This wasn't a great weekend for combat sports and their never-ending quest for societal acceptance. Any time a fights spills over the borders of the ring or the cage or the other parameters of regulated competition, the squares and moralists of the world are bound to appear from the shadows, knives and pens in hand, to condemn fighting as proof of barbarism, convinced at any moment that legions of just-barely civilized professional fighters are going to break their chains and bring mayhem into the streets. That wolf is always at the door.
Fighting's messy weekend started on Saturday night, during an undercard fight at the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland. During a super middleweight title fight, Jose Uzcategui knocked out Andre Dirrell but was subsequently disqualified after referee Bill Clancy determined Uzcategui's final flurry had come after the bell ending the eighth round. While Dirrell was being tended to by ringside doctors, the fighter's uncle and assistant trainer Leon Lawson Jr. walked across the ring and punched Uzcategui in the chin with a left hook, touching off a near-riot in the ring. In the ensuing chaos Lawson escaped from the arena, and Prince George's County Police are currently seeking him for questioning and to charge him with first- and second-degree assault, charges that carry maximum punishments of 25 years and 10 years, respectively. Meanwhile, the World Boxing Council announced that it has indefinitely suspended Lawson from participating in any WBC-sanctioned bouts, and the Association of Boxing Commissions has called on all boxing commissions to refuse to license the trainer.
Such an incident would have been enough for wary and beleaguered fight fans tired of justifying their dirty little hobby and keeping their fingers crossed every time an event is announced, but fighting's lousy weekend was just getting started. Not 24 hours after Leon Lawson Jr. sucker-punched Jose Uzcategui and vanished into the Maryland night, UFC women's featherweight great Cris Cyborg was caught on video punching women's strawweight not-great Angela Magana following a verbal confrontation during this weekend's first-ever UFC Athlete Retreat in Las Vegas.
The police were called and Magana was taken to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with an acute head injury, cervical strain, and laceration of the lip. Cyborg, meanwhile, was cited a day later for misdemeanor batter by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, and if found guilty, she faces up to six months in prison and a $1000 fine. All of which not only damages the long-fought-for credibility and acceptance MMA has been fighting for, for more than 20 years now, it no doubt also marred the sense of good feeling and family-friendly entertainment new UFC owners WME | IMG were hoping to engender by inviting 300 professional cage fighters to hear from a "wide variety of experts across sports, entertainment and business" in Las Vegas. WME is in a sensitive spot at the moment, having purchased the UFC 10 months ago for $4 billion in the hopes of turning it into a cornerstone of its sports-entertainment-marketing cross-cultural multinational synergy ecosystem only to find the promotion's two biggest stars disappearing (one into the world of boxing, the other into likely early retirement and a career in Hollywood), several mid-level names moving on to other promotions, and more and more of its fighters cranky over the UFC's questionable pay practices and endorsement deals. At a time when WME is surely hoping to smooth out MMA's rough edges and turn it into the corporate fantasy world they must have thought it could be when it wrote that check and took on all that debt, discontent among fighters is at an all-time high. And then along comes Cris Cyborg popping off on a smaller fighter on the street at the promotion's first-ever love-and-marketing fest, mucking up the works.
That said, Cyborg might have just done WME and the UFC a huge favor, if a sense of decency and cultural and corporate magnanimity is really the future they see for the rough-and-tumble world of MMA. After all, Cyborg didn't just punch Angela Magana for fun or (as many anti-MMA talking heads would have us believe) out of an involuntary instinctual drive toward barbarism and violence. Magana, a well-known rabble-rouser and social-media troll, has been mocking Cyborg's looks on Twitter for months and, according to Cyborg, who has been dealing with bullying over her appearance and assumed steroid use for years, Magana's cruelty was the last straw.
Yesterday Cyborg wrote a long Facebook post on the incident, not only criticizing Magana for her "online bullying" but laying the blame for that bullying at the feet of some of the UFC's biggest and most powerful names (though she doesn't actually name them), like promotion President Dana White, commentator Joe Rogan, and superstar Ronda Rousey, all of whom have been wantonly cruel to the featherweight fighter for years. To Cyborg, the fact that such prominent figures in the promotion bullied her without consequence has only emboldened lesser figures like Magana to do the same, marring, in the process, the whole "culture" of the promotion and the sport.
"When disparaging comments are made at the top, it sets an example that it is acceptable within the company, allowing lower ranking individuals to continuing following examples of leaders, establishing the culture and practices of the company," Cyborg wrote. "When people see these actions of people high profile in the company being promoted through social media without consequence or even a public apology, they see it as an acceptable behavior within the company, and often view it as an encouraged opportunity at self promotion. It should never be acceptable for a company to allow their employees to develop a culture where sexual harassment, racial prejudices, or female discrimination are acceptable in the work place."
It's a savvy argument, and one WME would do well to heed. Does being bullied online justify actual violence? It would take a more principled man than myself to say for sure. But if they're smart, WME will read Cyborg's post and see it as a way forward for a business venture they're trying desperately to drag out of the Stone Ages and into enlightened liberality of the 21st century. If the UFC's new corporate bosses are really looking to establish a new kind of tolerant and camera-ready MMA culture, one where executives don't mock females athletes for looking like men in drag and ringside announcers don't laugh at them for cutting off their "dicks" to make weight—where fighters, the promotion's employees, aren't mistreated at all—it seems Cris Cyborg may be the perfect spokesperson for the enterprise.