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Khabib Nurmagomedov: Islamophobia, and White Privilege in the Cage

by in World on 8th October, 2018

Khabib Nurmagomedov brought home a win for Russia on Saturday evening in T-Mobile arena in Las Vegas. Following his fourth-round submission win when the mixed martial artist of Avar descent beat Conor McGregor Irish professional mixed martial artist and boxer former Ultimate Fighting Championship featherweight and lightweight champion. Khabib is a two-time Combat Sambo World Champion and currently holds the longest undefeated streak in MMA, with 27 wins. His win, however, caused considerable controversy in and outside of the UFC after the two went head to head leading to McGregor’s defeat in the last round with a headlock.  Allegedly two of Nurmagomedov’s friends then entered the Octagon appearing to attack McGregor, at the same time Khabib was seen climbing out of the octagon to fight one of McGregor’s team members.

UFC president Dana White said, “This is a sporting event if you think you’re going to start a fight once that’s over it becomes a criminal investigation…It’s bad for the brand; it’s bad for the sport, it’s bad for both fight camps. I don’t know how anyone can come out looking good from this.”

Shortly after, the Nevada Athletic Commission told UFC president Dana White that they were withholding Khabib’s pay until further review of the post-fight incident, yet Mcgregor has been paid in full. After being asked what the UFC will do next, White said: “I’m so disappointed man. I’m one of the guys who has worked 18 years to get this sport where it is today.”

In a press UFC News conference after the fight, Khabib relayed his deep apologies for his actions after the brawl,  “I want to say sorry to the athletic commission,  sorry to Vegas. I know this is not my best side, I am a human being, but I don’t understand how people can talk about jumping on the cage, when he talks about my religion… my country…my father, and he comes to Brooklyn  where he broke the bus and almost killed a couple of people. What about this? Why are people just talking about my jumping over the cage? This for me is very important.”

Khabib’s actions, however, had not occurred in a vacuum, before the fight, reports have surfaced relaying incidents in April where McGregor and a gang of friends flew from Ireland to Brooklyn to attack a van containing Nurmagomedov and several other fighters. This was following a UFC 223 media day, the events have been reported to be a key motivator for the brawl on fight day. Reportedly McGregor, among other things, insulted the champion’s father, and “questioned his ties to Russian oligarchs and Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov.”  Reports also surfaced relaying islamophobic abuse from McGregor’s team towards Khabib and his management. Even though taunting is not something that fighters in the UFC are alien to, the media has not inflated McGregor’s abusive actions, in the same way, they have for Nurmagomedov.

It begs the question if there is a level of white privilege present in the UFC, that trickles down to media organisations?  The media guides narratives surrounding sports characters, which can impact how we as the spectator perceive and experience the events that transpire. From Ozil’s resignation from international football during the World Cup to Kaepernick taking a knee. The narratives surrounding such characters heavily influence how we perceive ‘sportsmanship,’ and can often lead to, as is the case for McGregor, an ‘anything goes’ mentality outside of the cage,  and behind the scenes.

Khabib hinted at a belief that the media is to blame for escalating trash talk in the mixed martial arts world. Eliciting and inflaming tensions between key figures, but more than this, weaponising words to bring about a tension between nations. As Muslims should we be buying into these narratives designed to bring about more discord and drama? A dangerous territory. Sports has that kind of affect on us; it takes hold of our heartstrings as we sensationalise the caricatures that play out in front of us. We relish in a prevailing good against evil, and when we demonise or praise a character, we lose our ability to approach the realities before us with logic.

What must be addressed, for sure, is a culture of Islamophobia, and racism, in mainstream sports, and the monopoly: the media, sports organisations, and champion leagues can have over the monetary outcome of various Muslim and BAME athletes.

Yes, it is refreshing to see a character like Khabib surface in the mainstream, for a UFC sport, as we are aware of many many incredibly talented Muslim UFC fighters that often don’t receive the same exposure. However, using Khabib as a representative of the faith can put us in a polarising state of confusion. We love athletes, we love to love athletes, we love to romanticize an athlete’s bildungsroman (coming of age) struggle, and victory after defeat, particularly when a tale surfaces a global fight between a ‘subjective’ good and evil, Muslim vs. Catholic. It then becomes a whole lot more political than it should or initially set out to be, this is where the stakes become a lot higher.

It says a lot more about us as spectators when we expect a figure to be anything more than what he sets out to be.  Perhaps this is due to a complete lack of positive, powerful, Muslim role models available in mainstream popular culture, that rival a narrative that illustrates that a Muslim cannot be physically dominant, emotionally agile, or incredibly talented in mainstream creative or sports fields.

We must also check ourselves when viewing Muslim representatives in sport, and why we wholeheartedly place our religious expectations on the shoulders of men who merely point their finger to the sky to award accreditation for their skills? That said, it showed true sportsmanship and quality of character of Khabib to acknowledge and own up to the fact that he possibly could have handled the situation a lot better.

Here is how Muslim Twitter reacted

Hanan

Hanan

Hanan has a Masters in Media in the Middle East from SOAS University. Trainee of the Muslim Women in Media institute Annual Cohort at UC Davis, California. Her interests lie in ethical fashion, modern-day slavery, and when not making Youtube videos she is somewhere in between Ballet and Kickboxing. King Julian is her spirit animal.