In the immediate aftermath of Khabib Nurmagomedov’s convincing defeat of Conor McGregor in Las Vegas, the Dubliner lay slumped against the side of the octagon while the Russian removed his gum guard and bellowed the words “talk now” at him. It was a visceral release of anger that even in the throes of their physical combat had seemed to continue to boil within.
What followed, with Nurmagomedov vaulting the cage to confront a member of McGregor’s team while his own entourage looked to inflict further physical pain on the defeated Irishman, was the ugly result of a toxic promotional campaign – a grotty celebration of the fighters’ contempt for each other – actively encouraged byDana White, the President of the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
The whole build-up to the main event of UFC 229 had been a cocktail of unsavoury words and cringe-inducing imagery. Despite calling it the “most disgusting thing in UFC history” earlier in April, White defended the use of footage showing McGregor and his team attacking a bus containing fighters. What eventually led to criminal charges for McGregor was now dressed up as part of the story.
After the fight and subsequent melee, Nurmagomedov addressed the gathered journalists and asked how McGregor’s habitual overstepping of the line regarding his family, country of birth and religion was allowed to pass without comment while his rage was now the main story. This is the most interesting aspect of the fallout, how the personal barbs and tasteless references towards his faith had only intensified the Russian’s hostility and served as a precautionary tail for other sports.
As the winter months approach, the inevitable debate over whether the England football team should be seen wearing poppies will rear its head again. The aggressive, competitive compassion that is stoked by tabloid newspapers and members of parliament who suddenly find a useful distraction from their own failings to attack FIFA will no doubt manifest itself in criticism towards football’s governing body. The fallout from Las Vegas, however, only strengthens the FIFA stance against political or religious symbols being present on the field of play. Nurmagomedov’s rage and his subsequent press conference appeal was triggered by McGregor’s derogatory language over his religion and politics and the reaction of Nurmagomedov and his entourage was a result of that.
This is no way at all a suggestion that politics or religion have no place in sport. They are, and always will be, intrinsically linked. When images of Mo Salah performing sujood after scoring a goal are shown around the world with joyful Liverpool fans cheering in the background, this represents the wonderful combination that sport and beliefs can be. It is when religion and politics become part of the competition that malice takes a hold.
The UFC and Dana White deserve nothing but criticism for the way they have handled the events of last weekend and it should prove in no uncertain terms that despite their reputation as a corrupt organisation, FIFA deserve credit for their simple and sensible rulings when faced with these potential issues.