The upcoming bout between Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov for the Lightweight Championship at UFC 229 on Saturday October 6 is set to be the biggest bout in the promotion’s history. McGregor is back from a near two-year hiatus from MMA following his last fight at UFC 205 in November of 2016. Since then, he has fought once in boxing against Floyd Mayweather in 2017, a fight which did a near-record 4.3 million pay per view buys. Formerly a dual champion at both Featherweight and Lightweight, McGregor has since been stripped of both titles, owing to his inactivity in the UFC Octagon. His return fight, against current champion and undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov promises to be an enthralling contest, for a variety of reasons.
Why is this fight so significant?
Though Conor McGregor is undoubtedly a superstar who has transcended the sport of mixed martial arts, all truly great fighters require a rivalry to take them to the next level. Enter Khabib Nurmagomedov, the 26-0 undefeated phenom and current UFC Lightweight Champion. Such a record is almost unheard of in modern mixed martial arts, which is a significant selling point for this fight of itself. The contrast of styles adds another level of intrigue to this bout. The biggest selling point of this fight for a majority of fans, however, is the escalating rivalry between the two fighters.
The rivalry began in earnest back nearly two years ago at UFC 205, where Conor McGregor attained the Lightweight Championship belt from Eddie Alvarez. Khabib Nurmagomedov also fought on the undercard of this event in a onesided beating of Michael Johnson. The two fighters got into an altercation backstage at the event. The rivalry escalated this past April, where prior to his fight for the Lightweight Championship, Khabib Nurmagomedov confronted Conor McGregor’s teammate, Artem Lobov, about comments Lobov made to Russian media. Following the UFC’s media day the Thursday prior to the fight at the Barclays Centre, Conor McGregor attacked the bus Nurmagomedov and other fighters were on as retaliation. This was the now-infamous ‘dolly incident’ where McGregor threw a dolly through a bus window.
Conor McGregor: From Welfare Recipient to Cultural Icon
The rise of Conor McGregor from being a welfare recipient in Ireland just a few years ago to a household name is one of the more remarkable sporting stories in recent decades. A rags-to-riches story such as McGregor’s is by no means a unique one within combat sports. The manner of McGregor’s rise, as well as the sheer speed of his ascension to the pinnacle of the mixed martial arts landscape, however, is unique within the sport. Nobody has gone from fighting on the regional circuit to breaking pay-per-view records and attaining hundred-million dollar paydays in less than five years.
There have been other fighters, such as the former Light Heavyweight champion Jon Jones, who have attained a championship belt faster than McGregor has. McGregor, while an accomplished fighter in the UFC, does not, at least at this stage, have the resume of other fighters, such as the aforementioned Jones, Georges St-Pierre or Anderson Silva.
None of these fighters, however, have come close, apart from former Bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, of attaining mainstream popularity in the way McGregor has. Being an elite-level fighter is not enough to become a star in the sport. MMA, despite what some of its more hardcore fans claim, is as much about spectacle and theatre as it is about a sporting contest between two competitors in an octagon. The crossover between MMA and pro wrestling is indicative of this. Many fighters in the UFC have also wrestled in the WWE, and vice versa. Apart from this obvious connection, there are some more subtle similarities between the two sports. Though the fights in the UFC are real, there is a blend of sport as well as entertainment in MMA. Those who are able to understand this fact and create a character and a persona, similar to pro wrestlers, stand out from the crowd in the UFC. Conor McGregor has done this better than any other fighter in the history of the company. His flamboyant, charismatic style both in and out of the octagon has won him legions of fans and provided a template for other fighters in the promotion to imitate. Many have since tried to imitate his style of brash fight promotion, to varying, but ultimately lesser degrees of success than McGregor.
McGregor vs Nurmagomedov – fight analysis
In terms of the actual fight, the contrast of styles between McGregor and Nurmagomedov is a compelling one. This fight, on paper, is a classic ‘striker-vs-grappler’ fight, which is somewhat of a rarity at the upper echelons of modern mixed martial arts, where fighters are generally well-rounded in all aspects of the sport. In some ways, a grappling-reliant fighter such as Khabib Nurmagomedov is an ideal opponent for a striker who excels in countering oncoming opponents, as McGregor does. While he is a respectable striker, his understanding of this part of the game, especially its more intricate elements such as distance control and timing, is not in the same league as Conor McGregor. Previous opponents who have come from a grappling background, such as McGregor’s last opponent, Eddie Alvarez, proved no match for McGregor largely for this reason.
McGregor has proven to be vulnerable in the grappling aspect of the game at times, however. His first fight against Nate Diaz is a prime example of this. Considering Nurmagomedov’s grappling credentials as well as his previous fights, it is almost certain that he will take McGregor down to the ground at some point, barring an early knockout by McGregor. Whether McGregor can quickly get back to his feet once this happens or not is critical to his chances of success.
I do not intend to provide a prediction of an outcome for this fight. MMA is a difficult sport to predict at the best of times, owing to the sheer number of variables that arise over the course of a fight. This is even more true of a championship-calibre fight like the one taking place this Saturday. Though McGregor and Nurmagomedov are of course adept in all areas of the game, in their respective disciplines of boxing and sambo, they are among the most skilled in the sport. In championship fights, it is as much tactics and the fighters’ gameplans as it is skill and athleticism that separates victory from defeat. Despite both McGregor and Nurmagomedov heavily leaning toward the striking and grappling aspects of MMA respectively, their success in the sport to date is in part due to their ability to dictate the terms of the fight. In this fight, controlling the terms of the fight is especially important owing to the large disparity in skill levels between the two in their favoured aspect of the fight.
As is the case with every Conor McGregor fight, regardless of whether you love or loathe him as a fighter and character, his fight Saturday is must-watch television for anyone even casually interested in combat sports. He is a rare combination of athletic talent and charismatic entertainer which comes around only a handful of times every generation. For what it’s worth, McGregor has hinted that retirement may not be too far off, as has his opponent Khabib Nurmagomedov. There may not be many more chances to see these exceptional talents compete – their presence should be enjoyed while they are still around.