The events that transpired this past Saturday have left me thinking. Hyped-up media and international sensation Conor McGregor fought and subsequently lost in a personally unsurprising but rather revolutionary bout. What followed could only be described as chaos.
I’ve never been a fan of Conor. Being raised in a traditional Eastern European household means immediate immersion into the realm of manners and humility. The egotism Conor exhibited as his MMA career took solid footing annoyed me no more than usual, what annoyed me to no end was the feverish and rather primal exhibitionism of his fans.
Last Saturday was the first time I had felt something akin to pity for Conor. I don’t want to get into specifics, but attacking an already physically and mentally exhausted fighter seemed awfully dishonorable. Perhaps just as dishonorable as throwing a heavy metal object at fellow fighters. Perhaps just as awful as using another person’s religion, culture and family as a punching bag for verbal abuse.
My heart went out to both men. I felt truly drained and disoriented afterwards, and remember saying out loud that I had a “sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.” I took to the Internet for some sort of order or solace, honestly looking for someone else to possibly share my sadness with, and was hit with a barrage of the unexpected.There seemed to be two overwhelming majorities: those outrightly celebrating Khabib’s launch on Dillon and those defending the overall reaction by citing examples of Conor’s “bad behavior.”
I was stunned to see men and women in their late thirties, forties and fifties laughing about a twenty-something, non-skilled BJJ persona whose bark is worse than his bite being attacked by someone who is arguably the best fighter of our time. Laughing about how this twenty-something kid likely has a target on his back. Relishing the idea of him getting seriously injured. Reveling in the idea that a man who has a wife and a brand new family might now have to seriously fear for his safety. It seemed as though absolute hate was being passed around like the communion wine at church.
There is something very sinister about the way fighters are socially perceived. Like all fame and media-based occupations, athletes require more than just skill and work ethic to succeed; a fan base is necessary to fill the arena, buy tickets and merchandise, freely advertise on behalf of the athlete, and generally offer the athlete a collective stream of potential opportunity. A large portion of the fan base exists and continues evolving through social media, specifically instagram and twitter.
The game goes like this: as social critters, human beings are naturally drawn and enthralled by drama. We secretly enjoy driving by car accidents, looking for signs of destruction in the same way we cluster towards people behaving like hot messes. We savor the possibility of a train wreck: somebody saying something crude to someone else causing a chain reaction. That chain reaction can be disappointingly small and fizzle out, or it can emerge as a series of explosive reactions, like the fight videos we often see popularized on sites like World Star.
A strategy is born. The easiest way to birth attention is through disaster. The easiest and least tangibly fatal method of disaster-making is aggravated, heavy, controversial, divisive and inflammatory speech. Conor’s fans love him because he’s entertaining. They loved seeing him performing alongside fellow game-player Floyd Mayweather in a verbal boxing match that had already been pre-configured before the cameras began rolling. Fans ate it up. The spectacle was comical and enjoyable for the same reasons roasts are comical and enjoyable: because making fun of people is funny.
Now, most fans are free-thinking individuals who either consciously reject the idea of a staged personality, or enjoy observing drama too much to care whether it’s based in reality. This sort of thinking often leads to a latch; people allow celebrities to become ingrained in their sense of self and personality. Being a fan of Conor McGregor evolves into being a part of Conor McGregor’s journey, which evolves into somehow, in some tiny and miniscule way, attributing to Conor McGregor’s success and becoming a part of his metaphorical family.
This latch leads the fan to defend the person they support so adamantly that one may believe it is a personal attack. To them it is. To Khabib’s fans, Conor and others poking fun at Islam, Dagestan and their funny haircuts is a cultural and personal attack. The fans themselves are being put down for their differences as compared to westerners. What follows is not rowdy hooligans experiencing a night of debauchery and loosened ethics: it is social warfare.
I personally knew and used to be a training partner of Dillon, and though we likely never saw eye to eye and maybe never will, I know for a fact he is not a bad person. None of these individuals likely are. Neither Conor nor Khabib are decidedly bad people because they had instances of emotional thinking and acted hastily without empathetic consideration. We only focus on these aggressive acts because those are the only segments of their lives we are allowed to see in depth. We will likely never experience either man be tender with their families, we will never witness them commit acts of charity, we will never see them lend a word of encouragement, give a hug or a kiss or a piece of loving advice, not because they never do, but because we do not know them that well.
We are neither individual. Whether they succeed or fail has no direct impact on our livelihoods unless our direct stream of income comes from them. And yet we love them when the time is right and absolutely despise them when it isn’t. Perhaps we hate what we do not have. We detest that someone so intent on being offensive and disrespectful when the cameras are trained on them can become more rich and famous than we will ever be. We hate the fact that an additional tax exists on the price of materialistic prosperity, and that we must cultivate a performative personality to pay its cost.
The more I’ve been involved in the athletic community, the more I have come to stop disliking fighters like Conor, and the more I’ve come to dislike the rage-fueled, unresolved, intentions of his fans. Fans that shamelessly disparage and wish bodily harm on other human beings. Fans that have likely only dreamt of achieving a fraction of the notoriety Conor and Khabib have, that inevitably become so possessed by repressed resentment that they set it free in the streets and social media alike.
Attitudes like this are what lead to bipartisanship and division. Why we cannot reconcile our differences because we are too intent on holding onto prideful behavior and our ideas of concrete right and wrong. Nothing in the world is concrete, and duality exists in everything. That’s why compassion and empathy must exist. Without them, how can we hope to understand each other, our respective, very real and very different struggles?
I end this without resolution, but with the hope that someday, as a community, we learn to truly value the skill, effort, sleepless nights and painful mornings that all human beings endure, not because they are athletes supplemented by reality TV trash, but because they are worthy of that respect.