By CATHAL KELLY
Monday, October 8, 2018
TORONTO -- One of the great victories of the modern sports complex is that it has convinced paying customers that everything is on the up and up.
There's evidence to the contrary - sporadic outbursts of point shaving, game fixing, backhanders or referees playing silly buggers.
But people stopped being suspicious because of the money involved. Why bother with a conspiracy when you can make millions on the straight and narrow path?
Then something like Saturday night and the chaotic aftermath of the Khabib NurmagomedovConor McGregor mixed-martial arts fight happens.
When it does, you start to get an uneasy feeling that you are no longer an observer of sport, but the mark in an elaborate con.
If you have been following along, Nurmagomedov, a blankfaced Dagestani, and McGregor, a shrill escapee from a St. Patrick's Day float, hate each other's guts.
Most people have no idea how this all started. All they know is that the feelings are ugly and real.
In the lead-up to their fight, McGregor just about begged Nurmagomedov to kill him - he called him "a rat" and suggested he is a terrorist. He called his father "a quivering coward." He got intimate with the minutiae of Dagestani regional politics and the vernacular of Islam, rhetorically weaponizing both.
After a lot of this nonsense - far too much, really - the two men eventually had to stop talking and start swinging.
As a spectacle, it didn't measure up to the hype. After a twoyear layoff, McGregor wearied quickly. Nurmagomedov - a grappler by inclination - was simultaneously far superior and a lot more boring. The pair spent most of four rounds lying together in a two-man pretzel, tugging and panting.
Nurmagomedov finally got an arm around McGregor's throat in the fourth and forced a submission. Then the fight you'd paid for started.
Nurmagomedov turned immediately to one of McGregor's camp sitting outside the ring and began shrieking - his most compelling show of emotion throughout all of this.
A single roly-poly casino security guard ambled into the cage to enforce order. Nurmagomedov walked around him, vaulted the fence and threw himself into the crowd like a pantless Spider Man.
McGregor tried to follow, but got hung up on top. A couple of idiots from Nurmagomedov's retinue came hurtling into frame.
Each attacked McGregor in turn.
Within seconds, it was a proper melee, but there was something performative about it. For astoundingly large men in the throes of a berserker rage, it seemed unusually easy for everyone to be pulled away from everyone else.
Afterward, Nurmagomedov was once again returned to his usual state of bovine serenity. He did an oddly upbeat news conference.
"What's up, guys? How are you? First of all, I want to say sorry to athletic commission, Nevada, Las Vegas. I know this is not my best side," Nurmagomedov said.
This is how you sound after you've knocked a cellphone out of some gibbering fan's hand. It's not how you sound after you've just tried to murder someone at ringside on cable television.
In what I'd call a very reasonable state of confusion, Nurmagomedov wondered why everyone was so upset at him.
"I no understand how people can talk about how I jump on the cage? He talk about my religion.
He talk about my country. He talk about my father. He come to Brooklyn and he broke bus. He almost kill couple of people. What about this?" Pretty good points.
UFC didn't see it that way. All of a sudden, and without announcing it first, it had begun enforcing parliamentary rules of conduct.
"This is a big deal," UFC president Dana White said. "It's bad.
There's going to be an investigation by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. There's going to be big-money fines. These guys are in big trouble."
Later, White went so far as to suggest Nurmagomedov could be stripped of his title.
McGregor's contribution, via social media: "Good knock. Looking forward to the rematch."
Oh. Now I get it.
You were starting to get a bad vibe à la Hacksaw Jim Duggan versus the Iron Sheik. They were pro wrestlers who also hated each other in a visceral way - each man playing a proxy for the continuing Iran versus USA squabble.
In the mid-1980s, in the midst of their famous feud, the pair was pulled over in a car together and busted for drug possession. Duggan was giving his buddy a ride to their next event, where they would recommence despising each other for public consumption.
If you were the sort of dummy who knew wrestling was fake, but still believed some part of this was genuine (putting my hand up here), that was the end of your delusion.
Is every bit of what happened leading up to and immediately following the NurmagomedovMcGregor contest real? I have no idea.
Does it feel real? No. It feels like a set-up. It feels like a bunch of people have gone into a room and figured out how to turn $20million into $200-million.
We all understand there is a certain amount of theatre in sport. Although the rivalries get torqued up, the players don't actually hate each other. Far more often, the opposite is true. At root, they're all part of the same elite fraternity/sorority.
But there is theatre and then there is taking people for a ride.
You can't be too obvious or greedy. It leads people to question whether the whole thing is a grift.
If you're a cynical sort, UFC appeared to cross over that boundary Saturday night. Were I UFC, I'd be trying to figure out how to get back to the other side before its fans start thinking too hard about what's what.
Khabib Nurmagomedov forces Conor McGregor into a submission hold on Saturday. Although rivalries such as the one between McGregor and Nurmagomedov are magnified, the players don't really hate each other - they're all part of the same club.
STEPHEN R. SYLVANIE/USA TODAY SPORTS