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The Fight of Our Time: Challenging Abuse of Power at All Levels

When I woke up yesterday morning, the MMA (or mixed martial arts) world was up in arms over former UFC Lightweight Champion Conor McGregor’s retirement. He may only be 30, but this is McGregor’s second retirement announcement. Why is he bowing out again?

Hours later, The New York Times broke the news that answered our question. And now, we must ask this question: When, oh when, will we finally recognize the abuse of power at the heart of this UFC scandal?

Prologue: War Machine

I may not exactly meet the stereotype of the “typical MMA fan”, but I promise I know a thing or two about the sport. In fact I followed MMA news pretty closely in August 2014, when I and others were shocked and horrified by the brutal assault that nearly killed Christy Mack and Corey Thomas here in Las Vegas.

It didn’t take long for Las Vegas Metro Police to hone in on a suspect, as Mack survived the attack and named ex-boyfriend War Machine (who’s also known as Jon Koppenhaver) as the attacker. He was eventually captured in California, released from his Bellator contract, then convicted here in Nevada in 2017 on 29 criminal charges, including sexual assault and battery with a deadly weapon, and sentenced to life in prison with a minimum of 36 years.

So problem solved? Not exactly, as War Machine is just one of several MMA fighters who not only ran into the wrong side of the law, but specific accusations of domestic violence. In the wake of War Machine’s arrest, UFC President Dana White proclaimed “you can never bounce back” from domestic violence. Yet four years later, the UFC would debut NFL-star-turned-convicted-abuser-turned-MMA-fighter Greg Hardy on the same card as domestic violence survivor Rachel Ostovich, and White would defend this move by saying, “I believe in second chances.”

What the hell happened yesterday?
Photo provided by the Russian Presidential Press and Information Office, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Wikimedia

Prior to his arrest and conviction for the attack on Christy Mack and Corey Thomas, War Machine had already racked up multiple assault convictions in California and Nevada. And his case was far from an isolated incident, as a 2015 investigation by HBO’s Real Sports found that professional MMA fighters have been arrested on domestic violence charges at a rate (750 per 100,000) more than double the national average (360 per 100,000), and more than triple the NFL average (210 per 100,000). With all the (valid) concern over domestic violence in the NFL, MMA leaders have an even more severe crisis on their hands.

Like War Machine, Conor McGregor had a prior record of violent assaults. Unlike War Machine, Conor McGregor won the UFC Featherweight Championship in January 2015, then announced his first UFC retirement in April 2016, then returned to MMA and won the UFC Lightweight Championship in November 2016, then briefly tried professional boxing with a highly publicized bout with Floyd Mayweather in August 2017.

Early yesterday morning, McGregor announced his second MMA retirement via Twitter. He was greeted by warm wishes from fellow UFC celebrities on social media… Until The New York Times broke the story of Irish law enforcement authorities investigating McGregor as a suspect in a sexual assault reported in Dublin last December. UFC officials greeted that news with absolute shock. But with abundant warning signs in McGregor’s own life and throughout the league, just how shocked were they really?

Why does any of this matter? Let’s come closer to home to find out.
Photo by Andrew Davey

While professional MMA leagues’ record of (mis)handling cases of sexual assault and other abuses of power may be quite notorious, they’re far from isolated. Last September Kathryn Mayorga first publicly shared her story of soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo raping her during his trip to Las Vegas in 2009, then British TV personality Jasmine Lennard came forward to accuse Ronaldo of domestic violence in January, yet European soccer authorities are merely considering a roughly $23,000 fine for a “thrusting testicular celebration” Ronaldo performed during a game earlier this month.

Speaking of soccer, local soccer enthusiast, exposed serial harasser, and former U.S. Rep. Ruben Kihuen (D-Las Vegas) continues to have a non-zero chance of sliding back into elected office thanks to (still very) low turnout in this year’s municipal election: 17,295 voters have turned out thus far in Las Vegas, Henderson, North Las Vegas, and Boulder City combined. And he may not be alone, as another city council candidate who’s been accused of domestic violence, Dave Marlon, continues to chug along despite that revelation of his 2012 arrest report, his failure thus far to file required disclosure forms, and ongoing questions over whether he even lives in the City of Las Vegas.

Photo by Andrew Davey

Every so often I and others wonder how and why Donald Trump became President amidst multiple allegations of sexual harassment and assault, and how and why Trump continues to abuse his power on various levels with inconsistent pushback. And sometimes, I wonder why certain candidates who are running to defeat him experience more pushback over their pushing back against abusers than over actual abuses of power. And yes, I often wonder why legislation like the Violence Against Women Act has suddenly become “controversial” and “rancorous“.

And then, I look at cases like Conor McGregor’s, War Machine’s, and Ruben Kihuen’s, and it suddenly makes more sense. When we tolerate the abuse of power in sports, in business, and in other parts of government, we heighten the risk of desensitization to the point where Trump’s abuses of power at the highest level of business and government are normalized. While it’s absolutely necessary to demand better conduct in the White House, this larger societal crisis won’t really be resolved until we also demand better from our city halls, our boardrooms, and our octagons and playing fields.

Cover photo by Andrius Petrucenia, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Flickr and Wikimedia.

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