the Fighter Code of Conduct the UFC has outlined is clear:
“Discipline may be imposed for misconduct, which includes without limiatation, the following examples… violent, threatening or harassing behavior.” It’s already in writing. Fighters are aware of it. Enforce it. Note also that there doesn’t need to be a physical altercation. Threats or harassment are enough.
Now, before you point out that this is a physical sport, brimming with testosterone and fighters can police themselves — check it at the door. It’s a business, with the responsibilities that come with it. Nor does “policing themselves” work when talking MMA. In the NHL, with an unwritten player’s code and enforcers (now a dying breed), that sort of system works, somewhat — because you’re seeing your rivals several times a year. In MMA, where athletes compete just a few times a year, forget it. It’s up to the promotion to investigate and resolve these incidents.
If Khabib and his team were censured for their actions earlier in the week, does Conor McGregor have any reason to hop on a plane, fly to Brooklyn, and escalate the situation? Well, maybe he does it anyway. But doing something is better than doing nothing. The UFC stayed silent. McGregor takes his share of the blame, but the failure of the promotion to police its own athletes is self-evident. Worse, come Friday night, Nurmagomedov was already alluding to fighting McGregor outside of the cage.
It’s like no one has learned a thing. MMA has moved from a being considered a brutal, underground niche sport to a mainstream athletic venture. The UFC fancies itself a major player in the sporting world. Well, it had better get its fighters in line with acting like athletes, not petty criminals. Every single fighter on stage at the UFC 25th Anniversary press conference on Friday should have been towing the company line — that fighting stays in the cage. Instead, both Nurmagomedov and Kamaru Usman were spouting off about taking fights outside it.
If martial arts is supposed to be about respect, and this really is a company worthy of a multi-billion dollar valuation, then it’s time to start acting like it. Trash talk is fine up to a point — but it’s up to the UFC to make clear where that point is. And take action when the line is crossed.