Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday unified its lightweight title with a showdown between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Dustin Poirier in the UFC 242 headliner at The Arena on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. With the event came some good, some bad and some ugly.
THE GOOD: GOAT LIKE BEHAVIOR?
We shouldn’t be surprised anymore. Nurmagomedov continued an unprecedented run of dominance, as he retained his lightweight crown for the second time by finishing Poirier with a rear-naked choke in the third round. The performance significantly boosts his place among the top athletes in the sport, and it’s time for a serious discussion about Nurmagomedov’s place in the history of the ultra-competitive 155-pound division and beyond.
What makes Nurmagomedov’s time in the UFC significantly different than many of his fellow elite fighters is not just his undefeated record but that the success against him has only come in brief moments. We’ve seen great names like Daniel Cormier, Anderson Silva and Demetrious Johnson go through growing pains in the form of losses and extended tense moments in their quest for greatness. Among the top names at lightweight, we’ve seen Tony Ferguson in trouble and suffer defeat. Others like Justin Gaethje and Conor McGregor have been finished multiple times, as well. Success against them has been clearly defined by defeating or at the very least significantly hurting them. Success against Nurmagomedov can’t be measured the same way.
A razor-thin decision versus Gleison Tibeau, a few exchanges with Michael Johnson, a debatable third round against McGregor and few landed shots from Poirier are all we have to work with when it comes to Nurmagomedov and adversity. Poirier seemed unique in a lot of ways, and ahead of UFC 242, he gave enough people hope that we’d see “The Eagle” get pushed to his limits.
As he has proven since returning from featherweight, Poirier is undoubtedly one of the best fighters in the world, with a healthy blend of power, chaotic scrambling ability and technical restraint that could have conceivably challenged Nurmagomedov. Additionally, he has proven himself capable of upsetting former champions and exceeding expectations while climbing the ladder. Unfortunately, all of that meant nothing, as Poirier succumbed to the same relentless pressure and suffocating grappling that spelled disaster for the 27 men who preceded him.
I find calling Nurmagomedov the Greatest of All-Time -- in general, as a lightweight or as a lightweight champion -- premature at that moment. He’s still one defense shy of B.J. Penn and Benson Henderson and has only begun taking out the most impressive names within the last several years. However, if what he’s been doing continues, we’ll be revisiting this conversation.
THE BAD: THE HEAT
In the continued efforts to bring the Octagon around the world, several unique challenges will be presented based on the simple logistics. At UFC Fight Night 157 on Aug. 31, a nearby political protest served as a backdrop to Jessica Andrade putting her strawweight belt on the line against Weili Zhang. At the very least, it added to the chaos of planning an event with the Hong Kong airport being on virtual lockdown. Visits to high-altitude and heavily polluted Mexico City worked wonders for the gas tank of fighters.
The brutal conditions of the desert added to the many challenges for the UFC 242 roster and staff, as they tried to run the show as usual. With temperatures reaching dangerously close to 100 degrees, flashbacks to sweaty arenas in Brazil may have come to mind. However, when commentator Jon Anik stated that it felt like 123 degrees inside the makeshift arena, it was clear something was terribly wrong.
As the event’s start time drew closer, reports of mind-boggling heat and discomfort grew exponentially. With several mentions on the broadcast, as well, the idea was simply impossible to ignore: This was an unsafe environment and could have had a major impact on the fights themselves. The fitness demands of a mixed martial arts bout are pretty astounding. Aerobic endurance with repeated spurts of power are just a portion of the physical requirements for high-level MMA. Performing in what the body thinks is 123-degree heat poses some serious common-sense questions. Let’s also consider the fact that Octagon has multiple large bright lights hovering above it. Those lights generate their own heat, which only worsens the situation. As some of the fighters and coaches shared with credentialed media members, the venue was insanely hot and the Octagon was even worse.
Despite UFC President Dana White’s insistence during the post-fight press conference that heat wasn’t a factor or Diego Ferreira claiming he was unaffected by it, it’s hard to classify such statements as anything more than a regrettable mix of promoter speak and hubris. Take the comments of Don Madge, who defeated Fares Ziam in the opening bout, into consideration. He complained of not being able to breathe properly due to the extreme heat; Joanne Calderwood joked about being hot but not good looking immediately following her win over Andrea Lee; and Zubaira Tukhugov waned down the stretch as Lerone Murphy did enough to warrant a split draw on the scorecards.
Wanting to feature Nurmagomedov in a title fight with other Muslim fighters in the Middle East is understandable. However, those business interests should be a distant second to simple fighter safety. If Abu Dubai is ill-equipped to handle a UFC event, perhaps it isn’t the right stop for the company. At a bare minimum, a suitable venue must be there. That doesn’t include a structure rushed to completion to make this date without a proper roof and adequate air conditioning.
Heat strokes and dehydration are very real dangers for someone merely walking around when it’s that hot. Fighting for a scheduled 15 to 25 minutes only exponentially increases the danger.
THE UGLY: RAMZEN KADYROV
The name Ramzan Kadyrov should send a chill down your spine. The reason? He’s a genocidal maniac who has committed a slew of atrocities as a dictator and warlord in Chechnya. As has been widely reported to the point of becoming general knowledge within the MMA bubble at this point, Kadryrov has used his vast wealth and influence to force himself into the sport in an attempt to sanitize his image. This was on full display in Abu Dubai. In what were supposedly extended sequences for viewers in other regions of the world, the camera caught some glimpses of Kadyrov cageside enjoying the action at UFC 242. His presence shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. He has attended UFC events in the past, has a very public relationship with Nurmagomedov and his team and is also a fan with the money and means to travel to an event.
Also, it’s notable that attending a fight card doesn’t trigger a background check, and audiences of all walks of life can enter the building so long as they can afford a ticket. Unless you’re Josh Gross, Randy Couture or the overzealous fool who snuck his way into the cage during the infamous UFC 229 brawl, almost anyone can take a seat in front of the Octagon. Additionally, as the lack of gate and attendance stats will indicate, the government of the United Arab Emirates had a great deal of control over the event. Kadaryov enjoys a cozy relationship with the UAE, and it would be quite surprising if he were barred from attending for public relations reasons while he openly visits a nation with which he has economic ties to meet with its leadership. As such, this is a case where very little could be done on the promotion’s side to keep a problematic despot out of the building.
While the finer points of sociopolitical issues aren’t usually welcomed in our sport, to be silent on a mass murderer smiling and greeting fighters cageside would be irresponsible. Let’s also consider that just months ago, the UFC was proud to announce donations to the prominent LGBTQ organization GLAAD while fighters sported the rainbow logo as they took part in the normal fight week activities. Having a man responsible for the torture and slaughter of homosexuals happily enjoying himself at an event isn’t a good look. Never mind the close ties to his Ahkmet MMA brand.
If the UFC or parent company Endeavor are concerned enough about the troublesome nature of Kadyrov being on camera at a show, perhaps they should be aware of how hypocritical it is to continue an association with him in anyway. The promotion is playing a delicate balance of furthering business interests in foreign territory while trying to keep appearances intact. While it’s true that most world leaders are not without flaws and many have blood on their hands, sometimes it might just be better to take a true stand instead of simply pretending to do so.