Tuesday 15 October 2019

Comment: The Irish outrage brigade won't win this MMA argument - the best they can do is to turn off the TV

Khabib Nurmagomedov defeats Conor McGregor
Khabib Nurmagomedov defeats Conor McGregor

Ronan O'Flaherty

UFC 229 was the 29th UFC event of 2018. However, it was the first one to successfully get the Irish naysayers out in force.

As is so often the case, It requires the involvement of one of our own to really exercise the thoughts of the outrage brigade.

And so it proved on October 6. Well, the time difference between Ireland and Las Vegas meant that it was the early hours of October 7 when the shockometer cranked into overdrive.

The fallout from UFC 229 has been exhaustive and tiresome. The events which followed the headline fight between Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov have been well documented. They have since been used, ad nauseam, as extra ammunition to fire up the arguments of the anti-MMA fraternity.

However, when making their case against the sport, many fall at the first hurdle by referring to it as "UFC" instead of "MMA". This is the equivalent of going to a football match in Germany and subsequently describing the sport as "Bundesliga". To gain credibility in an argument, at least know what it is that you’re bashing.

The UFC lightweight title fight between McGregor and Nurmagomedov was a captivating and absorbing affair from start to finish. The array of skills on display, particularly from the Russian, were breathtaking. McGregor did well to hang in there for as long as he did until being forced into submission in the fourth round.

The fight was low on bloodshed, which presented the outrage brigade with something of a problem when using pictorial evidence to illustrate their concerns. So they turned to the fight before it, between Tony Ferguson and Anthony Pettis, where the presence of cuts and sweat combined to provide the appearance of the bloodiest of wars. However, Ferguson v Pettis was also an outstanding battle between two highly-trained, highly-skilled mixed martial artists. It was awarded Fight of the Night honours, which carries a $50,000 bonus for both fighters.

If they’re honest, most people airing their grievances probably didn't watch any of the fights from UFC 229. They more than likely haven’t witnessed any of the 300-plus fights across the other 28 UFC events in 2018. But they’re outraged. Of course they are.

The fight they did see, if you want to call it that, was the unsanctioned one that broke out following Nurmagomedov's victory. Yes, it was ugly. Yes, it was dangerous and yes, it made the sport look bad. But bad enough to ban it? Hardly.

It doesn't require much of a stroll through memory lane to recall uglier incidents.

If Selhurst Park had been transformed into a mixed martial arts venue for the evening of January 25, 1995, Eric Cantona's kung-fu kick in the direction of Matthew Simmons would still be featured in highlight reels today. But it wasn't an MMA event, nor was Simmons an opponent – he was a Crystal Palace fan. Twelve years after Cantona's kick came Brennan's punches, when former Ireland rugby international Trevor Brennan jumped into the crowd at Stade Ernest Wallon and repeatedly struck Ulster fan Patrick Bamford. How about the brawl that marred Tyson v Holyfield in 1997? Or the melee that broke out in the press conference ahead of Tyson’s showdown with Lennox Lewis in 2002? What about the horrifying facial injuries sustained by Sean Cavanagh - and the disturbing omerta that followed - in a recent Tyrone club championship match?

We could go on, but the picture has been painted.

It is two and a half years since the tragic death of João Carvalho following his mixed martial arts fight against Charlie Ward in Dublin. The Portuguese fighter was just 28 when he died at the intensive care unit in Beaumont Hospital after undergoing emergency brain surgery.

A debate raged in the aftermath of Carvalho's death, with many citing his passing as justification to ban the UFC. With such comments, they again displayed their ignorance in the most insensitive of ways.

The fight between Carvalho and Ward took place under the fledgling Total Extreme Fighting promotion. Carvalho, lying prone on the ground, received several unanswered blows to the head before the fight was stopped.That led to the performance of the referee being heavily scrutinised. The Portuguese fighter fell ill shortly after the fight and two days later, despite the best efforts of expert medical personnel at Beaumont, he died.

With one death on its record after one event, Total Extreme Fighting has never appeared again.

