With a wild, lawless brawl to punctuate one of the biggest fights in MMA history between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor, UFC 229 was a learning experience to say the very least, and the MMA world is unlikely to forget its lessons any time soon.
The UFC lightweight title fight did educate as to the extent of the champion’s dominance, as Nurmagomedov ran his pro record to 27-0 with an 18-minute domination of McGregor, battering him on the mat with pelting ground-and-pound before brutally cranking the Irishman’s face for the fourth-round submission. However, in spite of his career-defining performance in the cage, it was the Dagestani’s post-fight antics that instantly and infamously redefined him. In the aftermath of the ugly incident, the questions now become (a) how and why did this happen and (b) who is to blame?
Tony Ferguson won his 11th straight bout, bloodying and halting former champ Anthony Pettis after a raucous 10-minute action fight when “Showtime” was pulled out of the fight due to a broken hand. The win was highly instructive regarding the virtues and vices of “El Cucuy,” but not all lightweight learning was so entertaining to watch. Elsewhere, former two-time UFC title challenger Gray Maynard was destroyed by Nik Lentz in a lopsided bout that seemed to confirm that it’s the end of the road for Maynard in the Octagon.
Then of course there’s Derrick Lewis -- master, preacher, poet and teacher -- who always manages to drop pearls of wisdom in and out of the cage; and occasionally his shorts, too. Here are five lessons learned from UFC 229:
Stoking Cultural, Religious Fires Burns Down the Village
Ultimately, it was McGregor teammate and proud, unrepentant agitator Dillon Danis who Nurmagomedov leaped out of the cage to attack immediately following the fight, as the jiu-jitsu exponent yelled at the agitated, emotional champion from the T-Mobile Arena floor. Before the fight, Danis stated that he had a beef with Nurmagomedov dating back several years, largely due to “The Eagle’s” infamous “If Sambo Was Easy, It Would Be Called Jiu-Jitsu” T-shirt and ensuing, testy training sessions between the two back in New Jersey. True to form, Danis harbored a grudge and continued to be a habitual line-stepper, which is usual M.O.
“Dillon was absolutely insulting Khabib, saying something to him and provoking him and then Khabib just jumped over the cage and attacked him,” said UFC color commentator Joe Rogan after the event. This was really not about Danis and his antics but rather his guilt by association with McGregor. Nurmagomedov’s attack on Danis, more than anything, was a transferred, sublimated rage that was fostered by McGregor’s pre-fight trash talk regarding “The Eagle’s” ethnicity, religion and family. This is not the sort of jaw jacking that a pro fighter from the North Caucasus will suffer gladly.
McGregor called Nurmagomedov’s father Abdulmanap, his lifelong coach, a “quivering coward” for his association with Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov. He said Dagestanis had “chicken jaws.” He mocked the champion’s devout religiosity by sarcastically yelling “Salaam alaikum!” -- a standard Muslim greeting meaning “Peace be unto you” in Arabic -- at him repeatedly. He called Nurmagomedov training partner Zubaira Tukhugov, one of the fighters who jumped McGregor in the post-fight fracas, “a Chechen traitor.” He said Dagestanis were only known for being chased from their homeland into cliff sides, instead of fighting honorably like the Irish.
“I know this is not my best side,” Nurmagomedov said at his post-fight press conference. “People are talking about I jumped over the cage, but what about, he talked about my religion, he talked about my country? He talked about my father. He came to Brooklyn, and he broke a bus. He almost killed a couple of people. What about this s---? This is respect sport, not trash-talking sport.”
If McGregor had simply thrown a dolly through Nurmagomedov’s bus window, as ridiculous and lamentable as it was, we probably wouldn’t have ended up in this unsightly situation. McGregor, in his ever-present zeal to promote fights and get under his opponents’ skin in the most inflammatory way possible, veered into a deeply personal realm with a person who culturally was not and will never be “in on the joke.” Does it excuse Nurmagomedov’s actions? No. He’s a grown man and this is his professional livelihood, so he ought to know better. He’s had his $2 million purse withheld by the Nevada Athletic Commission, may well be stripped of the UFC title, may struggle to get a visa to fight in the United States and who knows what else. Ultimately, McGregor lit a fire and carelessly threw gas all over it while taking it as a joke, but the flames of ethnicity, religion and family tend not to have a sense of humor.
McGregor Lit a Fire, but the UFC Gave Him the Matches, Kindling
When it comes complex, interpersonal situations with undesirable outcomes like this, it’s very seldom that there’s just one culprit worthy of blame. I think any rational spectator, regardless of how they want to apportion the onus for what happened in the aftermath of the UFC 229 main event, can at least agree that Nurmagomedov and McGregor, as well as their teammates, all share in the fault. Know who else is worthy of having a finger pointed at it for this antisocial episode? The UFC itself.
