Let’s talk about the events of UFC 229. Let’s go back before the unfortunate brawl that capped it off. Let’s talk about how Derrick Lewis thought it appropriate to take his shorts off for his post-fight interview. Then we can talk about Tony Ferguson’s profanity-laced fight interview directed at Conor McGregor and his fans that played like a bad Jake “The Snake” Roberts bit. Maybe we can even bring up the promo commercial for the main event featuring footage of a largely unpunished scene of criminal mayhem between the two camps leading up to the event. Or why the promotion strategy of 90 percent of the UFC’s roster plays like my least favorite episode of Real House Wives of New Jersey.
There is a culture of shock and awe that has infected the sport of MMA, and it’s rotting it from the inside out. Fighters are playing to the fans at levels never seen before in order to catch the spotlight, and “The Notorious One’s” success model has become their user manual to getting there. Which, for purely entertainment purposes, seems acceptable. It works in the WWE. But bits in professional wrestling are performed by paid actors working off a script. Last night’s main event brawl is an example of what happens when real human emotion meets its breaking point.
Since the arrival of Conor McGregor, the fighting world has gone through a renaissance of sorts. His electric personality and unquestionable skill have helped to catapult the UFC to new heights while opening up the eyes of a new and untapped market. His antics were at times over the top, but always entertaining. He sells fights. But success invites imitation, and you can’t just run the same old bit anymore. There always needs to be an upgrade. So the envelope gets pushed a little more each press conference or interview until we end up with what we had last night.
After a truly classic heavyweight battle, the winner, Derrick Lewis, took his shorts off on camera for his interview. A bit unsportsmanlike, but not too bad. Then Tony Ferguson, after possibly one of the greatest two-round fights of all time, turns ham and calls out the McGregor fan base in a profanity-laced tirade. We are all adults, and Tony is known for his own antics. But still, strike two. Finally, we get the main event, arguably the biggest event in UFC history, and an epic display of what makes MMA so great. Conor held his own better than most, though Khabib’s grit and determination just proved to be too much, leading to a fourth-round stoppage via a brutal neck crank submission that needed to be physically broken by Herb Dean. What an amazing finish to an amazing rivalry. If only Khabib would have walked back to his corner after standing over his vanquished opponent in victory. Instead we have this unfortunate disgrace.
This is not a meant to blast Conor or Khabib. They are only victims of their own success. This is an attempt to shine a light on the disturbing path MMA has taken to lead up to this point, how we got there, and why Dana White and the UFC brass shrug their shoulders with confused looks when events like this happen. Last night, when White was asked by reporters in the post-fight press conference if he felt like marketing the bus attack seemed to fuel the ending melee, he casually and emphatically deflected all blame in the standard reply of, “this is the fight game”. Which is why we find ourselves here. No one will take accountability because it’s easy to take that defense. Fighters promote fights to build attention and sell tickets. But it’s not about the fighting anymore — It’s about the hype. So everyone is stirring the pot to build the drama because drama equals more interest, which equals happy bosses and bigger paydays.
That drama works, too. But only if the participants follow the script. Hype is just hype. Everyone wants to get paid. Both sides go home as fellow brothers at arms. But when the drama becomes real because things go too far and human emotions get involved, everyone stands in shock.
Dana White and the UFC need to address this problem. Last night and the events leading up to it should be a wake-up call. The UFC brand is becoming damaged. There should be internal regulation and punishment for unsportsmanlike and unprofessional conduct and, they should be enforced regularly until this is under control. It is way past time to own the monster they created and work to fix it, or MMA will become an embarrassment. Many members of the martial arts community are already tuning out. We’re fed up with watching what is supposed to be the pinnacle of our life’s passions become a poorly executed circus show. And don’t forget the corporate machines that really pay the bills too — You think ESPN wants to be affiliated with those actions?
Bring back the code of honor this sport had in the past. Make your athletes act like the disciplined warriors they are instead of leading them down the road to clown town by silently rewarding poor behavior. Because the plausible deniability card you are very obviously playing is slowly causing you to lose your true fan base by making a mockery of the sport.