How big is Saturday night’s lightweight title fight between Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov? How much does it mean for the UFC to have a grand slam of a pay-per-view after so many quiet ones barely registered on the “event” scale? How desperate is the promotion just to see the two principals walk to the cage on fight night, with very literal intent of doing each other harm?
The answers: (a) colossally huge, (b) it means everything, and (c) at this point UFC president Dana White is like George Bailey screaming “I want to live again!” in It’s a Wonderful Life. He’s as excited as he is desperate.
For much of this year the drama surrounding a given UFC event has tended more toward doom, usually because nobody’s ever quite sure who’s going to show up to the octagon on fight night. The very first UFC show of 2018 took place in St. Louis and was supposed to feature a welterweight bout between Zak Cummings and Thiago Alves, but the fight was scrapped when Cummings slipped in his bathroom two days before the bout and cracked his skull. On that same card, Uriah Hall—trying to slim down to 185 pounds for a fight with Vitor Belfort—was forced off the card after he suffered a “slight heart attack” during his cut.
Bizarre? Not in the UFC, where Murphy’s law is the only law. According to MMA Junkie’s resident statistician, Mike Bohn, who has compiled a list of all the fights that have fallen apart for one reason or another, 21 main and co-main events have been altered, postponed or otherwise canceled so far in 2018. Twenty-one big-billed fights. The UFC’s luck hasn’t been bad, it’s been tragic.
Perhaps none of these last-minute fallouts was more perplexing than Tony Ferguson’s back in April. He was supposed to defend his then-interim lightweight title against Nurmagomedov in the main event at UFC 223 in a possible prelude to a fight with McGregor, but he didn’t even make it to Brooklyn. After filming a hype segment for the fight at Fox studios in Los Angeles a week beforehand, Ferguson—and I assure you, I am not making this up—tripped over some production cables in the back and trashed his knee. UFC replaced him with Max Holloway, who never made it to the scale because the severity of his weight cut was too much on short notice. And so Holloway was replaced with Al Iaquinta, a native New Yorker who ended up getting ceremoniously abused for five long rounds against Nurmagomedov.
All of this ties into Saturday’s epic McGregor-Nurmagomedov fight, and not just because of Khabib’s record. It was a backstage brawl that stole headlines that weekend and ultimately set up UFC 229’s main event. Here’s a very MMA headline in 2018: The backstory to the single biggest fight in UFC history is a dolly. Nurmagomedov had a minor hallway faceoff with a fighter named Artem Lobov in the week leading up to UFC 223. Thing was, Lobov was McGregor’s training partner, and so McGregor took a private plane to New York from Ireland to confront the Dagestani menace. But rather than confront Nurmagomedov directly, McGregor and his band of wildlings attacked the bus he was on after a media day had just wrapped up. McGregor picked up a hand truck and tried to launch it through the bus’s tinted window, assuming that Nurmagomedov was somewhere therein.
The shattered glass rained down on multiple fighters sitting onboard, including Michael Chiesa and the flyweight Ray Borg, each of whom had to withdraw from their respective fights with injuries (more fluky last-minute cancellations). McGregor was arrested and charged with criminal mischief and assault and is subsequently being sued by Chiesa, and Dana White called the episode the most disgusting thing he’d ever seen. How disgusting was it? So disgusting that the footage of McGregor’s attack—from multiple artistic angles—became the lead material for all the UFC 229 promo videos.
Where some might see bad taste, the UFC sees bad blood. When asked about using the footage to sell the fight, White said it was part of the story—why would the UFC omit the single most appalling (read: sellable) chapter in the history of the rivalry?
And that’s how we got to McGregor versus Nurmagomedov, a fight that’s been festering for the two years since McGregor last fought in the UFC. His hiatus was broken up by a Get Rich Quick Scheme of a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather last August, but from the UFC’s perspective it’s been more like a time of famine. With no McGregor to lean on—and with Ronda Rousey joining Brock Lesnar in the WWE, and Jon Jones serving a 15-month suspension for using a banned substance—the company has suffered. Last month’s UFC 228 pay-per-view featuring a welterweight title fight between Tyron Woodley and Darren Till did somewhere in the vicinity of 150,000 PPV buys. UFC 227, which was anchored to a bantamweight title fight between Cody Garbrandt and T.J. Dillashaw, did around 300,000.
By comparison, White said ahead of the first press conference at Radio City Music Hall on Sept. 20 that McGregor-Nurmagomedov is trending toward 2.5 million buys, which would shatter the previous record of 1.65 million that McGregor did for his rematch with Nate Diaz at UFC 202. You can see why the UFC is desperate for a McGregor return. If you added up all the buys of UFC PPVs in 2018, beginning with UFC 220 in January, you wouldn’t come near 2.5 million buys.