“Nobody saw Khabib diving over there. You know he scaled that thing like he was a parkour guy. It happened so fast,” UFC President Dana White said after the fight. He acted as though this kind of act was somehow unforeseeable, even though we’ve seen brawls erupt with volatile MMA personalities in the midst of beef in the past. Yhe Cesar Gracie Team whooping Jason “Mayhem” Miller in the Strikeforce cage in Nashville, Tennessee, on network television was only eight years ago and change. The promotion’s 10th anniversary show, UFC 45 back in 2003, was marred not just by Phil Baroni attacking referee Larry Landless but also by a corner-clearing brawl after David “Tank” Abbott cornerman John Marsh dinged Wesley “Cabbage” Correira in the head with a water bottle after getting upset with the Hawaiian’s doing his cabbage patch dance. For White to act shocked is disingenuous to say the least.
The UFC centered its marketing and promotion for Nurmagomedov-McGregor around the Irishman coming unhinged and throwing a hand truck through a bus window, which at the time, White called “the most disgusting thing that has ever happened in the history of the company.” Yet White remained adamant in the run-up to UFC 229 that he had no qualms about using the incident to promote the fight and even reaffirmed that stance on Saturday in the wake of the brawl. They created a promotional vehicle for the fight called “Bad Blood.” The UFC knew full well what it was courting and could have foreseen the potential circumstances.
The UFC fosters and suborns an atmosphere that permits this kind of behavior. McGregor got off with mere admonishment for the bus incident. Where was the UFC to intervene and reprimand Nurmagomedov prior to the bus incident, when the Dagestani and his crew cornered McGregor’s teammate Artem Lobov, in the fighter hotel before UFC 223 and put hands on him? Nowhere. If anything, it served as viral marketing. Why did the UFC allow Tukhugov to corner Nurmagomedov after the Chechen vowed to attack McGregor outside the venue days before UFC 229? It’s all too convenient to act as though all these incidents are simply fighters talking or acting tough when there is precedent that shows how combustible these situations can be.
Will this stop a rematch, especially if UFC 229 does over two million buys? No, of course not, especially not with the massive media attention that the post-fight brawl has generated. If and when it happens, do you really think the promotion will eschew using footage of the melee? No. In White’s words, it tells the story, one that the UFC helped author.
Ferguson is Weird, Flawed and Awesome
Lost in the hysteria surrounding the Nurmagomedov-McGregor brawl is the fact that in the co-main event Ferguson cemented his No. 1 contender status at 155 pounds, racking up his 11th straight win -- the second-longest winning streak in the company behind featherweight champ Max Holloway’s 12 in a row -- by stopping Pettis in a bloody affair. The end came when Duke Roufus pulled his fighter out of the fight after the second stanza due to a broken hand. The fight was vintage “El Cucuy,” for better and for worse, both of which are part and parcel of what makes Ferguson so fun.
For the most part, Ferguson absolutely punished Pettis, blocking all of his capoeira-inspired attacks, backing him up to the fence with clean punching combinations and then digging to the body. Pettis was a crimson mess of plasma by fight’s end, and when most folks look back on their encounter, they’ll simply paint it in a broad stroke with Pettis’ blood, imagining that it was an entertaining but largely one-sided acing by Ferguson. He even went for several “Showtime Punches” on the man himself, leaping off the cage with Superman lunges. Yet in trademark Ferguson fashion and despite dummying Pettis in the first round, he came out in the second frame and promptly got rocked by a right hook and started awkwardly somersaulting all over the canvas to protect himself.
While Ferguson is an incredibly diverse and dynamic offense fighter, he is often too reckless for his own good, exposing holes in his defense that almost always get him put in jeopardy at some point in a fight. Last time out, he got dropped early with a wild right hand from Kevin Lee. He famously almost ended up on the wrong end of an upset loss to debuting late replacement Lando Vannata, who battered him early with heavy punches and spinning kicks. His poor decision making can extend beyond just defensive lapses, as evidenced by his silly illegal upkick that cost him a point in his brawl with Edson Barboza. It can be vexing and anxiety-provoking to watch him fight because of these indiscretions, but at the same time, it’s a priceless part of the Ferguson experience.
Ferguson is awkward and strange, from his constant insistence on wearing his sunglasses everywhere, including indoors at night, to his warming up to fight in a shirt and tie, the wacky training videos he posts on social media and his strange and unpredictable ranting to the media. Not to mention the fact that he lost his chance at the UFC lightweight title at UFC 223 in April because he tore apart his knee while excitedly greeting an acquaintance in a freak accident and then managed to come back to fight six months later instead of being on the shelf for a year. Ferguson is both nonsensical and insensible, but he is joyously so. No matter how the Nurmagomedov-McGregor situation resolves itself in the coming months, the only rational promotional move for Ferguson is to vie for the UFC lightweight title -- the real one -- next time out.
