By Ike Feldman
Khabib Nurmagomedov, Conor McGregor and Jon Jones — three MMA superstars with very different trajectories of fame and athletic achievement — are each set to appear on Jan. 29 in front of the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) to determine discipline for their recent actions outside of the cage.
Nurmagomedov and McGregor are being summoned to Las Vegas on a non-fight week because of what happened after their main event at UFC 229: a wild melee that spilled into the crowd at T-Mobile Arena.
The Oct. 6 fight between Nurmagomedov and McGregor broke the MMA pay-per-view record by a landslide with a reported 2.4 million buys, surpassing the previous benchmark of 1.6 million for UFC 202: McGregor vs Diaz 2.
UFC 229 was a classic case of the bully getting bullied. Nurmagomedov had been known for his brilliant wrestling skills and humble victory speeches. McGregor went overboard to get under Nurmagomedov’s skin when he threw a hand truck through the window of a bus full of fighters, including Nurmagomedov, parked in the loading dock of Barclays Center before UFC 223 several months prior. Nurmagomedov managed to keep his cool then.
A few months later, after Nurmagomedov and McGregor booked a date and venue, it was time to face the media. In his first major press conference in more than a year, at Radio City Music Hall, McGregor made nasty comments to try to faze Nurmagomedov: The Irishman personally attacked Nurmagomedov’s management, family, country (the Russian federal republic of Dagestan) and religion (Islam). UFC president Dana White said it was the “darkest” press conference in which he had participated. The tone for UFC 229 was set: McGregor’s “mental warfare” made it personal.
On fight night, Nurmagomedov (27-0) retained the undisputed lightweight championship in business-like fashion, but instead of walking away after the win, Nurmagomedov released months of pent-up anger and scaled the cage to attack McGregor’s team — who were allegedly provoking Nurmagomedov during the the fight with foul language and gestures.
Nurmagomedov immediately had his entire $2 million fight purse withheld ($1 million was later released), and his teammate Zubaira Tukhugov was kicked out of the UFC for his role in the melee. Nurmagomedov has threatened UFC that he will not return unless his teammate is reinstated. McGregor received his entire $3 million fight purse.
It’s believed the 16 weeks that have passed since UFC 229 will count in their suspensions as “time served.” And Nurmagomedov, 30, is now an upper-rung title-holder. McGregor, 30, is a global superstar. They each may fight only once a year going forward anyway. That makes a lengthy ban sting a bit less.
The 31-year-old Jones, on the other hand, has wasted prime fighting years due to various suspensions and legal issues. He is looking to fight three times in 2019 — for the paychecks and to make the public think of him first for his prowess inside of the cage. Jones is coming off a third-round TKO of Alexander Gustafsson on Dec. 29 at UFC 232, and is trying to make a quick turnaround. He is slated to fight Anthony Smith on March 2 at UFC 235, which would be the first time he fights twice in a three-month window since 2011.
Jones is appearing before the NSAC on the matter of a controversial drug test he failed on Dec. 9 in the run-up to UFC 232. The test showed traces of oral Turinabol in his body, which Jones and his defenders said was connected to an ingestion the previous year that wiped out his victory over Daniel Cormier at UFC 214 and led to a suspension. Nevada would not sanction Jones to fight unless he attended a hearing on fight week. White and UFC played hardball, picking up the entire event — just six days from fight night — and moving it to California. The California State Athletic Commission, which was familiar with Jones’ case (UFC 214 was held in Anaheim), accepted the old-ingestion rationale and sanctioned the fight.
There’s no reason why the NSAC would want to totally burn bridges with UFC by delivering a harsh verdict against Jones next week. UFC has scheduled Jones into the main event on their next visit to Vegas, which could be a ploy to determine whether the NSAC is willing to play ball this time around. The UFC is in the middle of a seven-year deal to host multiple events per year in Sing City; the first time that was broken was for UFC 232.
It's the game of business versus ethics versus fight careers. Expect Nurmagomedov and McGregor to be on their best behavior with the cameras rolling, and expect Jones to play ignorant -- after all, there isn’t much research out there on the banned substance he continues to pop hot for.