Note from Mustafa: This is my first time writing a sports piece in a decade+. The writing here is an honest 4/10. Think of this more like my first preseason game and I'm just getting my arm warmed up after tearing my rotator cuff the year prior.
Imagine this for a second. At the UFC 268 press conference with Colby Covington and Kamaru Usman last Thursday, everything played out exactly as it did except for the very end.
As they’re being separated Usman still yells, “You little b*tch,” but instead of responding with “you’re dead motherf*cker,” Covington takes his racist insults to the next level.
He yells back, “You little n****r!”
Everyone is shocked by the outburst, but the fight goes on. Covington’s confidence going into the weekend is proven to be well-founded. He wins the fight with a third round stoppage of Usman. (By the way, the actual fight was incredible.)
UFC President Dana White is at the lectern post-fight and is pushed by reporters on Colby’s use of racial slurs. White shrugs it off and says, “Covington didn’t go too far. If you look, you can add that to the pile of some pretty nasty things that have been said in this sport. Mean things are said. In this insanely politically correct world we’re living in, this is one place that is not.”
This hypothetical sounds crazy, right? N-bombs thrown around and White is more or less, “Eh, that’s your problem.” Well for better or worse, that’s the sort of scene that he has setup.
For those who missed it, Oron Kahlon called Javid Basharat (originally from Afghanistan) a "terrorist" during the faceoff before their fight on Dana White’s Contender Series two weeks ago. Basharat won the fight, and afterwards White remarked that it’s OK to toss racist insults on account that combat sports have a history of racist insults being utilized in the build up. (The hypothetical White quote above is 98% the same as what he actually said on this matter.)
White is essentially building his argument off the long history of fights in this country that have pitted one color against another. Like when Jack Johnson faced James Jeffries in 1910. The long and short of it: white America was pulling for Jeffries to prove white supremacy over blacks once and for all. Jeffries even said that he’s going to “reclaim the heavyweight championship for the white race.” Jeffries lost, and as a direct consequence there were numerous instances of violence against Blacks in America.
You can even look at a more recent example. Conor McGregor was openly racist to both Floyd Mayweather and Khabib Nurmagomedov in the build up to each respective fight. McGregor wasn’t even simply publicly reprimanded in either instance, even though the UFC has a Code of Conduct policy that says the organization does not tolerate racism.
His silence in the McGregor instances is particularly odd because he did come out and say McGregor shouldn’t be making digs at Dustin Poirer’s wife. For those of you keeping tally at home, Dana says that family is off limits, but not your religion or your people.
It’s very possible White is not trying to turn his brand off to a conservative fan base he has very much aligned himself with. If he calls out racism, does that brand him the “woke police?”
I was hoping that both with UFC 267 taking place in Abu Dhabi, and that with prominent Muslim fighters featured on the card, there would at least be a bigger discussion around the remark and Dana’s response. Instead, it simply faded away as a stellar sequence of fights played out, along with Hasbulla gracing us with an appearance.
I can’t fully blame White for not taking the “terrorist” remark more seriously as it dovetails into a different prescient issue. In this country, and many others, it really ain’t that bad to be racist against Asians. Whether it’s the ones from Central, South, or East, if you make a slur against an Asian, it can be passed over rather quickly.
Trust me though. While it may not seem that bad, it hurts to hear these words aimed at us, aimed at others, and to be condoned by the head of a multi-billion dollar entertainment company.
I also can understand that White is not naturally going to think racist insults are that offensive; he’s a white man in America who has never been a target of a racist insult, let alone received them throughout his life.
From a cursory glance on LinkedIn, looking at the executive level of the UFC—while I’m sure they exist—I couldn’t find anyone that wasn’t a white man. If the circle White is keeping doesn’t either have empathy for racial issues, or have felt it themselves, then yeah, I wouldn’t expect him to necessarily realize the offensive nature of it.
Here’s the thing I hope he comes to realize: sports evolve. God didn’t come down and say this is how combat sports should exist. We get to shape them to our tastes.
In the same way that White evolved the UFC with rules and a presentation to make it more palatable to a mainstream audience, he has the ability to call out racism from fighters to a promotion that he’s in charge of.
To White’s credit, the UFC is one the most ethnically diverse sporting organizations in the world. You have headlining fighters from countries that many of us have never heard of. That seems like something worth celebrating instead of disparaging.
I don’t even know what the right corrective measure is; I don’t think the fight between Kahlon and Basharat should’ve necessarily been canceled. At this point, it’s not even about figuring the right fine or punishment for racism in the UFC. We haven’t gotten there yet.
There’s a much simpler hurdle that needs to be cleared first: getting White to at least realize that simply because combat sports started in an era of racism isn’t a good enough reason to condone racism in the UFC today.
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This piece was edited by Gabriel Baumgaertner. Much love for your time Gabe.