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McGregor-Nurmagomedov Was More Than the UFC Bargained For

Khabib’s win in the octagon lived up to expectations, but when he jumped into the crowd to fight opposing cornermen, the scene in Vegas turned into an unmanageable mess

UFC 229: Khabib v McGregor Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The potential for an altercation after the UFC 229 main event between Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov was always in play; that’s why Vegas made it into a prop bet. But when Mike Tyson tweets that the melee which came after Nurmagomedov’s victory was “unimaginable … crazier than my fight riot,” well, you know it was pretty bad.

In 1997, Tyson was involved in boxing’s greatest misadventure when his disqualification for biting off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear kicked off one of the biggest brawls in documented combat sports history. He is an authority on the subject of public unrest. Yet what happened on Saturday night wasn’t the result of somebody’s ear getting chewed on, or really anything that occurred in the Octagon during the fight itself. It was the result of bad blood between the two fighters and their respective camps—the darkest kind of bad blood—which the UFC took special measures to try and manage by enlisting half the Las Vegas Metro Police force to work the fight.

It didn’t work. The same tension that the UFC used to sell the feud between Nurmagomedov and McGregor spilled over into a riot right after Nurmagomedov sunk a rear-naked choke in the fourth round to tap the Irishman out. Rather than celebrate the victory, Nurmagomedov held the choke perhaps a beat longer than necessary, which prompted McGregor’s cornerman Dillon Danis to scream something at him from outside the cage. Nurmagomedov threw his mouthpiece at Danis, then scaled the cage wall so fast that nobody could stop him, leaping towards Danis with a flying kick. In the moment, from the nearby vantage point of press row, it looked like Nurmagomedov had jumped headlong into a roiling mosh pit among the dispirited pro-McGregor crowd.

All hell broke loose from there, as McGregor—freshly battered for the last 18 minutes in the actual fight itself —climbed the cage wall too and took a swipe at one of Nurmagomedov’s cornermen. Moments later, he was being sucker-punched by yet another cornerman. By the time the dust settled, the voice of the Octagon, Bruce Buffer, announced Nurmagomedov’s victory in an empty cage. Everybody had been removed from the scene by a phalanx of police, and Dana White wouldn’t let Nurmagomedov accept his belt because he didn’t want a million projectiles to rain down on the cage.

This was how the biggest fight in UFC history—the one that White projected would sell three million pay-per-view buys—came to an end: With an ugly scene that will make the prudest MMA detractors clutch hard at their pearls, and the UFC second-guess itself for using the footage of McGregor’s dolly incident in April as part of the promo package.

There’s a lot to unpack in an incident like this, but the lasting hysteria of the brawl only temporarily overshadows the original story development of the night—that Conor McGregor, the UFC’s biggest drawing star, lost the bout. Everything about the fight felt epic heading in. Nurmagomedov, a smashing machine of a grappler, was undefeated and pissed. McGregor, a precision striker carrying preternatural power, was the equalizer. This was a couple of real-life OGs coming to swing hands, what White later referred to as “street shit.” McGregor had attacked Nurmagomedov’s religious beliefs in the first press conference, and called his manager Ali Abdelaziz a “terrorist rat.” He had taken swipes at his father back in Dagestan, and dragged geopolitics into the cage. McGregor was playing with fire the whole way, and the UFC was lapping it up.

Nurmagomedov let all of that fester inside him until the fight. Then, he made McGregor pay. He took McGregor down early, and held him there for the bulk of the first round. In the second, he dropped McGregor with a big right hand, which came as a shock to the assembled. From there, Nurmagomedov continued to do what so many feared he might—dump McGregor on the canvas, time and again, and put him in various stages of survival mode. He tried to wrench McGregor’s arm off with a Kimura at one point, and torque his head off his shoulders at another. In between, he rained down punches and elbows. If this fight were a game of chess, McGregor would have been playing from check the whole way.

It was a master class in the kind of bullydom that makes Nurmagomedov perhaps the greatest juggernaut in UFC history, and most certainly in the history of the lightweight division. If there was a silver lining for the Irish fans assembled, it was in the fact that McGregor actually became the first fighter to win a round against the Russian. That came in the third, when it looked like Nurmagomedov may have been simply using the five minutes to catch his breath. In the fourth round, Nurmagomedov came out determined to end the thing. And he did, at the 3:03 mark, sinking a crosshatch between a rear-naked choke and a chin crank.

If that were the end of it, Nurmagomedov could have accepted his undisputed title and set up a fight with Tony Ferguson, a familiar rival who was victorious in the co-main event against Anthony Pettis. And McGregor, the sport’s galvanizing force for the last five years, could have planted the seeds for a rematch with Nurmagomedov, or his trilogy fight with Nate Diaz.

Instead, what we’re left with is a mile of red tape. Luckily for Nurmagomedov, according to White, McGregor opted not to press charges. But, Nurmagomedov had his $2 million fight purse held by the Nevada State Athletic Commission pending further investigation, and now is in the hands of the bureaucrats that run the commission. He could be facing a lengthy suspension, fines, perhaps even the possibility of having his title stripped. McGregor, who accepted a slap on the wrist for trying to throw a dolly through a bus window to hit Nurmagomedov, will await similar hearings. The UFC, which enters into a five-year deal with ESPN at the beginning of 2019, will now have to do damage control. The UFC will also have to reflect on the wisdom of marketing hooliganism to sell a fight, even if it is “part of the story,” as White said time and again in the lead-up.

The UFC is a league which thrives when it can lure the greater public out to the fringes to take a look. If given the opportunity, the UFC would market McGregor’s mischief with the dolly again, the exact same way, and sell the same bad blood. There’s already mounting buzz about a rematch between Nurmagomedov and McGregor, because there’s money in the potential of chaos.

But Saturday night should be a lesson, too, that it’s all fun and games until the moment it’s not. If the UFC’s intentions were to put on a historically memorable fight on Saturday night, it achieved that end. But people will remember the night as the time Nurmagomedov went darker than McGregor possibly could and all hell broke loose in Vegas.