In the UFC, there are ordinary events featuring great fighters, and there are the game-changing events that McGregor puts on—the kind that can’t help but boost faith in MMA as a sport, and a media property, in the eyes of interested parties. Parties like Endeavor (formerly WME-IMG), which dished out $4 billion to purchase the UFC from the Fertitta brothers back in 2016, and ESPN, which just entered into a five-year deal with the UFC that kicks off at the beginning of 2019. With Jones now cleared for his latest comeback, and Lesnar re-entering the USADA testing pool so that he can challenge Daniel Cormier for the heavyweight title, McGregor may merely be the first color returning to the UFC’s cheeks—no matter what you think about leaning on stars of older vintage.
McGregor challenging for Nurmagomedov’s belt checks all the boxes for an Historic Event, on par with nothing that’s ever happened in UFC history. The last time we saw McGregor in a UFC fight was when he won his second title—the lightweight belt—from Alvarez in New York. He became the UFC’s first dual-division champion, and he never lost either title, in large part because he never defended them. He was eventually stripped of each title to keep the divisions running while he moonlighted in the boxing ring. One of the beneficiaries of him being stripped was Nurmagomedov, who became the “undisputed” lightweight champion by beating a fringe top-10 guy in Iaquinta. If there is a subtext to this fight, it’s this: McGregor is coming back to take what is rightly his. (He brought both of his title belts to the press conference to underscore the point.)
Then again, from an insider perspective and from a style standpoint, Nurmagomedov is a brutal force of nature, a dominant, nihilistic, cold-blooded grappler who isn’t just 26-0 overall as a pro fighter, but through 10 UFC fights is 29-0 in rounds. Nurmagomedov has never lost a single round. He presents every possible danger to McGregor. If he takes the fight to the ground, he has the opportunity to bounce McGregor’s head off the Proper No. 12 logo—yes, McGregor’s new Irish whiskey is an official sponsor of the UFC—that is decorating the canvas. McGregor’s a sublime striker who turned Jose Aldo’s lights out with a single punch, but his greatest kryptonite is wrestling. Unless McGregor has been training submissions from guard for the past two years, if Nurmagomedov is able to dump him on his back he can effectively nullify every possible danger zone, and turn a massively compelling fight into a rout.
The idea that McGregor may lose and lose brutally is part of the PPV bang for the buck. One of the most essential ingredients to the UFC’s success over the past 25 years is that it endangers its icons—it puts its champions in harm’s way, and dares legacies to be humiliated. That idea is compelling in the case of McGregor, who has achieved unprecedented heights in MMA. The thought of him being smashed to smithereens in his prime—while still wearing a sheen of invincibility to the casual audience—is jarring. And incredibly alluring.
Yet so is the even more lively idea that Mystic Mac, returning after two years away—a hero to his country, a savior to the sport—shows up and not only gives Nurmagomedov his first loss, but embarrasses him with his left hand. McGregor has vowed to dismantle Nurmagomedov’s “glass jaw,” and retake the lightweight title that he never lost to begin with. Should McGregor do that, he may well demand more than logo placement in the octagon—he may demand that coveted ownership stake in the UFC that he asked for back when he beat Alvarez at Madison Square Garden.
It’s the biggest fight in UFC history because it sets the greatest draw in UFC history against a seemingly unbeatable force. It’s the biggest fight because of how much MMA has missed McGregor, the charismatic money-magnet who is literally in a league of his own as a self-promoter, and who is already working his way into Nurmagomedov’s psyche. It’s the biggest fight in UFC history because it is a promise that MMA isn’t dead or dying or even necessarily hurting, not when McGregor alone can generate so much interest. McGregor reflects the potential of the sport itself, and the UFC can’t help but bask in that priceless fact.
If there’s an even deeper subtext of getting McGregor back in the fourth quarter of an otherwise tumultuous year in the UFC, it’s that he always shows up. Despite his two-year absence, McGregor has never backed out of a fight that he’s accepted, and—given his obsessive mind-set once locked into a date—it’s doubtful he ever will. When opponents have fallen out of fights against him, he rolls with the punches and fights whoever the UFC puts in there against him. Jose Aldo became Chad Mendes at UFC 189 after an injury, and Rafael dos Anjos became Nate Diaz before UFC 196. McGregor didn’t bat an eye. Cole Miller was supposed to fight McGregor in Dublin, but became Diego Brandão. Andy Ogle was set to face McGregor in Boston, and was replaced with Holloway.
McGregor accepted every opponent switch, and—aside from losing to Diaz the first time through—flourished anyway. (One could argue he flourished because of the Diaz loss too.) No matter how erratic he seems outside the octagon, McGregor is a sure thing in every sense. Nurmagomedov? He’s another story. He has a small history of missing weight, and pulling out of fights. He is the kind of wild card the UFC is used to dealing in, the potential threat to throw the best intentions into shambles before Saturday night. In other words, he’s mortal in the business sense.
But so long as McGregor is there, the UFC is in good hands. One Irishman is all that’s needed to put aside nine months of mediocrity, and to feel vital once again. Not too many fighters carry that kind of magnitude to the cage, but McGregor can—and on Saturday night, he’ll fight with reckless abandon and with the weight of the whole sport on his shoulders, because that’s exactly how he likes it.