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Bigotry fueled the Conor McGregor-Khabib Nurmagomedov brawl after UFC 229

Very little was done except inflame tensions leading up to the fight

UFC 229 delivered on the “bad blood” between its golden boy, Conor McGregor, and the undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov. In fact, what happened after the fight, which ended with Nurmagomedov forcing McGregor to submit by chokehold in the fourth round, overshadowed a dominant performance by the Muslim fighter from Dagestan, Russia.

Instead of reveling in victory and extending his reign as the lightweight titleholder and first Muslim champion in the UFC, Nurmagomedov taunted McGregor and then rushed to his opponent’s corner. The fight was over, but the one that began well before the first round of their long-anticipated faceoff was still on. With their leader slumped over in defeat, McGregor’s camp directed the sort of personal attacks and bigoted slurs that have colored the entirety of UFC 229, which then lived up to its “bad blood” billing within and especially beyond the Octagon.

The world of combat sports, particularly boxing, has long preyed upon race, national rivalries and full-fledged racism to promote fights.

Nurmagomedov leapt above the cage and confronted McGregor’s team, while McGregor responded by trading blows with Nurmagomedov’s cornermen inside of it. Nurmagomedov initiated the mess after the fight, dubbed the “biggest in UFC history,” but the violent aftermath revealed how promoting fights on the back of ethnic taunts and religious bigotry can have explosive consequences.

The world of combat sports, particularly boxing, has long preyed upon race, national rivalries and full-fledged racism to promote fights. Although boasting a predominantly white male fan base and a stable of fighters largely composed of that demographic, the UFC has adopted many of these long-standing racial tactics to promote its sport and its most bankable fighter, McGregor. His unequivocal whiteness resonates deeply with a core of UFC’s audience, and his bankability has amplified his privilege — which he often displays by directing insensitive ethnic and religious slurs at his opponents. He’s done it before with the likes of Jose Aldo, Nate Diaz and Floyd Mayweather.

His target this time, Nurmagomedov, is a devout Muslim and proud native of Dagestan, a region marred by ethnic and religious persecution. After the fight, and the melee, Nurmagomedov vented, “I’m a human being, but I don’t understand how people can talk about jumping on the cage when he talks about my religion, he talked about my country, he talks about my father and he comes to Brooklyn and he broke the bus and almost killed a couple of people. What about this?”

During the fight’s buildup, McGregor did just that, ridiculing Nurmagomedov’s Islamic faith and his ethnic roots and taking dig after dig at his father. Islamophobia was on full display during the promotion, with McGregor calling Nurmagomedov’s Egyptian trainer Ali Abdelaziz, also a Muslim, a “f—ing snitch terrorist rat,” descending on his ethnicity and faith to unleash loaded, bigoted slurs. Nurmagomedov — an unapologetic Muslim who prays before bouts and proclaimed, “Thank God” in Arabic after Friday’s weigh-in — took these attacks on his trainer as attacks on him and his faith, which exacerbated the bad blood going into Saturday’s bout. McGregor made digs into Nurmagomedov’s ethnic identity by posting on his Instagram, and he offered Nurmagomedov a drink of his Irish whiskey during a news conference weeks before their fight, knowing that he abstains from alcohol.

Nurmagomedov sat stone-faced and silent, absorbing everything that McGregor hurled at him, his family, his father and his faith. This was not the fight nor the promotion he signed up for. Dana White, on the other hand, stood between the two fighters, knowing that this promotional formula equaled more attention, and more money.

Instead of White stepping in and stopping McGregor from using deeply personal, ethnic and Islamophobic taunts against Nurmagomedov, he “let Conor be Conor” and capitalized on bigotry to promote the fight. McGregor’s stardom and whiteness have enabled him to get away with almost anything during fight promotions — most infamously, his attack on the bus in Brooklyn, New York, in April that left many fighters injured, which White condemned but showcased as the center of UFC 229’s promotion.

After the melee, White said he was “disgusted and sick over it.” But what did he do, before the fight, to prevent the bad blood from boiling past the final bell?

The UFC is just as responsible for what took place after Nurmagomedov finally unleashed his pent-up frustration on McGregor, which tainted the UFC far more than it did the fighter forced to endure so much before the fight.

Instead of censoring McGregor, White smiled. Instead of deterring McGregor with a fine or suspension and taking a firm stance against bigotry, White enabled his biggest star like he has in the past, knowing that the hateful tirade directed at Nurmagomedov didn’t make sense but spelled dollars. And record-breaking pay-per-view numbers. By doing next to nothing, White emboldened McGregor, allowing his unhinged star to unleash bigoted attack after bigoted attack.

“Some things aren’t for fight promotion. Religion, family, country. Throwing stuff in Brooklyn. For Khabib it wasn’t fight promotion, it was really personal,” tweeted UFC heavyweight champion, Daniel Cormier, who trains with Nurmagomedov in California.

Racial rivalries sell bouts. This is an ugly but proven fact. Although he is technically white, Nurmagomedov’s Muslim and ethnic (Avar) identity diminishes his whiteness in the gaze of the public, while McGregor assumes the role of the “great white hero” within the UFC and world of combat sports. White and the UFC brass are aware of this and stood in the middle, salivating at the financial projections, while their golden goose, McGregor, bashed everything Nurmagomedov holds sacred throughout the fight’s promotion.

The UFC is just as responsible for what took place after Nurmagomedov finally unleashed his pent-up frustration on McGregor, which tainted the UFC far more than it did the fighter forced to endure so much before the fight.

Khaled A. Beydoun is an Associate Law Professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. He is also Affiliated Faculty at the UC-Berkeley Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project.