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Is it time to put a muzzle on trash-talk?

UFC 229 was always going to be huge - but it’s become notorious in ways which could harm MMA and change the way we view ‘trash talk’

Is it time to put a muzzle on trash-talk?
09 October 2018

It was the night two of MMA’s biggest stars would finally go head-to-head after months of insults and non-Octagon-based physical violence. Conor McGregor versus Khabib Nurmagomedov was rightly hyped as one of the biggest nights in the sport’s history. 

And, as the still-undefeated Eagle choked out his Irish rival, it seemed for a moment that his victory would be the main thing remembered from that night: the comprehensive defeat of a bullying anti-hero. Then, all hell broke loose. Almost immediately after McGregor tapped out, a brawl erupted, as Nurmagomedov leapt over the cage and straight into the belly of Team McGregor. Meanwhile, inside the cage itself, some of Nurmagomedov’s team attacked McGregor.

Who did what to whom first is still being dissected between footage from fans’ blurry cameraphones and what the UFC itself captured. What’s clear is this: it was a mess.

At the following press conference, Nurmagomedov apologised for his conduct, but said: “He talked about my religion, my country, my father. 

“He came to Brooklyn, he broke bus [sic] and nearly killed two people. So why do people still talk about me jumping over the cage? I have shown respect.”

His actions, it seems, were the culmination of months of trash-talk from McGregor coming to a head. Trash-talk that was integral to the way UFC promoted this fight. Trash-talk that on this occasion had gone way too far.

There was a moment during the fight where, midway through unleashing some brutal ground and pound, Nurmagomedov seems to be telling his downed opponent: “Let’s talk now.” 

He may not have fancied chatting much at that point, but in the run up to this fight, Conor McGregor, true to his personal brand, would not stop talking. From the first pre-fight press conference onwards the Irishman unleashed all the bravado and machismo his patented brand of swagger could muster - from calling his opponent’s trainer a terrorist, insulting his Muslim faith, to predicting he’d “knock that man’s nose straight up into the nosebleeds”.

In the second press conference, he turned up so late Khabib actually left instead of waiting for him. As trash-talking goes, it was nasty and calculated to systematically get inside Nurmagomedov’s head.

“It’s a skill which can sometimes be just as important as punching or wrestling”

It wasn’t the first time McGregor had taken the fight out of the ring. Indeed, there was a dark cloud looming over UFC 229, hanging around the event like a bad smell from the off.

In April, two fighters were injured after McGregor threw a trolly through a bus window carrying a number of UFC fighters - including Khabib. In one of the pressers, McGregor referenced the event, saying: “I just thank the Lord Jesus Christ that that man doesn’t have the balls to step off that bus … this man would be dead right now.”

At the time, UFC president Dana White was publicly incandescent. “This is the most disgusting thing that has ever happen in the history of the company,” he said.

Moments before McGregor was forced to tap out by Nurmagomedov

He added: “This was a really bad career move for him. I think after this disgusting and despicable move, I think everybody’s relationship (including mine) with Conor is going to be not so great.”

In reality, McGregor’s ‘despicable move’ had few repercussions for the fighter. Sure, the law had its way – McGregor accepted a plea deal – but there seemed to be no consequences for him from UFC. He wasn’t pulled from the card, he wasn’t fined. Instead, what UFC did was use footage from the incident to hype the later fight against Nurmagomedov – treating it as if it were any other piece of classic trash-talk. White defended its use in promotional material saying it was ‘part of the storyline’.

To understand how we got here, you need to understand the history of trash-talk. It can be found in most sports - in fact, some have different names for it. Cricketers call it sledging. Ice hockey calls it chirping. Whatever you call it, the aim of the game is to get in your opponent’s head by insulting them, and the question here is - has it gone too far?

In combat sports, trash-talking is a tactic as old as fighting itself. When you’re facing someone one-on-one, getting in their heads can help you get ahead in some ways – and one way the big names do this is through insulting them. In boxing as in MMA, it plays a dual role, the fighters edging for the psychological upper hand, the promoters using tension between opponents to leverage as much coverage in the run-up to a fight as possible. 

And it works.

“When the fight is over, everyone goes in opposite sides with money in the pocket. You have to talk trash because that brings money.”

Lewis Smith, a writer for MMA UK, says a good example of this is McGregor’s bout against José Aldo. In the run-up to the fight, McGregor launched all the insults he could. In one tirade, he said of the Brazilian fighter: “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.” 

“McGregor just got under his skin so much that when it came to fight night, he looked a beaten man when he walked out. And then he got knocked out by McGregor” explains Smith.

“It’s a skill which can sometimes be just as important as punching or wrestling. On the flipside of that, it can be done poorly and can come across cringey.” 

Khabib Nurmagomedov faces-off with Conor McGregor during the UFC 229 Press Conference on September 20, 2018 in New York City

When done well, it’s also an incredibly effective tactic for putting bums on seats or bringing in big money fights. Even Aldo, post-McGregor-defeat, recognised the benefits of all that trash-talk saying at the time: “Talking makes the fight bigger. 

“When the fight is over, everyone goes in opposite sides with money in the pocket. You have to talk trash because that brings money.”

It’s a vicious and arguably uncouth cycle that goes back to Muhammad Ali, says Smith: “On the promotional side of it, it helped make him one of the most famous athletes of all time.

“If you can talk the talk and back it up, it generates so much more popularity for a fighter.”

Ali is often held up as the benchmark for trash-talking in combat sports. In 1963, then known as Cassius Clay, he even released a comedy album of poetic trash talk titled “I Am the Greatest”.

