Poking the bear: Khabib, Conor, and The Act of Restraint

On Satuday, October 6, 2018, I like many people had their eyes and ears on UFC 229, and it’s main event, Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor. I had attended my partner’s high-school reunion and was unable to watch the fight, but I had my face glued to my phone, constantly viewing Twitter for updates. MMA, or mixed martial arts, has (very) slowly moved from a fringe sport once described as “human cock fighting” by recently passed Arizona Senator John McCain, to an extremely popular event that garners millions in attendees and even more millions in dollars. In July 2016, UFC or Ultimate Fighting Championship, the number one promotion organization for MMA, was sold to talent agency WME-IMG for four billion dollars. Party responsible for the UFC’s popularity is Irish fighter Conor McGregor. Brash, loud, and ostentatious bordering on ridiculous, McGregor’s outspoken personality and fighting style has shot himself to the top of the sport and has allowed him to occupy a cross-over status in pop-culture. McGregor’s press conference antics and profanity laced speeches have always been over the top and comedic, but during the pressor with Nurmagomedov, they took a turn for the worse.

NEW YORK, NY – SEPTEMBER 20: Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov faces-off with Conor McGregor during the UFC 229 Press Conference at Radio City Music Hall on September 20, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)

At the first pre-fight press conference on September 20, 2018, the former lightweight champion Conor McGregor swaggered on stage, holding a bottle of “Proper 12”, his new whisky line and immediately started yelling at Khabib Nurmagomedov. Tension was in the air due to an attack in New York earlier this year. McGregor and a group of friends began kicking and hitting a bus transporting UFC fighters, including Nurmagomedov, which climaxed in a dolly being throw at the bus, injuring several fighters. McGregor, feeling that he had to live up to the tough guy image that resulted in him getting arrested in Brooklyn, insulted the Dagestani wrestler’s country, religion, family, and friends, even going so far as to calling manager Aziz Abdelaziz a “terrorist” and a “rat.” McGregor is to quote The Chappelle Show “A habitual line stepper.” He constantly goes over the edge. During the promotion for the Mayweather fight, McGregor yelled racist things such as “boy” and “monkey” at the undefeated boxer. This time, he made fun of Nurmagomedov’s culture and called him backwards.
The fight between the two at UFC 229 resulted in Khabib Nurmagomedov completely dominating Conor McGregor, knocking him down with a punch in the second round and submitting him in the fourth. Enraged, the Russian champion threw his mouth guard and jumped over the cage, and begin fighting Dillon Danis, a teammate of McGregor’s. Shortly after, members of Nurmagomedov’s team jumped inside the ring and started to fight McGregor. A total brawl ensued.

When I went on Twitter to catch people’s reactions to the fight, there was a large part of social media who cried foul on Khabib Nurmagomedov’s actions, calling them “Unsportsman like”, “Not civilized” and “Bad for the sport.” The general consensus is people felt bad for Conor McGregor, painting him as the victim. I along with a small number of people asked, “Did we forget what Conor did to Khabib? What he said to him?” I continued, “Dude insulted his father, his faith? Come on, Conor is not without fault here.” Reading the tweets as well as the commentary by the fight analysts, it all read “Khabib should have just kept his head high, ignored all of the trash talk, took the belt, and walked off as winner.” Why was Nurmagomedov held to such high standards? Why must he tolerate the racist and anti-Islamic taunts by McGregor and not do anything? It couldn’t be because he is Muslim right?

Watching the fall out of UFC 229, I totally empathized with Khabib Nurmagomedov. Here is a Muslim whose faith is being made a mockery of by a bigot. His associates are called “terrorists” and being linked to 911, all of the racist dog whistles that we hear in the United States when describing Muslims. Nurmagomedov is praised for being stoic and urged to not play into McGregor’s games. It is “all a part of the fight.” People may say “Well Khabib is white..” Yes and no. Nurmagomedov’s skin color may be white, but he is a “racialized white.” As a Muslim from Dagestan, Russia, that puts him in another category.

As a Black man, I can relate to being told “Take the high ground.” When I read or hear racist comments by people, I along with other Black and non-white people in America are encouraged to tune out those people. “They are ignorant. Don’t go down to their level.” Black people in America are historically looked at as having “dignity to rise above the oppression.” We are praised for our ability to endure the constant racist attacks by white America. That we have must move beyond wanting to respond to bigotry. “Hate doesn’t defeat hate” is drilled into our heads. What these slogans ignore is that Black people are walking around in a state of rage every single day. We are terrorized and stunted by racism, so when Black folks decide to respond to those attacks in a similar manner, we are looked at as angry or even racist. It is a battle that we cannot win.

Khabib Nurmagomedov reminds me of many people I met when I was in Morocco, another predominately Muslim country – kind, humble, and deeply grounded in their faith. Throughout my time in Northern African, I was greeted warmly, shown the great hospitality, respect, and love. I was called brother and felt like one. I broke bread with these beautiful men as we shared stories of family, upbringings, and everyday living. I have never felt more welcome, and most importantly, as a Black man, this was the first time I was not invisible. I was treated like a person. As a man who is living under a system that crushes you emotionally and mentally because you are not white, this was an unbelievable feeling. To this day, Morocco is the greatest country I have ever visited.

When Khabib Nurmagomedov left the final press conference on Thursday Oct 4, 2018 frustrated due to Conor McGregor not being present, I could tell he had enough. Tired of McGregor’s antics, tired of UFC king maker/promoter Dana White’s enabling, and tired of the Islamophobic environment. When Nurmagomedov soundly beat McGregor, I was happy, happier than when Mayweather knocked him around. I felt that Nurmagomedov defeating McGregor was a win not only for himself, but for Muslim’s all around the world, and for any non-white person who had been taunted by a racist. When people admonished Nurmagomedov for his lack of restraint, I just think to myself, “What more did you all want the man to do?” I am not excusing violence, but heck, we all have our breaking points. I loved Nurmagomedov’s post fight interview, not excusing his actions, but basically saying “With all the stuff Conor McGregor said, he had it coming.”

Talking with an MMA writer on Twitter about Khabib Nurmagomedov’s behavior, he said “Violence outside the sport begets more violence.” After going around and around with the fellow about how he felt Nurmagomedov was wrong and how I thought he was justified, I finally said, “You know what? Sometimes it be’s like that.” He responded, “That’s the truth. Not okay, but the truth.”

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