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Khabib, McGregor and Malcolm X: Media imagery and how it shapes our perceptions


Over the weekend we witnessed the biggest fight in UFC/MMA history: Khabib Nurmagomedo (26 – 0, the most dominant lightweight champion in the UFC, who has arguably never lost a round) vs. Connor McGregor (“the notorious”, "face of the fight game"). Analysing the dynamic of the fight is very simple, it was the best fighter in the UFC vs. the biggest superstar in sports.

So what happened? Khabib said, “I’m gonna smesh your boy” (“your boy” was a reference to the fact that McGregor is the ‘face’ of the UFC and is the recipient of very charitable treatment from the company and CEO Dana White), in his thick Russian accent to anyone that would listen. He was right! He absolutely mauled McGregor! It was as one-sided a title fight as you are likely to see. A rematch is not justified based on the performance, however, money talks and a rematch will probably happen (depending on your perspective this could be either fortunate or unfortunate). The fight itself, although exciting, wasn’t that interesting. What was interesting was what immediately transpired after the fight ended. Even more interesting was the medias reaction to this aftermath.

To preface my thoughts on the after-events of the fight, I would like for you all to read an excerpt from an Oxford Union debate that took place in 1964. The motion was, "extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue".

Malcolm X: “… And this again comes through the (medias) manipulating of images. When they want you to think of a certain area or certain group as involved in actions of extremism, the first thing they do is project that person in the image of an extremist. And then anything he does from then on is extreme, you know it doesn’t make any difference whether it is right or wrong, as far as you’re concerned if the image is wrong, whatever they do is wrong. And this has been done by the western press… Whenever any black man in America shows signs of an uncompromising attitude, against the injustices that he experiences daily, and shows no tendency whatsoever to compromise with it, then the American press characterizes him as a radical, as an extremist someone who’s irresponsible, or as a rabble-rouser or someone who doesn’t rationalize in dealing with the problem. Question: I wonder if you could consider, just briefly, ah, that you have projected, rather successfully, a quite upsetting image of a “type”. Malcolm X: It depends on what angle [booing against questioner], no let the gentleman bring out his point. It depends on which angle you look at it sir. I never try and hide what I am. Question: I am referring to your treatment of the previous speaker [Previous speaker had said many inflammatory remarks against Malcolm X]. Malcolm X: You are referring to my treatment of the previous speaker? You make my point! That as long as a white man does it, it’s alright, a black man is supposed to have no feelings. But when a black man strikes back he’s an extremist, he’s supposed to sit passively and have no feelings, be nonviolent, and love his enemy no matter what kind of attack, verbal or otherwise, he’s supposed to take it. But if he stands up in any way and tries to defend himself, then he’s an extremist.

Back to the aftermath of UFC 229: After getting McGregor to tap, Khabib ran over to his opponent’s corner, threw his mouthpiece at them, jumped over the cage, and brawled with his vanquished opponents team, specifically Dillen Danis.

This behaviour is unquestionably wrong; it was irresponsible, reckless, and caused mayhem. Khabib should face repercussions for his actions. The fighter himself acknowledges wrongdoing and has apologised. Khabibs father has come out against his son’s behaviour as that behaviour, “put women and children in danger”. Additionally, people take lead from those they idolise. If he behaves like that, his fans follow, and there were reports from all over Vegas about fans fighting in the streets.

“Outragous”, “disgusting” and “he should be banned and stripped of his title” are general examples of the sentiments expressed by the media coverage of Khabib’s behaviour.

Wait… lets have a little recap of what lead us to this moment…

  1. McGregor jumped the octagon cage (Just like Khabib) to confront Jose Aldo (the champion at the time) and needed to be restrained by security. Security intervened before anything dangerous occurred.

  2. At an event McGregor was attending to support a teammate, he jumped into the octagon after the fight had ended and got into a physical altercation with the referee in charge of the bout.

  3. In the build up for his two fights with Nate Diaz, McGregor and his team got into several altercations with Diaz and his team. In one incident they were throwing projectiles at each other whilst among the press and public.

  4. Khabib got into a confrontation with a member of McGregor’s team, Artem Lobov. Lobov, a Russian native, had said some negative things about Khabib in a Russian interview. Khabib confronted Lobov about his remarks, slapped him behind the head, and warned him to watch his comments.

  5. After McGregor’s loss to Floyd Mayweather Jr. (side note: McGregor used racial slurs against Mayweather Jr.), he looked to return to the UFC. Khabib was the prime opponent for several reasons, the altercation above being a primary factor.