UFC 229 was the 453rd event in the UFC’s 25-year history. So far, there have been no deaths as a result of injuries sustained in a UFC fight. This is largely because the fighters are elite, as are the referees, who know exactly when to call a halt to contests. Unlike in boxing, where a fighter can be knocked down three times in a round before being counted out, in the UFC - and all of MMA - when a fighter is no longer intelligently defending himself/herself, the fight is ended by the referee.

In a world where unworthy organisations like Total Extreme Fighting have been allowed to slip through the cracks, UFC is definitely not the enemy. It is the best equipped organisation to cater for elite mixed martial artists and, as such, it deserves a measure of praise and support.

If fighting isn't your thing, don't watch it. MMA is growing and growing, and it’s here to stay. It is simply too popular and too lucrative for the shutters to be pulled down on it. Furthermore, it is well on the way to surpassing boxing in terms of popularity, and nobody is calling for boxing - statistically a more dangerous sport than MMA - to be banned.

UFC 229 was the biggest event in mixed martial arts history, with 2.4million people forking out to buy it on pay-per-view. Compare that with the biggest boxing event of the year – Canelo Alvarez v Gennady Golovkin 2 – which attracted a pay-per-view audience of 1.1million. The figures tell us all we need to know.

Much of what Irish people don't like about "UFC" can be compressed into the actions of one person. Conor McGregor's trash talking towards Nurmagomedov in the build-up to their title fight left much to be desired. Equally, UFC President Dana White's insistence that he is not in a position to tell fighters what they can and can't say is a cop-out.

McGregor's disparaging remarks about his opponent's religion, as well as his father and the company he keeps was too close to the bone. If there is a rematch, the trash-talking narrative simply must change. However, the Irishman isn’t the first sports star to make ill-advised remarks.

In the eyes of many, Muhammad Ali is beyond reproach. But even the legendary Ali crossed the line.

One of his greatest rivals, Joe Frazier, took his grievances with ‘The Greatest’ to the grave. Ali taunted Frazier over many things, but it was the "Uncle Tom" jibes – with toxic racist undertones – that upset his old foe most.

Ali was a recognised hero of the black civil rights movement and he used his status to belittle Frazier relentlessly. He described his fellow American in deeply offensive terms, describing him as an "Uncle Tom", which was a crass term for black people who bowed down to the oppressive white man.

When speaking about Frazier, Ali once said: "He’s the other type of negro. He’s not like me. That’s what I mean when I say Uncle Tom. I mean, he’s a brother, one day he might be like me, but for now Joe Frazier is an Uncle Tom. He works for the enemy."

Ahead of their famous showdown in Manila in 1974, Ali went to town on Frazier’s physical appearance, saying: "Joe Frazier should give his face to the Wildlife Fund. He’s so ugly, blind men go the other way. He not only looks bad, you can smell him in another country. What will the people in Manila think? That black brothers are animals. Ignorant. Stupid. Ugly and smelly."

For those remarks - particularly the "Uncle Tom ones" - and more, Frazier could never forgive Ali. When Ali developed Parkinson's disease, his old foe was low on sympathy.

In his autobiography, Frazier wrote: "People ask me if I feel sorry for him. Nope. Fact is, I don’t give a damn. They want me to love him, but I’ll open up the graveyard and bury his ass when the Lord chooses to take him."

In his later years, Ali expressed remorse for his shameless taunting of Frazier. He said: "I said a lot of things in the heat of the moment that I shouldn’t have said. Called him names I shouldn’t have called him. I apologise for that. I’m sorry. It was all meant to promote the fight."

If McGregor is to be judged by Ali’s near-impossible standards, he passes with flying colours. Not only did the Irishman promote his most recent fight, he did so with such efficiency that it became one of the richest events in combat-sport history.

Those with an appreciation for mixed martial arts have already moved on from the aftermath of UFC 229. Fight Night 138 is next up on Saturday week and that has a few very interesting contests down for decision.

The huge audiences tuning in to watch UFC events are not going to disappear. In fact, they are multiplying.

The naysayers aren’t going to win this argument. The best they can do is tune out.

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