Conor McGregor can influence change if he truly cares about fighter safety

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

Conor McGregor is one of the few fighters who has the power to enact positive change in mixed martial arts. If McGregor believes that a rule change is required to make the sport safer for the competitors, a few public comments from him will go a long way toward making that happen.

Jumping over the top of the cage, shoving a referee and going on a wild rant at a show in which he’s not competing or licensed as a cornerman is just about guaranteed to make others view him as an entitled rich guy and pay him little heed. McGregor is an astute man but he didn’t present himself that way at Bellator 187 on Friday in Dublin.

McGregor’s friend and training partner, Charlie Ward, defeated John Redmond at 4:59 of the first round. But McGregor leaped over the cage, slapped a Bellator employee and shoved referee Marc Goddard.

The UFC lightweight champion apologized via Instagram on Tuesday, and alluded to the April 11, 2016, death of Joao Carvalho as a way to explain his wild reaction.

Carvalho died two days after a fight with Ward in Dublin. McGregor was clearly impacted by Carvalho’s death and made a lengthy statement on Facebook lamenting his passing, as well as talking about it in interviews.

In his apology Tuesday, McGregor wrote that the memory of Carvalho’s death 19 months earlier played a role in his reaction.

“The referee Marc Godard [sic] was making a horrendous decision in trying to pick an unconscious fighter up off the floor and force the fight to continue into the second round,” McGregor wrote. “Even against the wishes of the said fighters coach. The fight was over. After witnessing my fighter in a fight where the worst happened and the opponent passed away from his injuries on the night, I thought the worst was about to happen again, and I lost it and over reacted. I am sorry to everyone.”

Conor McGregor yells outside the cage during a match. (Getty)

Watching an athlete die as a result of injuries suffered in the cage or the ring is about the worst thing imaginable. I’ve been ringside for seven fighter deaths – all in boxing – and each is worse and more difficult to understand than the last.

One of them will forever stick out in my mind. On July 1, 2005, in a ballroom at The Orleans Casino in Las Vegas, Martin Sanchez fought Rustam Nugaev. Nugaev was getting the better of the fight, but it certainly was not the type of bout that was so brutal that you worried about the safety of the fighter.

In the ninth round, Nugaev and Sanchez were fighting on the opposite side of the ring from where I was seated at a table against the ring. Nugaev landed a clean right. Sanchez staggered back, went down and rolled under the ropes.

He was about to fall on the table that I was seated at next to a local radio broadcaster, Dave Cokin. Cokin and I reached up and prevented Sanchez from falling to the floor. He rolled back under the ropes and then took a knee in the corner, as referee Kenny Bayless gave him the 10-count. Sanchez jumped up after Bayless said 10.

As Sanchez was about to head to the dressing room area, ring announcer Joe Martinez asked the crowd to give him a hand for a good fight. Standing on the top step outside the ropes, Sanchez blew kisses to the crowd. He then turned and pointed at Cokin and I and gave us a thumbs up, a silent thank you for helping him to avoid crashing to the floor.

I left and thought little more of it, until receiving a call the next morning informing me of Sanchez’s death. He suffered a subdural hematoma in the locker room and underwent emergency surgery, but he lost his life.

That death had an impact upon me that is felt to this day, so it’s understandable how Carvalho’s passing impacted McGregor.

But charging into a cage he has no business in isn’t the way to handle things. Even if McGregor had not been concerned and just jumped into the cage to celebrate a win with Ward, it was inappropriate.

He admitted as such in his statement, which is here in full:

“I sincerely apologize for my behavior at last weekends fight event in Dublin. While trying to support a loyal teammate and friend, I let my emotions get the best of me and acted out of line. As a multiple weight UFC champion, executive producer, role model and public figure, I must hold myself to a higher standard. The referee Marc Godard [sic] was making a horrendous decision in trying to pick an unconscious fighter up off the floor and force the fight to continue into the second round. Even against the wishes of the said fighters coach. The fight was over. After witnessing my fighter in a fight where the worst happened and the opponent passed away from his injuries on the night, I thought the worst was about to happen again, and I lost it and over reacted. I am sorry to everyone. I sincerely apologize to the Director of the Mohegan Tribe Department of Athletic Regulation, Mike Mazzulli, all the officials and staff working the event, Andy Ryan and his fighter John, two stonch ones that put up a great fight every time. That side will always have my respect, and lastly every one of my fans. I love yous all! I’ve always learned from my mistakes and this will be no different.”

McGregor will basically face no disciplinary action from this since the fight was held in an area where MMA is not regulated by a sanctioning body. Bellator brought in the Mohegan Tribe Department of Athletic Regulation to run the event. But it has no authority to sanction McGregor.

The UFC could sanction him for violating its code of conduct, but it has not done so. McGregor does not have a fight scheduled and is not expected to fight until next year.

He should face some sort of punishment, if only as an example to others that no one is above the law and to prevent other athletes from trying to involve themselves in a bout they aren’t participating in either as a fighter or a cornerman.

As media, we don’t truly know these fighters because we spend so little time around them, and even then, it’s in controlled environments. But McGregor has always come off as a bright and caring guy who knows how to promote but also has a passion for the sport and its participants.

He probably was worried about Redmond’s health, but there are professionals there who have been trained and know how to deal with a stricken athlete. McGregor’s presence in the cage and the chaos that it caused made it more likely that something bad would happen.

It’s been a rough month or so for McGregor, who faced criticism at a UFC event in Poland for using a homophobic slur.

McGregor needs to show more professionalism, though, and if he’s going to become a public advocate for fighter safety – which would be a great thing – he needs to do it through the proper channels.

What he did last week just made disaster far more likely to happen and could have prevented the fighter from getting the timely attention he needed.

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