As the dust settles after an epic grudge match between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor, much of the sporting world is still reflecting on what was arguably one of the greatest moments in combat sports history.
Rarely does a fight capture the imagination of peripheral fans and polarise audiences like the Khabib-McGregor saga. It not only solidified its place in MMA folklore, but came to represent a seismic moment in the fight game with reverberations beyond anyone’s imagination. For McGregor’s part, the Irishman set the pre-fight hoopla in full swing at a press conference, unleashing a torrent of abuse towards Khabib’s religion, family and heritage. As for Khabib, well, something epic was brewing. He left all his talking for the cage and the melee which ensued after his emphatic victory became the stuff of legends.
For those who have previously revelled in McGregor’s trademark histrionics, please spare me the righteous indignation over the post-fight fracas. If anything, much of the reaction to Khabib’s fit of rage is symptomatic of western cultural myopia. We seem oblivious to the fact that such an outburst was a natural instinct for someone taught to pride honour over any gimmick of hyping a fight to boost its box office ratings.
A prime example of such corporate kowtowing is the UFC’s cash cow himself, McGregor, who has repeatedly exploited racial tropes for promotional purposes without the slightest remonstration from his employers. In fact, the UFC appears to have green-lighted his indiscretions, responding to his catalogue of misdemeanours with the occasional wrist-slapping. Here is a man who hurled a metal dolly at a bus filled with rival fighters (including Khabib), forcing a bloody cut on the head of Michael Chisea and once taunted Brazilian opponent Jose Aldo in his hometown saying “…if this was a different time, I would invade his favela on horseback, and would kill anyone who wasn't fit to work…”
Despite the abuse hurled at Khabib, he remained a consummate professional leading up to the bout, refusing to be caught up in the shenanigans and responding to McGregor’s provocations with the ice-cool demeanour he exudes in abundance.
Yes, he apologised to the Nevada State Commission for his unsportsmanlike like conduct but was equally commendable in accounting the media’s culpability in perpetuating a culture of disrespect amongst fighters and in his condemnation of fighters who spare no sacred cow as part of a fight’s promotion, reiterating a desire to clean up the sport and restore etiquette between athletes which was once the hallmark of the pugilist form.
Fair play to Khabib for calling out the elephant in the room. Instead of punishing him with a suspension, we should be celebrating Khabib as a civilising force in a sport which too often descends into intemperate slanging matches, a far cry from what combat sports originally represented. Tracing the history of martial arts to its origins, we find that a knightly virtue gave the art its esteem, where competitors placed such a high premium on mutual respect that affronting another’s dignity was a cardinal sin.
Those who have followed Khabib’s career can testify to just how much he imbibes these lofty principles, embedded in his stoic Avar upbringing along the North Caucasus Mountains, where humility is lauded and responding to the basest of insults is the pinnacle of manliness, as per the timeless wisdom of a warrior culture. There was something to admire in both his composure and fury as it proved Khabib is committed to a code of chivalry in an industry which has developed a sordid reputation for placing profits over principle.
For those enthralled by the bluster of entertainers, Khabib’s chivalric persona may come across insipid when compared to his flamboyant counterparts, but this unpretentious quality remains true to the essence of his craft, where fight masters of old rarely harboured an inflated sense of self. McGregor’s provocations are a testament to the pandemonium that can ensue when razzmatazz knows no bounds. In today’s conflicted and polarised racial environment, we must ensure such showmanship never rears its ugly head again.
But Khabib’s appeal cannot be reduced to simply being a nice guy intent on edifying his ill-mannered peers. In a recent instagram post directed at the UFC, the undisputed lightweight champion reminded us why he has ennobled himself in the fight business, through a gesture of defiance akin to trailblazers like Colin Kaepernick who confronted the perceived racial inequalities sustained by a power structure which Khabib currently finds himself resisting. After exposing the UFC’s double standards for failing to specify sanctions against McGregor, he threatened to quit the organisation if the Nevada State Athletic Commission to decide to fire his teammate Zubaira Tukhugov-one of the men accused of attacking McGregor in the post-fight brawl-arguing that McGregor should be reprimanded for throwing the first punch.
If daring to speak truth to power didn’t convince us of Khabib’s seriousness, the champion went on to claim that he would forfeit his $2m earnings since defending his faith and family was dearer to him than any material benefit which he would sacrifice in a heartbeat. Dana White realised this was no bluff and was forced to respond to Khabib’s ultimatum by allaying fears of the champion’s departure and softening his stance towards Zubaira. By taking a principled stand against the jingoism and religion-baiting which the UFC President allowed to fester at his expense, Khabib, like Kaepernick, has come to symbolize something bigger than his sport by daring to challenge the juggernaut of white privilege in the UFC.
For Khabib, the recent decision by the athletic commission to withhold half of his purse is a price worth paying. Suffering in silence would be tantamount to cultural betrayal because he deems honour an inviolable and sacred ideal. While honour is a universal principle, its standards in the west have eroded to the point many deem it too tribal and antiquated a concept to cherish, despite it being a value which the founding fathers swore upon. Islam and family are Dagestani red lines in which McGregor saw only a pecuniary interest and crossed at his peril. So much so that at the end of the third round, the former lightweight champion could be heard muttering to Khabib, ‘It’s only business’, in what sounded like a pathetic plea for mercy.
What was business for Conor, was a virtue worth dying for in Khabib’s moral compass. For those drowning in the hubris of assuming there ought to be no reprisals for encroaching the cultural sensitivities of others, let the post-fight scuffle prompt us to interrogate our cultural bias. The Twitter-sphere demonstrated our varying degrees of sensitivity and perception regarding Khabib’s actions, exploding with outrage but also becoming a venting ground for voices of conscience, expressing sympathy with the undefeated champion and solidarity with marginalised communities slighted for espousing their faith and protecting their integrity.
For every critic Khabib earned after vaulting the octagon, there was a victim of bullying, xenophobia and microaggression beaming with the delight of avenged pride, leaping with him. For me, this was the moment when virtue was rewarded, vice was punished and poetic justice was served. Failing to recognise his outburst as arising from a dignified state of being is to some extent an indictment of our descent to a lower morality.