Saturday 20 January 2018

Comment - Do not be fooled by Conor McGregor... UFC is the sadistic Donald Trump equivalent of elite sport

Conor McGregor and US president-elect Donald Trump
Conor McGregor and US president-elect Donald Trump

Jonathan Liew

Perhaps it was the photograph of Donald Trump in the Oval Office, alongside Barack Obama, wearing the expression of a man trying to explain string theory to an actual string. Or the news headlines, bleeding into each other like watercolours: “President Trump will today announce…”; “President Trump yesterday appointed…”. This is not a vivid cheese daydream. This is actually happening.

One of the US media’s current buzzwords is “normalisation”: the idea that as outlandish as Trump’s rise may appear at present, the trappings and optics of his office will quickly render it routine.

On Saturday night, at Madison Square Garden in New York City, we saw another example. A decade ago, the idea of the Ultimate Fighting Championship planting its cage amid one of the world’s most iconic sporting arenas would have seemed laughable.

But here it was, and top of the bill was an Irishman called Conor McGregor, a two-weight world champion you might describe as the Trump of UFC: a man with a talent for exaggeration and demagoguery, an unabashed fixation with money, fame and physical might.

“I’d like to take this chance to apologise to absolutely nobody,” he said after a brutal second-round knockout. “The double champ does what the f--- he wants.”

And so, in this venue of legends, surrounded by lights and cameras, in front of a record pay-per-view audience, you could convince yourself this was a genuine sporting champion, in a genuine sport. This is normalisation in full swing, a delusion to which millions have already succumbed: that is because UFC has all the trappings and visual cues of an elite sport, it must be an elite sport, rather than a bestial cultural excrement more suited to the stairwell of a multi-storey car park.

As with anything, people like things first and decide why later. UFC fans – mainly male, of course – will extol the artistry and the physicality, the characters and the drama, but really this​ love of artistry is just an elaborate con trick. What they love is the blood: real blood, not fake.

They like the feral, lawless sensation of witnessing a well-landed punch. They like its internet-age immediacy, the way an entire fight can be condensed into a 20-second video, unlike boxing, which you actually have to watch.

Deep down, I suspect they like its simplicity, too: a world where bullies triumph and self-publicists prosper, where men are men and violence solves all the world’s problems.

They like its roster of colourful characters:​ wife-beaters, drug cheats, petty criminals and the simple unhinged, all trying to clamber their way to the top of the tree, which is the only place where any real money is made. Pay at the middle and lower levels of UFC is scandalously low, so while executives skim off seven-figure salaries, hundreds of fighters get their heads kicked in for peanuts.​​

This is the toxic triangle of money, demagoguery and physical force that underpins the UFC. It is sadism under the guise of artistry, male fantasy under the guise of human empowerment, textbook capitalism under the guise of proletarian rebellion. It teaches that victory exonerates any depravity.

That complexity is a vice. That perspective is a weakness. And weakness is to be exploited. Chucking millions of dollars at it and giving it a slot on BT Sport does not change that.​

Incidentally, ​President-elect Trump​ was due to attend last Saturday, according to Dana White, a long-time friend and vocal supporter. Alas, post-election commitments prevented him from doing so, but just think about that for a minute.

This is the UFC president, and we are all living in his world now. And in these thoroughly depressing times, there is perhaps nothing more depressing than that.

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