  6. At UFC 223, Khabib was to face Max Holloway. At the weigh-ins before the fight McGregor and approximately 30 of his friends stormed into the arena and tried to attack Khabib and his 2 corner men. UFC 223 had nothing to with McGregor or his team, they had no business being there. The attack culminated in McGregor himself launching a steel dolly at a bus window, behind which Khabib and other innocent fighters where waiting. The shattered glass cut one fighter and went into the eye of another. Each could not fight the next day. One of the female fighters was so frightened by the incident that she almost withdrew from her title fight. These people were innocent. It was only by chance that the dolly did not go all the way through the glass. If that had happened it would not be hyperbole to say someone could have gotten seriously injured or even killed.

  7. Once the fight event was finalised between these two fighters, McGregor proceeded to insult Khabib’s character (fairly usual in fighting trash talk), his family (not too common in fighting), his country and culture (extremely rare in fighting) and his religion (unheard of in modern fighting).

What does this have to do with UFC 229?

Khabib’s behaviour in (4), although unacceptable, was tame by fighting standards and was (prior to the aftermath of UFC 229) probably the best (only) example of Khabib’s worst public behaviour. Throughout his fighting career he has been an exemplary role model of sportsmanship. Yet, after UFC 229, his long record of professional conduct was forgotten and replaced with images of a disgusting animal?

What is interesting is not just the speed of the changed portrayal of Khabib, but the contrast between the interpretation of McGregor’s behaviour and Khabib’s. McGregors’s behaviour has not been interpreted as acceptable, but it has been deemed understandable. He has consistently behaved appallingly (see 1, 2, 3, 6, 7) and outrage has been rare, yet, there has been an almost immediate outpouring of hate toward a man whose outrageous behaviour comparatively pales in both quantity and quality.

Although this could easily be made into a racial issue, I’m going to discuss it from a different angle: the personality imagery of each fighter, because I don’t believe the majority of people who are discussing this event are doing it from a racist perspective.

I believe this is due to what Malcolm X alluded to at the Oxford Union debate. McGregor is portrayed as a ‘lovable Irish larrikin who may sometimes overstep boundaries but he is just trying to sell fights and drum up interest. That’s all, he’s a good guy’ by both himself and the media. To be fair, I actually agree with this notion; I think McGregor only wishes to sell fights and is a little bit of a larrikin. I do not believe he is an inherently bad guy. I do think, however, that he’s a great example of the consequences likely to arise from letting someone get away with bad behaviour for too long.

The problem, as Malcolm X explained, is that when you have an image of a person, everything that person does gets viewed through the lens you’ve chosen. So, at what point does McGregor go from being a ‘lovable Irish larrikin’ to a violent (bus incident), borderline racist (racial slurs) thug (accumulation of his behaviour)? Now, to be very clear, I’m not accusing him of being a violent, borderline racist thug, I’m applying labels to his behaviour that do not mesh with the media imagery that has shaped his public character. Whatever McGregor is, he is no longer a ‘loveable Irish larrikin’ and interpreting his (mis)behaviour in this way leads to biased acceptance of unacceptable actions. Being aware of the imagery surrounding our fighters is one way to minimise our bias when we interpret their public behaviour.

Analysing the reaction to Khabib’s behaviour using the idea of imagery also helps us understand why there has been uproarious outrage against him. We are happy to be outraged because we do not see him through the lens of a ‘loveable larrikin’. His imagery is one of a respectable professional, so when he acts out of line with that image it’s very easy to identify and call out - and it appears all the more dramatic because of the contrast! We can’t attribute his behaviour to him being ‘just a loveable Dagestani larrikin’ like we can when making justifications of McGregor’s actions.

I’ve scratched the surface of the problem of being unaware of the imagery and assumptions that surround different people’s public characters. We do not make judgements of incidents like the aftermath of UFC 299 in isolation; they become ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ only when we consider the context of the people behind them. I’d like to leave you to consider this rewording of Malcolm X’s response to the questioner at the Oxford Union:

As long as a larrikin does it, it’s alright, a respectable man is supposed to have no feelings. But when a respectable man strikes back he’s an extremist, he’s supposed to sit passively and have no feelings, be nonviolent, and love his enemy no matter what kind of attack, be it verbal or otherwise, he’s supposed to take it. But if he stands up in any way and tries to defend himself, then he’s an extremist.

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