Next Saturday, two-time UFC champion Conor McGregor will return to MMA action for the first time in almost two years, squaring off against undefeated lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Many had doubts over whether the Irishman would return to MMA at all, given the comparative lack of financial reward a return to the UFC could offer, relative to the vast revenue generated by his boxing match against Floyd Mayweather Jr. last year.
Then suddenly, with all the subtlety of a hand-truck being thrown through a bus window, his desire to return to MMA was essentially confirmed.
The attack was believed to be in response to a video that emerged of a confrontation between Nurmagomedov (and his team) and McGregor’s SBG team-mate Artem Lobov. McGregor avoided jail-time for the bus attack after pleading guilty to disorderly conduct in July, though he was ordered to complete five days of community service and enroll in anger management classes.
Nurmagomedov’s fight at UFC 223 did go ahead, but not against his original opponent… or the second-choice… or third… or fourth…
He had been set to face Tony Ferguson, with the winner being crowned the undisputed UFC lightweight champion. McGregor, the reigning undisputed champion at the time, was being stripped of the belt after going 511 days without attempting a first defense of the title- a UFC record.
The UFC were reluctant to strip McGregor before the Nurmagomedov-Ferguson fight took place, given that the match-up had already fallen through three times, so they announced McGregor would lose the belt as soon as the fight began. Unfortunately, history did repeat itself and for the fourth time in four years, the Nurmagomedov-Ferguson pairing was scrapped.
A freak injury had forced Ferguson, the interim lightweight champion at the time, to withdraw just one week before the fight. The UFC brought in featherweight champion Max Holloway as a late-notice replacement until Holloway himself was deemed medically unfit to compete on the day of the weigh-ins.
Now searching for an opponent on 24 hours’ notice, the UFC turned to other fighters competing on the card. They couldn’t agree personal terms with former champion Anthony Pettis, whilst the New York State Athletic Commission denied Paul Felder’s candidacy as he wasn’t ranked in the top fifteen.
It was Al Iaquinta, ranked 11th in the UFC’s lightweight division at the time, who would eventually step in to face Nurmagomedov. Having weighed in that morning at 155.2 lbs. (before learning of Holloway’s withdrawal), Iaquinta had missed the strict 155 lbs. weight limit for a championship fight. This meant Iaquinta was not eligible to win the title, even with a victory.
So both McGregor and Ferguson had their respective titles stripped. Nurmagomedov and Iaquinta would fight with the vacant UFC lightweight title on the line, but only Nurmagomedov could actually claim the title.
And just to make things a little more chaotic, the news of the much-anticipated Nurmagomedov-Ferguson fight being once again canceled broke on April Fools’ Day, so no one believed the initial reports.
From the ashes of all this chaos- potentially the most eventful week in UFC history- rose the prospect of one of the biggest fights in UFC history, two elite-level fighters with diametrically opposed skill-sets and a great deal of animosity.
Remarks made by McGregor during last week’s press conference regarding Nurmagomedov’s ties to the incarcerated Ziyavudin Magomedov, as well as the background of his manager Ali Abdelaziz, have only exacerbated the bad blood between the two men.
These allegations cut through the noise in an otherwise clumsy presser. Like his fighting, McGregor’s trash-talk is best when he’s countering. His most memorable lines have been calm, measured, witty retorts delivered in a cool, composed manner. Going on the offensive with a wild, aggressive tirade, like we saw at times last week, does not necessarily play to his strengths.
Whilst the whiskey-laden rants and juvenile imitations may not serve to best promote McGregor’s wit, they do help deliver the impression of recklessness. McGregor has spoken in the past about cultivating this chaotic persona, once telling long-time coach John Kavanagh, ‘the illusion of insanity is over, now it’s time for the game plan.’
Once in the cage, McGregor is calm. The Octagon lies inside the eye of the storm and amidst the swirling chaos McGregor finds a level of in-cage composure unmatched by most.
It’s truly remarkable, the juxtaposition between McGregor’s persona inside and outside of the cage. But will composure be enough to blemish the premier undefeated record in professional MMA today?
Whatever the outcome of this fight, the same questions will emerge regarding McGregor’s future in the sport. Would he attempt to defend a belt for the first time in his career? Would he still have the desire to rebound from a defeat? Has he outgrown the UFC? Will his head be turned by another venture? Boxing? Hollywood?
Whilst his next move, as far as his career’s concerned, looks foggy, the outcome of the bout itself is likely to be as clear as day.
Nurmagomedov will win every moment of the grappling exchanges in this fight. Conversely, McGregor will win the fight for as long as it remains standing. The outcome will depend entirely on which man can dictate where the fight takes place.
It’s hard to envisage a tight, back-and-forth, five-round, fight-of-the-year candidate stemming from two opponents who are so distinctly opposed in their skill-sets. The huge disparity between each man’s strengths and the other’s weaknesses is plain to see.
The insanity isn’t quite over yet- there’ll be more of that to come during fight week- but underneath all this chaos, we have a simple fight.
UFC 229: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor takes place at the T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas on Saturday October 6th.