Khabib, McGregor, and What the UFC Can Learn From FIFA
Image: Joe Amon, ESPN
UFC 229, which took place on October 6th, had a rather unconventional ending. Nearly two weeks have gone by, and the sporting world and social media are still abuzz with the implications of the post-fight melee. In case you missed it, here is the basic gist. Khabib Nermagomanov, the reigning champion of the lightweight division, beat the former champion and bitter rival – Conor McGregor – by submission (specifically, a neck-crank). Then, in a stranger-than-fiction turn of events, Khabib (an often composed, stoic, and soft-spoken individual), jumped over the fence to (presumably) fight the rest of the McGregor team. This took place after months of (basically) one-sided trash talk from McGregor who, as Khabib later put it, insulted his family, nation, and religion. For more on the specific details of the event, watch this interview with Joe Rogan and McGregor’s trainer, John Kavanaugh. For UFC boss Dana White – who was positively giddy on TMZ, having just reviewed the Pay-Per-View numbers – the fact that things ended in precisely the way they did is actually only the tip of the iceberg of the problems that the UFC will one day have to deal with.
Global Brand – Global Fighters
The fact that the UFC has reached its current level of prominence and acceptance as a mainstream sport is astonishing when considering its origins. To give the younger readers an idea of just how far the UFC has had to come, consider a scene from Friends from season 3 (1997). For our younger readers, Friends was a very popular show in the 90s-early 00s. You kind of had to be there. Anyway, the conversation goes as follows:
Chandler: “It’s two guys in a ring, and the rules are: there are no rules.”
Monica: “So you can, like, bite, and pull people’s hair and stuff?”
Ross: “Yeah, anything goes, except eye gouging and fish hooking.”
In fairness, most of that was basically true in 1997. Since then, the rules of the sport have evolved tremendously. But the conversation shows just how the UFC was viewed in mainstream discourse. It took years to overcome the stigma of barbarity. No one knows this better than Dana White, the promotional genius behind the UFC brand who has spent his career lobbying officials at all levels of governance to allow for the sport’s events to be held in their provinces, cities and states. It is difficult to imagine that the first UFC event ever held in Madison Square Garden was UFC 194, headlined by the Jose Aldo vs Conor McGregor fight. UFC cards have now been held in a variety of American cities, as well as in Canada, the UK, Brazil, and a whole host of other cities. This, as well as the fact that Zuffa (the UFCs parent company) has acquired fight leagues around the world, demonstrates the organization’s effort to build a globally recognized and internationally accepted brand. And therein lies the problem for White and his organization’s current style of promotion.
Trash Talk: As American as Apple Pie
In the lead up to the Mayweather-McGregor fight last year, White made it clear that the promotion of the fight was as important for selling the fight as the contestants themselves. This has played well into the hands of McGregor, the UFCs most popular fighter. The Irishmen is perhaps as well known for his trash-talk as he is for his striking. McGregor, The UFC’s first ever two division champ, pushes the boundaries of trash talk to new levels with virtually every opponent. That was made abundantly clear during the lead up to the fight this past weekend when McGregor quite literally threw out every personal insult he could muster at his opponent, including (but not limited to) insulting Khabib’s religion, culture, father, and nation.
As already mentioned, there is nothing new in McGregor’s behavior. This can be demonstrated by way of example. In the lead up to his Jose Aldo in 2016, McGregor said to the Brazilian during a press conference “…If this was a different time, I would invade his favela on horseback and kill anyone that was not fit to work.” What was new for McGregor this time around was the reaction of his opponent – and his entourage – to the incessant race-baiting and slander. Never before had any of McGregor’s opponents taken the issue so personally as to attack the Irishmen’s team (after winning the fight, no less). Khabib, who comes from a region of the world that takes familial and religious insults much more seriously, later apologized for his behavior. He asserted his belief, however, that MMA should be a respectful sport. Regarding what was said to him, Khabib said quite plainly “You can’t say these things.”
What is interesting here is that the near unanimous response from the MMA community is that freedom of speech gives McGregor and his entourage the right to say as he pleases, without reprisal or consequence. What seems to have gone totally ignored in the sports media is that this style of promotion – one that thrives on no-holds-barred trash talk – is limited exclusively by American values. By way of example, consider for a moment whether White would be ok with McGregor, in the lead up to a fight with an African American opponent, saying something like “In another time I’d be whipping you while you picked cotton on my field.” The only difference between that and his comment to Jose Aldo is the fact that the former is offensive in an American context, while the latter makes light of another community’s colonial past.
At this juncture in the UFC’s history, White and his organization can choose to simply draw a line in the sand and state that fighters and spectators who are not comfortable with the culture of the sport need not be a part of it. And frankly, the UFC would be well within his right to take such a position. There are, however, at least two problems with that approach.
Firstly, the type of spectacle that precedes a fight – now complete with vulgarity and bigotry – will one day have a consequence greater than what we have seen so far. These athletes (particularly athletes that stand alone as representatives of their nation or ethnic group) represent much more than just themselves. This is true in any sport. The problem is that, in the lead up to big fights, the stakes will continue to be raised. Suppose that there is a rematch between the same two fighters in the future. What will McGregor have to do to increase the ferocity of his “mental warfare”? Will he bring pictures of Khabib’s family? A Blasphemous cartoon perhaps? These are the kinds of things that can cost people their lives in most of the world.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly to White, the UFC’s courtship with controversy significantly limits its global growth potential. The majority of the world would never allow for two athletes to flame ethnic tensions just to hype up a fight. As such, they would be disinclined to host a sport which does that almost as a matter of principle. It is naïve to suggest that this point is of little or no importance to White and his organization because, as previously stated, the UFC has worked aggressively to host events around the world precisely with the intention of extending its global reach. A limited market means limited revenues. Period. In this regard, the UFC has a lot to learn from a much more mature (but arguably more corrupt) sporting organization, FIFA.
What to Learn from FIFA
FIFA, the governing body responsible for the administration and management of international soccer, rarely receives positive praise. The organization is infamous for corruption, back-door deals, and turning a blind eye to abusive construction practices in the lead up to major tournaments. There is something, however, which FIFA does well. This past summer, Xherdan Shaqiri – a Swiss national of Albanian origin – scored a fantastic goal against Serbia to help secure his nation’s place in the second round of the tournament. In his celebration, Shaqiri raised his back-hands with his thumbs interlocked, a gesture that looks vaguely like an eagle. For that gesture, Shaqiri faced an immediate fine with the threat of possible suspension. A repeat offense would have certainly meant a suspension, or possibly worse. The reason for the fine was that the eagle symbol was a gesture of Albanian nationalism, meant to aggravate the Serbian team and fans. This highly localized gesture (totally foreign to most viewers I would imagine) was not ignored by FIFA, as they have a very clear rule against this type of thing. The rule is simple, no political gestures by teams (players or coaches). In fact, the organization will even punish fans if gestures or slogans are deemed inflammatory or racist.
FIFA may have a lot of work to do when it comes to corruption, but their policies on racism and politics in sport are very clear. These rules are in place because FIFA knows all-too-well that sports are political by their very nature, and that soccer has the potential to change the world for better or for worse. Soccer helped end the Ivory Coast’s civil war in 2006, and helped spark a war between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969. FIFA also knows that without the overly dramatic and bigoted belligerence, they still manage to host the most widely viewed event on the planet (the World Cup), mostly on the promise that what is being viewed is the highest standard the sport has to offer. One would think, then, that the promise of seeing two fighters in their prime slug it out on live television should be attractive enough for the UFC to draw increasingly large audiences.