As long as there’s been competition, there’s been trash talk. And while there were plenty of heated rivalries and a lot of insults hurled between the combatants in the early days of MMA, nobody had reached a level that captivated fans like Muhammed Ali had. Actually, it was downright cringy for the most part.
It wasn’t until 2010 that Chael Sonnen revolutionized the gabbing game for MMA. His verbal abuse hurled towards Anderson Silva and his teammates, the Nogueira brothers, was seen as the pinnacle for the still budding sport. Sonnen was quick-witted, well-spoken and unfortunately, a bit xenophobic in his constant bashing of Brazil and its inhabitants.
Whenever Sonnen held a mic, people shut up and paid attention. “The American Gangster” wasn’t a bad fighter, but as his record dictated, there was a 1-3 chance he’d lose when he stepped into the cage. Even in defeat, people would clamor for his post-fight interviews.
It was upon this foundation that a young man from Ireland would build his empire. Conor McGregor stormed the scene in 2012 when he became a two-division Cage Warriors champion and was signed to the UFC shortly after. And while he could definitely fight, it was his charisma and microphone skills that truly made him an international force.
In the lead up to his bout with Jose Aldo, McGregor took a few pages from Sonnen’s book. He not only bashed Aldo and the country of Brazil, he even learned some light Portuguese in order to taunt the then-featherweight champion.
He amped up the xenophobia when he claimed that, “if this was a different time, I would invade his favela on horseback and would kill anyone who wasn’t fit to work, but we’re in a new time, so I’ll whoop his ass instead”—a clear allusion to the historical colonization of the global south that nations are still affected by to this day.
In the build-up to “The Money Fight” with boxing megastar Floyd Mayweather, many were quick to point out some of McGregor’s more incognito slurs. The Irishman demanded that Mayweather “dance for him” while calling him “boy.” For those of you who may not be as privy to U.S. history, McGregor was alluding back to the times of plantation slavery, where white men would use such defamation to infantilize black men and paint them as objects that existed for their entertainment instead of humans.
McGregor invoked a similar game plan going into his UFC 229 bout with Khabib Nurmagomedov. He called Nurmagomedov a “mad backward c*nt” after the devout Muslim refused his offer for a drink of Proper 12 at the presser for the event. In the same press conference, McGregor claimed that Nurmagomedov’s father was “a coward.”
Making the fans go “oooh” may be good for business, but it can come with consequences. It was these intimate remarks that led to Nurmagomedov exclaiming “let’s talk now!” while he sat in McGregor’s guard, landing ground and pound, and these intimate remarks which led to the post-fight melee at UFC 229.
Nurmagomedov had taken the trash talk incredibly personally.
Turns out, bashing a man’s family, homeland and religion—basically, everything he holds dear—can have dire consequences.
To McGregor, all of this may have just been a way to sell the bouts. His fight with Mayweather was the second highest grossing PPV of all time. His UFC 194 tilt against Aldo is the sixth highest-selling pay-per-view in the promotion’s history. UFC 229 shattered PPV records for the promotion.
McGregor may see dollar signs with each provoking Tweet, but after UFC 229, it’s hard to believe Nurmagomedov sees the same thing. And even if it is “only business” for McGregor, we all know he isn’t going to back down should he be confronted by his nemesis or his crew.
The beef between McGregor and Nurmagomedov again ignited when “The Eagle” said that McGregor was “acting like a jealous wife.” This led to McGregor to respond by calling the Dhagestani’s wife “a towel” and later tweeted, “Plot twist: it’s a goat under that towel.”
This was a clear shot at Nurmagomedov’s faith and yet another xenophobic stereotype hurled by “The Notorious.”
Nurmagomedov responded with a Tweet calling McGregor a “rapist” and claiming that “justice would find him.” This just days after The New York Times published a story about McGregor being investigated for sexual assault.
It appears as though we may be reaching critical mass. The bickering has been likened to the Tupac and Notorious B.I.G feud from the 1990s that led to both men being gunned down.
Some concluded that we’re past the point of just trying to sell a rematch. That we may see someone seriously injured outside of the cage.
That somebody may end up dead.
This may seem a little dramatic, but let’s not forget the now infamous bus attack that led to multiple fighters being injured when a dolly was used as a projectile. Another meeting between a group of McGregor’s and Nurmagomedov’s goons backstage or in the streets could almost surely become more than just a brawl at this point.
UFC president Dana White condemned the recent Twitter war. He stated that the “ongoing situation has become unacceptable.” White also said that they would be “reaching out to both camps to address both parties.”
Sure, maybe he did or will reach out and tell them to tone it down a bit. This past week has seemed much darker than the general banter we’re used to. But this is also the same man who called the bus attack by McGregor “the most despicable thing in UFC history” and then burned it into everyone’s retinas by using the footage non-stop to promote UFC 229.
A little heat is good business for fight promotions, but sometimes it can go too far. It’s hard to say where the line is, but we all know it once it’s crossed. We can also tell the difference between manufactured drama and true disdain. For as much as we love a solid hype to build-up a fight, we also want things to avoid the tipping point. It does the fighters, the sport, and the fans a disservice to allow these disputes to go this far.
This piece isn’t calling for the censoring of fighters, necessarily. We just need to understand that some issues are sensitive and using them as props to make some quick cash may be detrimental. Not only to an individual’s health but to the sport and community as a whole.
Brandon is a long-time fan of combat sports who has covered them for various outlets since 2017.