The Great Divide: Was Israel Adesanya’s UFC 253 celebration a breach of sportsmanship?

The Great Divide is a recurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which two of our staff debate a topic in the world of MMA — whether it’s news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments below.

As usual, Israel Adesanya’s latest exploits left everyone talking. And it wasn’t just about his phenomenal performance inside the octagon.

Adesanya made short work of his most hated rival on Saturday at UFC 253 in Abu Dhabi, taking out Paulo Costa in just under nine minutes. The tensions didn’t end when the referee waved off the bout as Adesanya preceded to briefly simulate a sexual act on the fallen Costa before walking over to Costa’s corner and doing the same.

Opinions are split on whether Adesanya went too far with his post-fight celebration, with analyst Dan Hardy calling Adesanya’s moves “crass” and “unnecessary,” while UFC strawweight Angela Hill suggested that those offended by Adesanya’s antics should “lighten up.”

MMA Fighting’s Alexander K. Lee and Jed Meshew are distinctly of two minds on this issue, so in this edition of The Great Divide we sort out just how outraged everyone should be when it comes to how Adesanya conducted himself this past weekend.

A LITTLE CLASS NEVER HURT ANYONE

Lee: As always, when MMA’s most malicious miscreants begin to show their true colors and risk placing an ineradicable stain on this, our most noble of athletic endeavors, it once again falls upon yours truly to ask the question that none of the so-called media dares to ask:

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There we all were, enjoying a wholesome family night of martial arts (the mixed variety, no less), when Israel Adesanya rained on the entire parade with his juvenile antics. His performance? Unquestionably fantastic. His mock sex act? Unquestionably questionable.

And make no mistake, that’s what it was. All exaggeration aside, there’s really no other way to describe what Adesanya did other than to say he was humping Costa from behind to further humiliate his vanquished foe. If there was any doubt as to how to interpret his actions, he followed up that move by walking over to Costa’s corner at cageside and literally telling them that he was going to “c*m all over” them and gesturing accordingly.

Gross.

Even if you’re one of those folks who never gets offended by anything, or you are, but found Adesanya’s subtle miming to be hilarious, there is no way to view this dry-humpery as anything but a total disregard for the gentlemen’s agreement between fighters. And yes, it exists, if tentatively.

Don’t hit someone when they’re offering to touch gloves. Win or lose, stay in the cage for the announcement of the result. Don’t enter the cage with really bad B.O. There are dozens of these rules, and an equal amount of exceptions to these rules, but we have to have them. Otherwise, MMA descends into complete chaos. A segment of the fanbase might believe that we blew past that point the first time one human being ever agreed to punch another human being money, but that’s not the case, otherwise combat sports would never have become a successful business.

The perceived lawlessness of it all is the draw; the rules, regulations, and insistence on the most minimal level of professional courtesy is the glue that keeps everything together.

None of this is to say that Adesanya’s dry-humping is some dam-breaking moment in the history of MMA. We’ve seen worse. But to just point and laugh and pass it off as “boys will be boys” isn’t really helping anyone. Lines have to be drawn, otherwise you end up with – oh, I don’t know, purely hypothetical example – a guy jumping over the cage after a fight and attacking his opponent’s team, creating an incident that overshadows what should otherwise have been a landmark moment in his career. That sort of thing.

Not all bad actions are created equal, but bad is still bad and should be identified as such. I personally take far more umbrage with Colby Covington’s recent comments than anything Adesanya did on Saturday. They’re not equal by any means. However, how much does the limit of our tolerance for one’s actions have to do with our personal feelings for that fighter and what they represent? Covington is rightfully being condemned. Would Adesanya be receiving more scorn were it not for him currently being on the rising side of his career? Or because Costa was supposedly “deserving” of the post-fight treatment based on the pre-fight grudge? That’s a slippery, slippery slope.

Attitudes and personalities sell fights as much, if not more so, than skill and ability. That’s the reality of this game, and suggesting otherwise is naive. Tito Ortiz’s trademark gravedigger celebration, Michael Bisping spitting at Jorge Rivera’s corner, Chael Sonnen telling Anderson Silva “you absolutely suck,” and Nate Diaz demanding that Conor McGregor fight him for “taking everything I worked for, motherf*cker. Those are just a few examples of some of the most memorable moments in MMA history that are as infamous as they are an indelible part of these fighters’ legends.

I bring those moments up because I believe there’s a breaking point where your extracurricular activities can actively interfere with your purpose, which at the end of the day is to be recognized as both a money-making character and a great fighter. Adesanya has proven the latter, and the former is still a work-in-progress that could easily be derailed if he does the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong opponent.

The last thing I want to see is MMA further devolve into a schoolyard mentality, with over-the-top insults justified by calls of “well, he started it!” or “an eye for an eye.” Fight night was supposed to be where feuds ended, not where they became further inflamed by shenanigans that have nothing to do with the fight itself. People pay to watch you fight, they can watch you talk and strut for free, and if you’re not careful they’ll eventually only choose the second of those two options.

So yes, amusing or not, Adesanya absolutely did Costa and his team wrong (and that’s not even mentioning the uncouth manner in which he punched and kicked Costa several times about the face and head region). That isn’t up for debate. Whether his lack of sportsmanship matters one iota in the grand scheme of things is really up to you.