Time for ‘The Bully’ To Leave the Schoolyard
While it was buried on the Fight Pass prelims, there was another unfortunate lightweight outcome beyond the main event mishap, albeit on a far slighter scale. In the second fight of the night, Lentz ran roughshod over Maynard, battering him on the feet on his way to a second-round knockout. While Lentz is a fine fighter and more than capable at 155 pounds, he will never be mistaken for a premium striker in the cage. Yet against “The Ultimate Fighter 5” alum, he looked like a world-class kick-fighter. It was a stark and vivid depiction that Maynard’s days as any competitive entity in the UFC are over and, frankly, that he should think about hanging up the gloves.
With the knockout loss to Lentz, Maynard is now 3-7 in his last 10 fights dating back eight full years. His three wins in that time: Clay Guida six years ago in one of the worst UFC main events on record and ho-hum unanimous verdicts over Fernando Bruno and Teruto Ishihara, who are a combined 3-6-1 under UFC employ. Maynard has been knocked out in five of those seven losses.
Maynard’s approach was always based on his hard-wrestling, hard-punching, physical style of combat. However, the power and athleticism that made his style effective and had him within a hair of taking the UFC lightweight title from Frankie Edgar twice are now completely dissipated. In the last four years or so, Maynard has physically and competitively fallen off of a cliff. He is noticeably slower; the drop in hand quickness makes his wild right hands completely avoidable; and his fast-twitch depreciation and diminished reaction speed makes his wrestling effectively a non-issue against any skilled or athletically prime fighter. Not only is Maynard 39 years old, but the toll of his career and mounting knockout losses have put extra years on him in terms of real “fighter age.”
Are there UFC roster fighters at the bottom of the barrel that Maynard could grind out wins against? Sure. Could he probably catch a decent offer from Bellator MMA or the Professional Fighters League just based on his name recognition? Probably. However, at this point, with the fundamental abilities that made him a potent fighter rapidly and consistently dissipating before our eyes, it’s dubious whether or not that juice would be worth the squeeze, especially when another nasty knockout loss to a non-striker like Lentz could be just around the corner. That’s not the way Maynard ought to be remembered.
Lewis a Master of Both Comedy, Drama
Headed into his fight with surging Alexander Volkov, Lewis was a +150 underdog and still dealing with chronic back issues. For 14 minutes and 45 seconds, it looked like he was headed for certain defeat, as Lewis got crushed to the body by the 6-foot-7 Russian and looked to be on the ropes in the opening round due to Volkov’s rib-roasting attack. All of a sudden, one Lewis sledgehammer punch and follow-up hammerfists gave “The Black Beast” his ninth win in his last 10 fights and a dramatic come-from-behind win. In fact, Lewis’ -82 strike differential in victory was the largest ever by any fighter in a UFC win.
Lewis isn’t new to this kind of drama. Part of what is so unique about him is that despite his status as one of the most fearsome punchers in the sport and his notoriously poor cardio, only four of his 12 UFC wins have come by first-round knockout. Six of those clobberings have come past the eight-minute mark, when he’s normally sucking wind, and many of them -- like the Volkov, Marcin Tybura and Shamil Abdurakhimov fights -- have come in come-from-behind, late-stage knockouts. I have traditionally tried to draw a division between fighters getting tired and “gassing,” which I see as the Mark Coleman-esque moment of fatigue in which a fighter can no longer meaningfully compete and create offense. Lewis is perpetually tired, but he never seems to truly gas and he has a brilliant sense of how to summon whatever fuel he has left in the tank to seize victory from the clutches of defeat when the clock is ticking down. He’s a master of drama.
Yet owing to Lewis’ over-the-top personality, it took him just 90 seconds of chatting with Joe Rogan after the fight to ensure that his historically noteworthy comeback would be largely forgotten in favor of his microphone work. Well-known for surreal, amusing and vulgar social media stylings, Lewis upped the ante in his post-fight interview, first stripping off his shorts because his “balls was hot” and then proceeding to explain in jest that President Trump had called him and implored him to knock out Volkov because Russia was making the POTUS look bad on television. He then weaponized his trademark, self-effacing honesty, turning down Rogan’s overtures regarding his fighting for the UFC heavyweight title by making fun of his notoriously poor cardio and dropping Clay Davis’ signature phrase from “The Wire” before telling Rogan he wanted to appear on his podcast to smoke weed with him, which seemed to delight the UFC color commentator. Lewis isn’t much of a combination puncher in the cage, but he certainly knows how to string together zingers outside of it, one after the other after the other, to devastating comedic effect.
Despite being the biggest men in the sport, in my anecdotal experience heavyweights in MMA tend to be the sport’s most sensitive, hurt feelings-types, for whatever reason. Despite his gruff exterior and booming, threatening Texas vocal stylings, Lewis’ unique combination of humility and obscenity have made him an easy fan favorite. From bell to bell, “The Black Beast” is as serious as a heart attack, but charmingly, he never takes himself quite so seriously.