NEW YORK — As bad as it must have been for UFC president Dana White to watch his biggest star escorted from a police barracks in handcuffs on Friday morning, it could have been even worse.
That there will be a fight card at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Saturday after all that has transpired in the past six days is quite remarkable.
Even more remarkable is that, even with everything that occurred, the reconstituted UFC 223 with a lightweight title fight between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Al Iaquinta and a strawweight championship fight between Rose Namajunas and Joanna Jedrzejczyk at the top, is a pretty decent card in spite of all the changes.
A show that was to be headlined by a grudge match between two long-time rivals was quickly changed when Tony Ferguson had to withdraw from his title bout with Nurmagomedov after tearing his LCL while tripping over a TV cable last week while doing an interview. He was replaced by featherweight champion Max Holloway, who was willing to fight Nurmagomedov on six days’ notice in a bid to become only the second UFC fighter other than Conor McGregor to hold two titles simultaneously.
On Friday morning, New York State Athletic Commission officials declared Holloway medically unfit to compete, so he wouldn’t be able to face Nurmagomedov. Paul Felder was willing to take the bout, but the commission wouldn’t allow him to face Nurmagomedov since he’s not ranked in the top 15. After a brief discussion with Anthony Pettis, the UFC turned to Iaquinta, who had made weight by coming in for his fight with Felder at 155.2.
This, though, is a case where making weight isn’t always making weight. In non-title fights, the fighters are given a one-pound allowance, so they can come in one pound above the division limit and still have made weight. Iaquinta could have weighed 156 for his bout with Felder.
But in a title fight, the fighter must make it on the number, in this case 155, period. Iaquinta left the weigh-in believing he’d made weight, and drank and ate. So later, when the UFC needed a replacement for Holloway, he said he’d take the bout with Nurmagomedov. In this week from hell, though, it couldn’t be that simple. He wasn’t eligible to fight for the title since he was two-tenths of a pound over. Clearly, he could have made it had he needed to, but he was gone long before it became necessary.
Thus, he’ll fight Nurmagomedov on Saturday in the hastily arranged main event. If Nurmagomedov wins, he’ll be the new UFC lightweight champion, as McGregor will be stripped of his title for inactivity. But if Iaquinta wins, the title will be vacant since he didn’t make the championship weight limit.
It’s confusing, but not nearly as bizarre as the events that led up to it.
In a scene that was so out of character for him that it almost seemed like a movie was being filmed, McGregor was led out of the 78th precinct in Brooklyn on Friday, his hands cuffed behind his back. Police charged McGregor with three counts of misdemeanor assault and one count of felony criminal mischief. He was released on $50,000 bail.
That was the result of a rampage on Thursday at the conclusion of the UFC 223 media day. McGregor somehow decided it was a good idea to gather 20 friends, fly them from Ireland to New York and then attack a bus in which Nurmagomedov was sitting in the bowels of the Barclays Center, all because Nurmagomedov had a brief confrontation in the fighter hotel with McGregor teammate, Artem Lobov, earlier in the week.
McGregor’s idiocy resulted in:
• Alex Caceres losing a fight with Lobov, because he was scheduled to fight Lobov on Saturday and Lobov was involved in the McGregor melee. The UFC yanked Lobov from the card, thus harming Caceres.
• Michael Chiesa, who was supposed to fight Anthony Pettis in a bout that would have had significant career implications for him had he won, suffering cuts when McGregor flung a dolly at the bus and it broke a window near Chiesa. New York officials ruled he wasn’t able to fight as a result of the cuts.
• Ray Borg suffering corneal abrasions also as a result of broken glass and being yanked from his important match fight with Brandon Moreno.
So, five innocent fighters — Caceres, Chiesa, Pettis, Borg and Moreno — were pulled out of their fights after completing training camp because McGregor decided to exact vigilante justice. And it could have been worse. It’s no stretch to think that someone could have lost an eye from a shard of glass that went flying when the dolly McGregor threw hit the window.
The cost, though, goes far greater than just that. The UFC led a battle for years to get mixed martial arts legalized in New York, and finally got it done in 2016. The McGregor-led behavior is exactly what critics who were against MMA’s legalization in the state were concerned about.
Such concern was laughed off by MMA insiders at the time, because they knew the vast majority of MMA fighters to be respectful, honorable and intelligent athletes who cared deeply about their sport and about martial arts in general, and would never behave the way some New York politicians were saying they might.
Then, McGregor comes in and acts like a gangster and does the very thing MMA’s critics were pointing toward as a reason to vote against legalization.
McGregor’s hooliganism significantly damaged his own reputation — how much do you want to bet Burger King will dump him as a spokesman, and watch how other companies assiduously avoid him? — but it also hurt the reputation of the sport.
It’s likely that other MMA fighters may lose opportunities because companies will become leery of doing business with them after a series of McGregor incidents. McGregor was disciplined by the Nevada Athletic Commission after throwing cans at a news conference in Las Vegas back in August 2016 prior to a fight with Nate Diaz, in what was a battle of one-upmanship.
And then McGregor was vulgar, crude and racist during news conferences promoting his 2017 boxing match with Floyd Mayweather.
When a blue-chip company takes a look at that, and sees the sport’s biggest star behaving that way, do you think it will want to do business with any of them? Unlikely, at least for a while.
As always, the show will go on, and the 18 fighters who will compete will undoubtedly fight their hearts out.
That will be their response to McGregor and his minions.
They deserve plenty of credit, as does White and the many faceless, nameless employees who worked tirelessly to save this show and deliver their customers a night of great fights.
UFC 223 on paper still looks like a good fight card, despite everything that McGregor and his so-called friends attempted to do to submarine it.
And while this won’t be White’s greatest week ever, it’s setting up for a storybook ending if the card turns out to be spectacular in spite of it all.
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