LAS VEGAS – Dana White has always walked this line while trying to take the UFC and mixed martial arts from a rogue sport banned on pay-per-view and all but a couple of states, into real competition and a legitimate business.
In doing so he coddled troublemakers. He’s given toothless suspensions. He’s been willing to cash in on the mayhem. He and the company he serves as president has, in turn, made billions of dollars.
Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov added to that cash pile Saturday, selling millions of pay-per-views in part because McGregor attacked Nurmagomedov’s bus in Brooklyn earlier this year, smashing a window with a loading dolly. McGregor had flown all the way from Ireland just to try to fight Nurmagomedov, who had previously got into it with Artem Lobov, one of McGregor’s teammates.
White was incensed but saw dollar signs, booking the fight once McGregor got a slap on the wrist from New York authorities. The UFC showed footage of the vandalism and violence in promotions for the card.
“It’s part of the story,” White defended.
And he was correct. It was.
And so was Saturday night.
All hell broke loose at T-Mobile Arena following Nurmagomedov’s fourth-round submission victory over McGregor, who tapped due to a rear-naked chokehold.
Nurmagomedov didn’t celebrate, he leapt over the cage to fight Dillon Danis, one of McGregor’s training partners who was working his corner and reportedly chirping at him all night.
“Danis was saying something to Khabib, taunting him and then decided to jump out of the cage and attack him,” ringside announcer Joe Rogan said after.
With security trying to break that up, no one was guarding the Octagon. That allowed two of Nurmagomedov’s team members to leap the cage and go after McGregor. One attacked from the front, throwing a punch. Then from behind another sucker-punched the Irishman, hitting him from behind, the first of four blows.
Soon enough there were brawls breaking out all over the place, complete mayhem that nearly turned into a riot.
White was again steamed and upset. When everything calmed down, sort of, and Nurmagomedov returned to the Octagon to be crowned the winner, White sent him away.
“People are going to get arrested tonight,” White told Nurmagomedov.
“Put me in jail,” Nurmagomedov said. “No problem.”
Exactly. No problem.
Look, there is going to be plenty of handwringing about UFC 229. And there will be fallout.
Three members of Nurmagomedov’s team were arrested though White said in the post-fight news conference that they’ve been released because McGregor isn’t pressing charges. And this should never happen, particularly the attack on McGregor, who, as an athlete, deserves the Octagon to be safe following a fight.
It’s an embarrassment to the fighters who work too hard and for too long and want to be seen as the incredible and courageous athletes they are.
“These two knuckleheads making this sport look bad,” lightweight Tony Ferguson said.
“I’m a professional, I’m a sportsman,” said light heavyweight Dominick Reyes. “It’s not a brawl. This is the biggest stage in sport … I just know it’s more of a blemish on the guys involved than on the sport.”
Fair enough, but this is what gets them paid. This is what the UFC has always sold and this is what the public has always bought.
Get Nurmagomedov and McGregor back in the Octagon, and the UFC will sell even more pay-per-views. It might make MMA look bad to people who want the sport to look bad, but deep down White and the others know this just made the UFC bigger than ever.
“It’s entertainment” Ferguson said. “It’s what you do with it. I’m not going to get mad at it anymore.”
The card was massively entertaining throughout, and while the end was chaotic, save for a few people down on the floor who may have gotten pushed about, it electrified the night. This was the best show on the Strip, a historic moment making the sport cutting edge and oh so, cool.
The fans want this. Or something close to it, and White, a modern-day ringmaster, delivered.
The fight sold itself because the hate here was real. White tried to tamp down the intensity of a press conference in New York by banning fans and loading up on NYPD. Even the pre-fight introductions took place with half a dozen security members lining the middle of the ring.
This is what sells though, so fans know that when they drop their hard-earned dollars on a pay-per-view card literally anything might happen.
Even this. Maybe especially this, the worst and best night the UFC may have ever had.
More UFC 229 coverage from Yahoo Sports: