If you’ve been watching mixed martial arts and the UFC since before it became mainstream, then you’ll remember the sport’s dark ages. A time when the latest fights weren’t a topic of conversation at your office yosi breaks, and mentions of such a thing got reactions like, ‘Ah, so parang yung peke na wrestling?’
Back then, UFC events got hardly (if any) air time here. Surfing YouTube wasn’t a thing yet, so to keep up with what was happening, you had to follow some niche websites and pore through forums religiously. With any luck, you’d find a low-res highlight of your favorite fighter on Limewire, laden with an ear-piercing nu metal song, to get your fix of footage.
That was a long time ago, and old-school fans were glad when the rest of the world started tuning in to the sport. Its rise to mainstream consciousness came about after a long and hard battle for legitimacy.
The UFC began in the early ‘90s with a Bloodsport-esque gimmick which gave it a bad and barbaric reputation. Later on, the then-new owners did all they could to steer the brand away from this perception and cement it as a legitimate sporting organization. It fought against governments to get the sport legalized. It worked with athletic commissions to make the fights safer. These aren’t thugs and Neanderthals, their narrative went. These are professional athletes and martial artists.
It also steered away from the individualist boxing business model, which routinely saw big stars not agreeing on must-happen fights due to decimal points on a contract. If you were signed with the UFC, you fought whoever was put in front of you. Champions emerged as they eliminated all other contenders, and defended their belts often.
In recent years, though, the UFC has made a noticeable departure from its stance on match-ups and having the best rise up from the heap. Instead, the organization has created an environment where the loudest and brashest fighters get the limelight. Lately, it’s the headline-worthy fighters who are more likely to earn the right fights and paydays. If they can really talk, they’re even exempted from things like disciplinary actions and title defenses.
No other fighter has epitomized this mindset more than Conor McGregor. Already a talented fighter, McGregor elevated his status and paydays in just a few years by sheer charisma, even crossing over to Floyd Mayweather’s lofty echelon last year. The Irishman has earned himself millions and is a bonafide star, all before his 30th birthday.
Now he’s made headlines once again, but for all the wrong reasons. After fellow lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov got into a harmless scuffle with his teammate Artem Lobov, McGregor and his crew caused a much bigger riot backstage at the Barclays Center. McGregor himself threw a large dolly at a bus filled with fighters competing at UFC 223, shattering one of the windows. When all was said and done, Lobov was taken off the card, two other fighters were removed due to glass-related injuries, and McGregor was charged with assault by the NYPD.
It's worth nothing that this incident happened right after Dana White announced that McGregor will be stripped of the lightweight title he won back in late 2016. He hasn’t set foot in the Octagon since then, so the UFC rightly decided that the Nurmagomedov vs. Max Holloway main event would be for the belt. A profane tweet and a broken bus window later, and all attention surrounding this event is now on a guy who wasn’t even scheduled to fight.
While it’s not the first time (though certainly the most severe) that McGregor’s gone out of his way to get attention, he would usually do it to hype up an upcoming fight. But with nothing on the horizon, what was the point of all this? It couldn’t have been just about settling beef with Nurmagomedov—a pro like McGregor would know that a street fight in public wouldn’t go any further than a half-assed pull-apart. So was it just attention for attention’s sake? If so, then therein lies the problem.
If the UFC’s biggest star feels the need to cause a big melee to drum up attention, then what does it say about the organization’s priorities? Sadly, it seems that the days of fighters building championship reigns and establishing legacies have given way to earning big paydays and pay-per-view buys. The old fight for legitimacy as a sport is getting lost amidst manufactured story lines not far removed from that fake wrestling stuff. With this incident in particular, hard-working fighters who aren’t anywhere near McGregor’s pay bracket have had their livelihoods compromised.
It’s not just fans like me who think this is the case, either. Many UFC fighters took to social media to express their disgust at McGregor’s actions. I reached out to Australian fighter Damien Brown to get his take on the matter. Brown, a family man and army veteran, was less than thrilled about what took place.
“He’s the sport’s biggest star and one of the most well-known athletes in the world. He has the potential to do so much good but instead lacks the morals and guidance to do so,” Brown says.
“He brought the sport into disrepute today, not just the UFC. We’re part of the fastest growing sport in the world that still battles with governments to prove it’s safe and legitimate. He’s made any progression take a clear step backwards.”
Hopefully, due punishment will be doled out by the UFC regardless of McGregor’s star power. The ability to earn the company money is one thing, but it can’t come at the cost of jeopardizing the entire sport and other fighters. Especially when the guy doing the jeopardizing hasn’t competed in MMA since the Obama administration.