Fighters beating each other silly and exchanging pleasantries afterward is a humanizing paradox of MMA. It was a talking point for the sport's defense during darker days, and even today it's a reminder that the most savage outcomes are framed by the constraints of organized competition. Just because you wrenched someone's arm until you heard connective tissue tear doesn't mean you can't be gracious afterward.
Of course, there's a long tradition of famous fighters mocking their fallen foes, too, like when Tank Abbott knocked out John Matua and ridiculed his stiffened arms at UFC 6. Or when Brock Lesnar got in Frank Mir's face right just after he’d turned it into a horror movie at UFC 100. Or when Ronda Rousey knocked out Bethe Correia last summer and said, "don’t cry," parroting what Correia told her in a pre-fight stare down. If you want to become an abrasive character that people love to hate and love to pay money to watch, gloating while your opponent tries to regain consciousness does a lot of the legwork.
It's hard to say whether Michael Johnson fits in their company. In the main event of this past weekend's UFC Fight Night 94 in Hidalgo, Texas, Johnson fought fellow 155-pounder Dustin Poirier and the bout ended with Johnson toppling Poirier with a right cross and left hook, then landing unanswered punches on his supine, unconscious opponent until referee Dan Miragliotta stopped the fight at 1:35 of the first round, losing a shoe along the way. After briefly visiting his corner, Johnson walked back to Poirier—still on the mat, officials tending to him—and made weird gestures with his arms like a wizard or something, then seemed to say, "Fuck you." Returning to his corner again, Johnson said, "Fuck him."
Being a jerk to the people you just beat up isn't the same order of post-fight taboo as talking about your injuries after you lose, but it's not far off. To Johnson's credit, he bro-hugged Poirier in the cage, and he briefly apologized on the Fox Sports 1 broadcast. Later on, he explained why he lost his cool.
"I've known Dustin for a while and we’ve crossed paths, and I felt really disrespected to hear what he was saying about me in press and in interviews," Johnson said. "He said I walked out like I was a big shot and he said I was nothing and this and that, and that rubbed me the wrong way because I've been showing him the utmost respect in all my interviews and everything. That right there was a proven point and he should have respected me more…I said some things after I knocked him out and I went over and apologized to him. I'm better than that. Like I said, it was an emotional thing. I like Dustin and he's a good guy. I was wrong for saying what I did afterwards, I'm getting the chills right now. All is said and done, it was a great performance by me, and I hope we can be cool in the future."
There are turns of phrase there that cast doubt on how heartfelt Johnson's apology was, but it still gets to the core of why he made such a public lapse in etiquette: he was fighting an opponent from a rival South Florida gym and entered the cage with sound bites of preceding weeks reverberating in his ears. With the promotional premium placed on trash talking, being rude to your opponent means that more people might become invested in watching you fight. The fight itself becomes an emotional release, especially when it ends as emphatically as Johnson-Poirier did. But when it's all over in 95 seconds instead of 15 or 25 minutes, those emotions haven't burned out. They linger. They need someplace to go. Packing them up into petty taunts is tacky, but it's also convenient given the time and place.
And while it's easy to feel sanctimonious about watching sore winners curse out their vanquished foes, it's hard for those feelings to last. That's because of the nature of the sport itself: even a fight between the most manners-conscious competitors still ends with the winner having done worse things to the loser than saying something mean. Johnson's perfunctory apology to Poirier doesn’t wipe away his mistake. But to become 2016's answer to Tank Abbott, he'd need to do a lot worse.
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