Announcer Joe Rogan’s voice cracked oh the humanity-style while calling the post-fight melee at Saturday night’s UFC 229 main event between Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov, sounding almost like he was in tears. He later called the brawl a “black eye for the sport.” On some level, I understood how he felt.
I remember how it felt eight years ago, after “Mayhem” Miller stormed the cage following Jake Shields’ (impressive yet somewhat dull) victory over Dan Henderson, provoking Shields’ training partner Nate Diaz and the rest of the “skrap pack” into a similar chair-throwing post-fight brawl at Strikeforce Nashville. As a longtime MMA fan, I remember how embarrassed I was that my favorite sport had finally scratched and clawed its way into being nationally televised, live, on a real network (CBS), only to look like a bunch of WWE clowns once the mainstream sports world was finally, briefly paying attention to us.
To add insult to injury, CBS play-by-play announcer Gus Johnson famously commented during the fight that “sometimes these things happen in MMA,” earning the permanent enmity of MMA fans everywhere by telling the whole world, basically, that we were all hooligans and this was the typical behavior you could expect from us. And this after being hired to promote it.
Those feelings about Gus Johnson were perfectly emblematic of the MMA fan’s fraught relationship to the mainstream sports world. MMA and MMA fans are kind of like the D&D nerds of the sports world. Insular, esoteric, with our own strict and often unspoken rules of conduct, yet simultaneously desperate for mainstream approval — at least, enough mainstream approval that we could see our favorite fights without having to find a grainy stream on the dark web or crowd into a weird dojo basement with our fellow punch-nerds. Also, it must be said, most people who get really into fighting-as-sport are people who’ve gotten their asses kicked, so the inferiority complex is somewhat built in.
Gus Johnson was typical of the kind of broadcasters MMA fans could expect: a guy with enough mainstream sports experience that MMA organizations thought he would offer the sheen of mainstream acceptance, but also not good enough to get the job he really wanted and thus forced to call a sport he didn’t love nor fully understand (sorry, Gus, I still haven’t forgiven you).
Johnson was far from the first or only of this ilk, and you can probably guess a few of the others, but the point is, we sought the appearance of professionalism and it backfired spectacularly. Like true nerds, it was really our own neediness that did us in.
And so I was struck this Saturday that I loved every second of a similarly idiotic brawl and felt no need to apologize for it. To recap, as briefly as I can (which is to say not briefly), the UFC had done what it does lately in hyping the fight: trot out Conor McGregor to do his usual quasi-racist trash talking, insulting the Muslim Dagestani-Russian Khabib Nurmagomedov, calling his Egyptian manager Ali Abdelaziz a “snitch terrorist rat,” his father a “quivering coward,” and saying Nurmagomedov training partner Zubaira Tukhugov was not “a true Chechen” for feuding with McGregor‘s training partner, Chechen-Russian Artem Lobov. Phew.