The world is watching.
As far as fight night slogans go, the four words that the UFC plastered all over its promotional material for Saturday night’s meeting of Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov, will not be remembered with any relish.
The world was indeed watching events at the T-Mobile Arena as the organisation racked up the biggest pay-per-view tally in its history. What the world saw was some of the very best of the UFC. But all that the world will remember is the very worst.
The Notorious one’s return to the octagon after two years away was to have been a finest hour. Instead it was the darkest. And the UFC were wholly complicit in it.
McGregor had committed a criminal, highly dangerous act in April when he raided an arena in Brooklyn and smashed up a bus carrying Nurmagomedov and other fighters, two of whom were left with injuries.
In front of the cameras, UFC chief Dana White cut a seething figure in the hours after the attack, saying he was disgusted and pondering whether he wanted to be in business with McGregor at all. The words were, typically, empty. Mere months later, after McGregor largely beat the rap, his prominence and privilege as a professional sportsman earning him a slap on the wrists and perhaps worse, the UFC revelled in the bus attack.
Footage of the incident peppered their promos for the fight. As the bout neared, they further fuelled the bitterness between the headline acts. McGregor’s racial and ethnic goading of Nurmagomedov, instead of being condemned, also found its way into the advertisements.
Daniel Cormier, the UFC’s current light heavyweight and heavyweight champion, and one of the sport’s more measured minds, made the point in the hours after the shameful scenes at the T-Mobile Arena, the brawls sparked by Nurmagomedov mirrored by fans fighting in the streets of Las Vegas too.
Two wrongs don’t make it right. Conor didn’t deserve that. No one did,” Cormier tweeted. “But some things aren’t for fight promotion. Religion, family, country. Throwing stuff in Brooklyn.
White insisted he had no regrets about the handling of the bus attack and the wider promotional efforts for the fight: “People have been saying mean things to each other for 18 years at the UFC and nothing like this has ever happened,” went his flawed reasoning.
Hey guys, two wrongs don’t make it right. Conor didn’t deserve that. No one did. But some things aren’t for fight promotion. Religion, family, country. Throwing stuff in Brooklyn. For Khabib it wasn’t fight promotion, it was really personal. Diff culture man. Sucks— Daniel Cormier (@dc_mma) October 7, 2018
The organisation has never had a fight or rivalry that was built upon racial and ethnic goading, however. They never showed any sign of checking McGregor. Instead, they stoked their way into the firestorm.
They are now left with a champion whose reputation is badly damaged, a lengthy ban potentially forthcoming for Nurmagomedov. The return of their poster boy amounted to a disastrous night inside and outside the octagon.
McGregor finds himself in a not unfamiliar position. He has been forced to lick wounds before after Nate Diaz submitted him with an identical choke hold in early 2016. He retreated then, retooled and earned retribution later that year, outlasting Diaz in an epic five-round rematch.
However, this defeat felt different. He was consistently outclassed for long parts of Saturday night’s encounter. Even in the areas where he was supposed to have the edge, he couldn’t make it count. Nurmagomedov controlled things by taking it to the ground early and often. What we hadn’t expected was for The Eagle to win the upright fight too.
The champion landed the best punch of the fight with a crushing right hand in a disastrous second round for the challenger. McGregor was downed and almost out as referee Herb Dean looked to toy with the idea of ending it there and then.
While he bounced back a little in the third, it was striking how little effect his blows were having on Nurmagomedov. Rustiness undoubtedly played a part but Nurmagomedov was so technically superior, you wonder whether it makes enough fighting sense — whatever about the moral dilemma — to bring the pair together again.
McGregor didn’t appear at the post-fight press conference so his thoughts on how it all played out and what comes next will have to come later. White caught up with his golden boy afterwards and spoke of a hurt man.
He didn’t care about the fight afterwards,” White insisted. “He was more concerned about the fight fight. He didn’t even press charges. He doesn’t care about that. He cares that he lost the fight.
The nature of the defeat will largely be forgotten, the chaos and instant infamy instead the storyline of the night. Win or Learn has been the McGregor mantra for so long now. There were plenty of lessons for him here.
The most pertinent lessons, however, are for his employers. Are they ready to learn?
The world is most certainly watching.