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LAS VEGAS – At the end of the best/worst night in the UFC’s history, and make no mistake, it’ll prove to be far more best than worst, UFC president Dana White kept expressing his disappointment in how it all turned out.
Well, sort of.
“For the show to end the way that it did, how bad does it hurt us?” White asked before answering his own question. “I don’t know if it hurts us at all. Some people love that [expletive]. But to me, it hurts.”
Indeed, some people do love that, ah, stuff and it’s part of why so many people love the UFC. Every time you put your money down for a show, you truly never know what you’re going to get. In this case it was seeing Khabib Nurmagomedov defeat Conor McGregor via tap out in the fourth round and then promptly leap over the Octagon to attack one of McGregor’s corner men.
As all hell broke out in Vegas, two men from Nurmagomedov’s camp jumped into the cage and went after McGregor, who himself was trying to get into the brawl. One squared off with McGregor from the front, throwing punches. Then from behind, another sucker-punched McGregor, hitting him with four blows.
It was … wild and riveting and viral and, like it or not, everything that sells not just here in America but around the world.
Was this humiliating, to a degree, for White? Of course. Over the last 18 years he’s poured himself into taking an outlaw sport that was banned in most states and all of pay-per-view and turning it into a legitimate enterprise, a real business. It took a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get past the “human cockfighting” days.
And this, on the biggest pay-per-view the company ever put on, where incredible athletic ability, courage and even sportsmanship had been showcased. In the end though, well, that sure looked like human cockfighting.
“It’s just really disgusting and disappointing to me,” White said.
And it just made his company bigger than ever.
Look, this is a tightrope White has long walked and one he tried to defend late Saturday night. The UFC sells this stuff. The people buy it. Maybe not the idea of Nurmagomedov taking it outside the Octagon, an action that should lead to significant sanctions from the Nevada State Athletic Association.
But the overheated rhetoric. The name-calling. The news conference pushing and weigh-in near brawls. It’s all part of the show. No one ever really gets punished. Nurmagomedov crossed the line and should pay, but that line is way, way outside the norm to begin with. That’s part of the politically incorrect appeal.
This fight became the richest in UFC history because earlier this year an enraged McGregor flew all the way to Brooklyn to confront Nurmagomedov after a news conference. Nurmagomedov and one of McGregor’s teammates had gotten into it a couple days before, so McGregor showed up and smashed in the windows on the bus with a loading dock dolly.
White was upset about that too, but once McGregor worked things out with police, he booked this fight. The UFC gladly showed video of the bus attack to sell the bout.
“It’s part of the story,” White defended.
It was. This is too, just taken to an even greater extreme.
Nurmagomedov blamed McGrgeor for going over the top in the build-up, which included the Irishman taunting Nurmagomedov’s Muslim religion, criticizing his father and ethnic heritage and accusing his manager of being involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I know this is not my best side,” Nurmagomedov said. “I am human being. He talked about my religion, he talked about my country, he talked about my father, he came to Brooklyn [and attacked the bus].”
White dismissed that. Yes, it was a powder keg, which is why there was extreme security from both T-Mobile Arena and local law enforcement (which stopped McGregor from following Nurmagomedov over the fence and prevented the fight from spilling into the stands). Further precautions were made to keep the camps apart. Extra barriers were put up. There were lots of meetings and planning.
“Nobody [envisioned] Khabib diving over the cage, he scaled that thing like he was a parkour guy,” White said.
The insults didn’t have anything to do with it.
“This isn’t the last time guys are going to say mean things to each other,” White said. “This is the fight business. This is the fight game. People have been saying mean things to each other for 18 years.”
Neither did the lack of suspension for McGregor for the bus attack.
“He didn’t jump over the fence because we didn’t suspend Conor,” White said. “He jumped over the fence because Conor’s guy was talking [expletive] to him.”
And so, there is White’s task as the ringmaster. The anger and hatred and intensity and rivalry and pure, unadulterated violence are what he is selling and selling hard.
While there are fans of the pure sport of mixed martial arts, there are many others who just want the volatility, want the excitement, want the outrageousness.
White operates a sport that is never boring and while preferably things shouldn’t boil over like this, sometimes it’s going to happen.
“This is not what we’re about, not what we do, not how we act,” White said. “It’s unfortunate that the night the most people are watching this [expletive] show happens.”
Yeah, sort of. Nurmagomedov should have stayed in the Octagon. And McGregor could be less profane in the build-up. And that bus in Brooklyn didn’t deserve a smashing. But this is a sport that attracts athletes on the edge, ones that so often operate full of rage, from cultures across the globe. This is who these guys are.
Some of the people who tuned in for the first time ever or the first time in a long time are now hooked forever, pro wrestling gone real. Those who couldn’t stomach it probably weren’t built for it anyway.
Earlier in the card, after winning his fight, colorful heavyweight Derrick Lewis took off his shorts and stood in the Octagon in his underwear. Why, he was asked, by announcer Joe Rogan?
“I wish that was the craziest thing to happen tonight,” White joked.
That’s the UFC. You just never know. It’s that kind of sport, that kind of diversion. After all the nasty words and wild haymakers, when three of Nurmagomedov’s people were detained by police, McGregor refused to press charges and got them released.
That’s the honor code.
“This is respect sport, this is not trash-talking sport,” Nurmagomedov said, which was an odd statement considering about an hour prior he tried to dropkick a cornerman and then sparked a brawl. He didn’t look too concerned.
“He said he was proud of me,” Nurmagomedov said.
Of course, he was. One more satisfied fan watching from home.