Muhammad Ali holds up five fingers in a prediction of how many rounds it will take him to knock out British boxer Henry Cooper in 1963

Since then, trash-talk has become a key part of how promoters hype a fight and more and more in the digital age it feels like athleticism alone isn’t enough. There has to be some sort of bad blood for the two to fight – and if there isn’t? You create it.

Household names like like David Haye (“Enjoy your last couple of days. This is going to feel so good”), Tyson Fury (“He’s a daddy’s boy and I’d give him a slap around the ear like we do to our bitches”) and Adrien Broner (“I lifted his belt and his girl”) have all been known for overzealous pre-fight comments. In MMA, Chael Sonnen, another name often put in the trash-talking ranks with McGregor, once managed to insult the entirety of Brazil in the build-up to his rematch with Anderson Silva by saying: 

“When I was a little kid, I remember going outside. I’d sit around with me friends, we’d talk about the latest technology in medicine and gaming and American ingenuity and I look outside and Anderson and the Brazilian kids are sittin’ outside playing in the mud.”

Even YouTubers are getting in on the game: the much-maligned boxing match between KSI and Logan Paul earlier this year was awash with taunts; KSI even walked into weigh-in wearing a mask of his opponent’s girlfriend’s face. It is, for lack of all better judgement, an accepted and expected practice.

KSI taunted Logan Paul by wearing a mask of his girlfriend’s face at the weigh in for their boxing match

McGregor’s own gift of the gab has drawn inevitable comparisons with Ali, and he has been rewarded by becoming the most popular MMA fighters of all time. 

UFC 229 sold out so quickly that McGregor can now say he’s headlined two of the biggest UFC events.  Ahead of the match, White bragged they were close to three million pay-per-views, because McGregor is “so famous”

And also, you could argue it’s because he’s the king of the viral insult. On the basis of bravado alone McGregor has become a meme on more than one occasions and one compilation of his verbal sparring uploaded last year has more than 8 million views. 

“You learn your biggest lessons from the people you fight, they’ve given up everything just like you have”

So it sells fights, it helps get more pay-per-views. That much is clear, but at what cost - and where do we draw the line between theatrics and genuine abuse?

In taunting Nurmagomedov’s Muslim religion, McGregor was accused of capitalising on Islamaphobia. And back when he faced Floyd Mayweather, he raised eyebrows as he told him to “dance for me, boy”.

Whether spoken with a wink-and-smile or not, it’s the racial undertones of such comments that make them so hard to dismiss as ordinary, competitive banter, and this should be challenged by governing bodies.

Leoni Munslow, a black belt BJJ competitor, says trash-talk is not the done thing in the competitions she takes part in - and when it does happen, nobody’s particularly impressed by it. For her, it devalues combat sports.

“You learn your biggest lessons from the people you fight,” she said.  “They’ve given up everything, like you have to bring to that fight.

“They’ve cut the weight, they’ve put the work in, they’ve sacrificed seeing their family. They’re living for that fight the same way that you are.

“To talk shit about them just detracts from that.”

She added: “In martial arts, the fighters hug at the end because it is respectful. 

“They’ve pushed you to be where you need to be as well.”

For many, it’s an outdated throwback that has little place in the progressive society we’re building in 2018. Boxer Anthony Joshua is a prime example of success without playing to the circus. Widely regarded as a role model, the world heavyweight champion is hugely popular without resorting to the McGregor schtick. When Joseph Parker tried to goad him by insinuating he was a drugs cheat ahead of their fight in March this year, Joshua simply laughed it off.

“Trash-talk has a place in boxing if it’s natural but you shouldn’t use it as a tool to sell the fight. I would never put on an act to sell a fight,” he told the BBC at the time. 

After the UFC 229 brawl died down, White told reporters (again) how disappointed he was.

“I’m one of the guys who has worked 18 years to get this sport where it is today,” the BBC reported him saying

“The thing was trending to be number one or two of all-time on pay-per-view and this is how it ends?

“It’s bad for the brand, it’s bad for the sport, it’s bad for both fight camps. I don’t know how anyone can come out looking good from this.”

And he is absolutely right, but crucially: UFC brought this on itself. 

“It’s difficult for even the biggest MMA fans to argue against claims of thuggishness when this was the spectacle the sport’s biggest platform put on”

In using the bus attack footage as promo for the fight, they tacitly encouraged the “storyline”, to a point where some have even suspected it was staged. The same soap opera methods occur (with great success) in the scripted pro-wrestling organisation WWE all the time - the difference is, they have writers, everything is managed and the fights are fake.

In allowing the behaviour of McGregor to continue prior to the fight, Dana White and the UFC are at an impasse. They need to act if they’re to salvage credibility for the sport, but whatever they do now, they lose - Nurmagomedov may now very well lose his belt over this incident, but those optics look pretty bad after their response to the bus attack and reluctance to previously take effective action with McGregor.

MMA is already a sport accused of being too violent, too thuggish. It’s looked down on in a way boxing, traditionally the gentleman’s sport, isn’t, because it’s deemed, rightly or wrongly, to be so much more brutal. This hasn’t mattered so far - UFC has still reached the world stage, people still want to watch it. But it needs to remain somewhat palatable to continue with sponsorship and branding, and such behaviour needs to be stamped out. It’s difficult even for the biggest MMA fans to argue against claims of thuggishness when this was the spectacle the sport’s biggest platform put on.

Equally - UFC knows fans love trash-talk and cartoonish, overly-hammy violence. McGregor and Nurmagomedov will both fight again, now with even more notoriety than before and keeping a lid on them will be even harder. 

Just as the UFC, a sport desperate to be taken seriously whilst still in its relative infancy, was gaining credibility on the world stage, it’s reached a pivotal point which could go either way.

(Images: Getty)