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The poisonous words exchanged between Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov last week escalated a toxic feud between the UFC lightweight champion from Russia and the former two-division champion from Ireland.
And, more damning perhaps, it also leaves the impression that this is the culture the organization seeks from its fighters.
But as McGregor and Nurmagomedov sat suspended by the Nevada Athletic Commission during their social-media firestorm, the man fighting in their absence for the lightweight division’s interim belt on April 13 opted to address his opponent with praise and respect.
Louisiana’s Dustin Poirier, who will meet featherweight champion Max Holloway (20-3) in Atlanta, said Hawaii’s Holloway is a brilliant mixed martial artist, as evidenced by his stand-up domination of Los Angeles’ Brian Ortega by fourth-round technical knockout in December.
“I thought Max looked incredible, and his recent performances have been at a very high level,” Poirier (24-5) said. “He’s on the pound-for-pound list for a reason. He’s looked amazing.”
That marks a glacial shift in tone between foes from the toxicity between Nurmagomedov and McGregor.
Their rivalry exploded one year ago this month in Brooklyn when McGregor responded to Nurmagomedov’s run-in with the Irishman’s training mate, Artem Lobov, by invading Barclays Center and attacking a bus loaded with UFC fighters including Nurmagomedov. McGregor was arrested, and ultimately skirted a felony conviction.
But when they fought in October, Nurmagomedov punctuated his fourth-round submission of McGregor by leaping the octagon cage in pursuit of another McGregor stablemate who called him a derogatory name.
Nurmagomedov was suspended nine months by the Nevada Athletic Commission and Executive Director Bob Bennett warned he was tiring of the hostile words being said in fight promotion, warning sanctions may ultimately arrive if the behavior continued.
Well, it has.
This past week, after McGregor had announced was retiring from the UFC, Nurmagomedov said his rival is like “a jealous wife,” who threatens to leave her partner only to return after the vacant threat.
That inspired McGregor to post a photo of Nurmagomedov’s Islamic wedding in which his wife wore a traditional Islamic covering over her head. McGregor wrote, “Your wife’s a towel mate,” then deleted the post within minutes.
Nurmagomedov fumed, and referred to a sexual assault investigation in Ireland that reportedly has focused on McGregor, responding by posting a photo of McGregor with an unknown woman and writing, “Rapist, you are Rapist. … Justice will find you. We will see.”
McGregor attempted to calm the fury, posting on Thursday, “I want to move forward, with my fans of all faiths and backgrounds. All faiths challenge us to be our best selves. It is one world and one for all. Now see you in the octagon.”
Raise your hand if you believe that’s genuine. That’s what I thought.
The Nevada commission’s Bennett has said he’s aware of the McGregor-Nurmagomedov exchange, but since neither has yet re-applied to have their fighting license renewed in Nevada, he declined extended comment on the matter except to note there’s a state code that addresses “unsportsmanlike conduct.”
“We know what’s right and what’s wrong, and what’s acceptable and unacceptable,” Bennett said.
Poirier has also observed the unfiltered verbal blasts.
“That’s the nature of the beast. These guys are real fighters in their mind, so when they don’t like each other, they say and do things … ,” Poirier said. “I’ve been doing this a long while. I don’t really play into those opinions, but in the world of mixed martial arts, honestly, nothing surprises me anymore.”
While Poirier has been criticized by former planned opponent Nate Diaz, he said, “These guys get the people going. They have a big following, so when they say things on the internet, people go crazy and the media runs with it. But honestly I don’t like to play all those games. I don’t like to do that stuff. I fight. If you have a problem with me, talk to me in person. When you see me, say it. I don’t like that other stuff. I’ve been pulled into it a few times, but I try to stay away from it.”
A 12-year veteran of professional MMA, Poirier is locked in on the challenge of defeating Holloway and winning a shot after that at Nurmagomedov, which he says UFC leadership has promised the winner.
“I’m excited about it. I think it’s going to be a great fight,” Poirier said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be the grit that carries me through or the perfecting of techniques over the last 12 years of being a fighter, of honoring my craft and being the best I can be always.
“Winning would mean everything. That’s the reason I first [fought]. I didn’t do it to cash a check or to say I was just fighting. I did it to say I was a world champion, and with a win in this fight, I get a piece of the world championship, and that’s all I care about right now.”
A second interim belt will be on the line Saturday when unbeaten middleweight Israel Adesanya (16-0) meets Huntington Beach-trained Kelvin Gastelum (15-3) for the partial belt provided as Australian champion Robert Whittaker is sidelined by a hernia injury until August.
Whittaker fell off the February pay-per-view card, scrapping Gastelum’s title shot and placing Adesanya in a torch-passing main-event victory over UFC legend and long-reigning champion Anderson Silva.
“[Silva] told me at the end he’s passing the baton to me. It was a beautiful moment for me in my life,” Adesanya said. “I want to carry myself with dignity and integrity and live my life to the fullest. What he did as a middleweight champion,” winning 11 consecutive middleweight title fights, “is something I will blow past. Why else would I be here?”
Adesanya’s more universal skill set makes him a slight (minus-170) favorite to defeat Gastelum.
“I’m feeling great. It’s not another night, just another fight,” Adesanya said. “You’ve seen him in the trenches a lot, and while you haven’t seen me there as much, I know how to fight in the trenches and come out on top,” New Zealand’s Adesanya said.
“You’ve seen bits and pieces of my game, but a wizard never reveals all of his tricks.”
Until next time