THE BILL COMES DUE

Meshew: Stop what you’re doing, ‘cause I’m about to ruin, the image and the style that AK is trying to say we’re used to.

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Why yes, I did just lead off the “fully in support of Israel Adesanya humping Paulo Costa” section by referencing Digital Underground’s 1990 masterpiece, The Humpty Dance. It seemed topical both because of the title and because of the line where Shock G says “look at me, I’m skinny,” which was a key aspect of Paulo Costa’s trash talk heading into the fight.

(Also, how fitting is it that this discussion comes out on “Hump Day?” Sometimes, the stars just align.)

Speaking of Costa’s trash talk, remember when, for the last year, Costa has said a myriad of things that ranged from dog-whistling homophobic to straight up virulently bigoted? Don’t worry if you don’t, because like Conor McGregor with Dana, we’ve got receipts. There’s this, and this, and this, and how could we forget about this one? Of course, this doesn’t include Costa’s aggressive support of Jair Bolsonaro, who himself is stalwartly homophobic and probably would find these Tweets in support of him by Costa amusing. And then there’s that time Costa “offered” to beat up transgender female fighter Fallon Fox. Man, what a paragon of morality, sportsmanship, and excellence Costa is…

I guess the point I’m making by outlining all of this is, you play dumb games, you win dumb prizes, and as Adesanya succinctly put it, he is smart and Costa is dumb. For a sport where fanbases (and fighters) obsess over the notion of “saying it to my face” and being held accountable for your words, Costa sure is pissed about that very thing happening. And he’s not the only one. There are a number of fans out there who are upset by Adesanya’s actions. But the thing is, I strongly believe that a majority of the people who are upset aren’t upset by the actions themselves, but by the party doing it.

Aside from being one of the five best fighters on Earth, Adesanya happens to be Black. Being exceptional and Black has, historically, been a tough row to hoe in popular culture and sport, and to be blunt, there are a good number of MMA fans who are either overtly racist, or subconsciously prejudiced. Remember when Conor basically did the same thing?

Boxing: Mayweather vs McGregor Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Or how about when Brock Lesnar rode Heath Herring like a bull? Where was the pearl-clutching then?

But I won’t put the backlash to this solely down to latent racism, because not only is Adesanya exceptional, but he’s also completely comfortable in his own skin and seems to enjoy playing with gender norms and stereotypes. Are we really going to pretend like the faux hump Adesanya did is the true genesis of this? Of course not. It’s the hump, plus the fact that two weeks ago, he dyed his hair—my god, the horror!—PINK, and then he said he was going to “c*m all over” Costa’s team. In combination, all of that is a real mindf*ck for people who are constrained to a hyper-masculine paradigm of existence. For those people, Adesanya isn’t just “showing a lack of class,” he’s intentionally emasculating Costa in the most egregious way possible and in total disregard of their world view. “Holy sh*t! If that guy who dyed his hair pink and likes anime can knock out a bodybuilder, perhaps all my notions of masculinity are wrong? What? Now he has humped him? I don’t know how to feel and so, I suppose, I must be angry!”

None of this is to even mention how tame the actual offending action was. From a purely brass tacks standpoint, Adesanya barely humped him! He did a performative active while standing over Costa, literally two times, and then let the referee attend to the guy who was too unconscious to talk sh*t anymore. He basically hit him with the “Degeneration-X Suck It”, without the hand motion. I just feel like there are many more important things to spend our energy on.

There’s one other aspect of this to discuss, though, and that’s those people who genuinely didn’t like the lack of sportsmanship. We’ll call them, The Optimists.

Optimists are wonderful people, and I don’t want to dim the brightness of their internal light but, uh, have you ever watched MMA before? Like, more than in passing? Because I gotta say, if sportsmanship is what you’re after, this may not be the game for you. This is a sport where cheating is literally tolerated (everyone gets at least two groin shots, one eye poke, and five fence grabs before a point is deducted) and fighters are generally rewarded for acting like cartoon villains. Sportsmanship never lived here, and if it did, it was only ever in passing.

“But that’s how it is! We are talking about how it should be!” The Optimists will argue. Well, if I had wheels, I’d be a wagon. But also, is that how it should be? As the one true MMA prophet, Sir Nicholas Diaz explained years ago – this isn’t some karate competition. This is a fist fight, in a cage, for money. Fights are largely sold on the notion that two fighters have scores to settle (this one certainly was) and in the real world, when you fight someone, you aren’t friends right afterward. Now, a good ol’ fist fight does often clear some of the tension, but I don’t know that I’ve ever been in or seen a fight where the winner immediately picked the other guy up and praised him. More often than not, it’s something similar to what Adesanya did. You can be friends later when the guy who loses eats his crow.

And ultimately, I think that’s okay. If you have beef with someone, and you fight and win, you earn a bit of leeway. It wouldn’t be okay to keep punching after the bell, but so long as you don’t cross the line and do something like that or start spewing virulent hate speech, then, as the kids would say, “talk your sh*t.”

Poll

Did Israel Adesanya’s UFC 253 celebration cross the line?

  • 42%
    Yes

    (19 votes)

  • 57%
    No

    (26 votes)

45 votes total Vote Now

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