By Jeremy Nestor: When Khabib forced Conor McGregor to tap out in the fourth round of their highly anticipated grudge match in Las Vegas last week, the chaotic scenes which ensued looked like something straight out of the Vince McMahon pantomime playbook – with sneak attacks and crowd melees galore. But with the dust now settled, it’s worth asking; was the whole fiasco a calculated PR stunt to draw new audiences to the UFC, or was it the result of genuine bad blood that had been built up since McGregor’s infamous bus attack back in April.
Though McGregor and Khabib had traded verbal barbs in the past, the incident that truly ignited the flames was the disturbance at the Barclays Centre in New York, where the Irishman threw a trolley into a bus full of UFC fighters including Khabib. At the time, the widespread consensus from media was that the divisive Irishman had finally taken things too far. That view was seemingly shared by UFC president, Dana White, who in the immediate aftermath called the attack “the most disgusting thing In UFC history.” For an outsider looking in, White’s fury was justified, McGregor’s actions caused two fights to be pulled from the main card at UFC 223 and led to the Notorious One ending up in court facing multiple charges of felony.
With that being the case; why when McGregor v Khabib was finally announced to the world on August 3rd, was the bus attack used as a major tool within the promotional video when it was so widely condemned by White? Furthermore, why despite claiming it was the ‘most disgusting thing in UFC history’ did White fail to inflict a suspension on McGregor after he was essentially let off scot-free by the New York courts?
The fact is that Conor McGregor is without question the UFC’s biggest asset. His frightening knock out power and quick witted trash talk have made him into a bona-fide superstar, capable of transcending the sport of MMA. But since McGregor left the sport two years ago, the UFC’s PPV numbers have spiralled downwards, and in Khabib, the UFC had the dilemma of possessing an undefeated champion who needed a massive fight in order to market him as a global star. It seems like the McGregor v Khabib fight was an all too easy solution for a growing problem.
That being said, to suggest that the whole thing was an orchestrated PR stunt may be a little farfetched. McGregor mocked Khabib’s religion, family and nationhood in the lead up to the fight – and more to the point, the ugly scenes that marred the end of the fight certainly looked like the results of animosity rather than a staged Royal Rumble. It’s also no secret that the UFC and Dana White have worked tirelessly over the last 25 years to dispel the reputation of MMA as a barbaric sport – so why would they want to destroy it all in one gimmicky move?
However, it remains an interesting point that UFC allowed and even profited from McGregor’s criminal behaviour– using it to sell the fight and further fuel the bad blood. The fight undoubtedly drew new audiences that wouldn’t have usually bothered to tune in and watch. That’s reflected by the PPV numbers, which soared to a record buy-rate of 2.4 million – smashing the previous record. Furthermore, since the fight, Khabib’s star has grown – with rumours of the WWE circling and even a potential bout with Mr. Money Mayweather being touted.
For hard core MMA fans though, the whole McGregor v Khabib circus may have been a bitter pill to swallow. For so long the sport of martial arts has been about technique and respect of one’s opponent, not trash talk and disrespect. It’s also worth considering just how badly the scenes would have reflected on the UFC’s overall image – MMA is the fastest growing sport in the world, but the melee and bus attack would have surely discouraged parents from signing their children up to local martial arts classes.
Still, in an age where major combat sporting events are no longer free to view, sports like boxing, MMA and even the WWE are all competing for PPV buys – resulting in increasingly forced and bizarre press conferences, especially in boxing. So for the UFC to use similar tactics and attract more casual fans to the sport is certainly no crime.
I think that claims which have suggested the whole thing was masterminded by the UFC is a bit short sighted, as there seemed to be a genuine dislike between the two fighters. There is no question in my mind though, that the UFC played on the bus attack and used it as a significant marketing tool during the promotion stage. Furthermore, the fact that a rematch has already been suggested seems to imply that some sort of forward plan was in place throughout.