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How the tables have turned.
Fresh of his crushing victory over Ultimate Fighting Championship golden boy Conor McGregor, undefeated lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov has threatened to repudiate his contract with the promotion if it follows through on its undertaking to fire members of his team -- principally Zubaira Tukhugov -- for their involvement in the brawl that broke out after the UFC 229 main event.
In a blistering Instagram post published last week, “The Eagle” criticized the Nevada-based organization for its failure to administer a similar punishment to members of McGregor’s team in April, after they were involved in an infamous assault on a bus carrying Nurmagomedov from the UFC 223 media event. The Dagestani grappler also stated that the UFC could keep his $2M purse -- erroneously suggesting the promotion, and not the Nevada Athletic Commission, was withholding it -- before ominously stating: “We intend to go to the end.”
Many in the MMA community have reacted to Nurmagomedov’s ultimatum with approval, not least due to the rarity of even the most benign forms of solidarity in the fight game. Former UFC and Bellator MMA lightweight Josh Thompson went as far as to claim that Nurmagomedov’s powerplay might awaken a long-overdue labor consciousness among fighters, while former UFC bantamweight and union organizer Leslie Smith expressed a similar support for fighters “sticking together to protest the blatant disregard the UFC has toward anything except their profits.” If only because of the promotion’s ostensible hypocrisy in declining to punish McGregor for his felonious antics in April, the majority of fans also seem to be behind Nurmagomedov’s bid to strongarm the organization. Even members of McGregor’s team -- including Artem Lobov, who was meant to face Tukhugov at UFC Fight Night 138 on Oct. 27 before he was ejected from the card -- have come out against the UFC’s promise to part ways with members of Nurmagomedov’s team.
Is this a watershed moment where the pendulum swings, for what might be the first time, in favor of labor over management? There are a number of reasons that make this seem unlikely.
To be sure, few fighters have ever placed their careers in jeopardy for the sake of a teammate, and there’s nothing to indicate Nurmagomedov is being anything but sincere in his commination. Unlike many of his gauntlet-throwing counterparts -- most notably the recently felled McGregor, who successfully leveraged the UFC into letting him fight Floyd Mayweather Jr. in a crossover boxing match in August 2017 -- Nurmagomedov’s motivations appear to be more about loyalty than vanity and self-interest.
At the same time, there’s also a deeply retributive element discernable in his defiance. Long before Nurmagomedov was storming out of press conferences and making some serious allegations regarding the UFC’s speculated complicity in the aforementioned bus attack, he had his fair share of disputes with the organization. Taking these into account, in many ways this seems like less a bold step towards structural change and more a belated form of payback for long-stewing grievances.
A plotline that flew under the radar in the buildup to UFC 229 was the fact that two years ago at UFC 205, “The Eagle” had been used as a bargaining chip to leverage McGregor and Eddie Alvarez into accepting lower purses for their champion-versus-champion clash. Nurmagomedov was misled into signing a bout agreement to fight Alvarez for the 155-pound title at the Madison Square Garden event, only to have the contract rescinded after the UFC had extracted millions of dollars of concessions from McGregor and “The Underground King.” Such was Nurmagomedov’s anger towards the UFC over the slight that he later threatened to block the promotion’s expansion into Russia if it didn’t award him the next title shot, a precursor to his strongarm tactics last week.
The UFC’s conduct towards Nurmagomedov at UFC 209, where he was booked to fight Tony Ferguson for the interim 155-pound strap, also did little to inspire loyalty from the 30-year old. When Nurmagomedov was forced out of the co-main event due to weight-cutting complications, UFC President Dana White was his typical obstinate self in criticizing Nurmagomedov and his team for rushing him to what he dubbed the “wrong hospital,” demonstrating an unsettling lack of sympathy for a fighter who, by his account, came close to death in trying to make it to the scales.
Score-settling aside, the people with whom Nurmagomedov surrounds himself, principally his controversial manager Ali Abdelaziz, additionally make the idea of the lightweight champion inspiring a glorious fighter-insurrection seem improbable -- even if the pair spends plenty of time posturing in the weeks and months to come. Abdelaziz, who Nurmagomedov describes as his “big brother,” has a close relationship with members of the UFC’s management and even testified on the promotion’s behalf in August in the longstanding RICO lawsuit being brought by Mark Hunt, supporting a motion to keep details of Hunt’s agreement with the UFC under seal. That’s the not the behavior of a guy whose down to bite the hand that feeds, especially given the number of at times eyebrow-raising title shots he has managed to secure for his clientele.
None of this is to say that Nurmagomedov can’t make the UFC awfully uncomfortable in the short- to medium-term future. Having delivered a resounding beating over McGregor in a record-setting pay-per-view, his infamy and star power are exceeded only by his most recently vanquished adversary; and you can bet the UFC isn’t crazy about being leveraged so visibly.
However, if I had to bet, I’d wager that the UFC finds a way to placate Nurmagomedov and his team with few implications for the status quo. Expect Tukhugov to get re-booked and the lightweight champion to be treated like royalty when his NAC woes sort themselves out. Expect the UFC to keep the wheels turning. To predict anything else would be wishful thinking.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.