clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

When the Champion Is a Contender

At UFC 229, Khabib Nurmagomedov is set to have the biggest fight of his career against Conor McGregor, who’s a much bigger star than he is. Khabib is OK with that.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s nothing the UFC loves more than when a fight spills over into the realm of public interest, which is exactly what Saturday’s lightweight title fight between Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov has done. And when the larger public tunes in for a cage fight, the predictions tend to become even more predictable: Everyone believes the guy they’ve actually heard of will win the fight.

In this case, that’s McGregor, the infamous Irish phenom who has been on the cover of GQ magazine, was listed in the top five of Forbes’ highest-paid athletes in 2018, just dropped his own clothing line of Irish whiskey, and cashed in $100 million in 2017 for a boxing match against Floyd Mayweather. As a two-division champion who never lost his titles — he had them taken from his waist during his two-year hiatus from the UFC — McGregor is the face of the franchise. He is MMA. From an outsider’s perspective, he probably looks invincible.

“You know why? Because not many people understand MMA,” Nurmagomedov told me today with a thick Russian accent, when I asked him about this phenomena. “In 100 people, maybe 10 people understand MMA. A lot of people, they think, ‘Oh Conor? He can beat anybody. Heavyweights? Doesn’t matter.’ Because he has a big name they think he can beat anybody.”

Here Nurmagomedov fixes his brown eyes to some place in the cold distance.

“This is not true. If you talk to guys who understand MMA, they’re going to say, ‘Of course Conor has a chance, maybe first round or beginning of second round,’ but that’s it. What’s he going to do if I take him down? If I crush him? People are going to say that this is an easy fight for me.”

For anybody who has paid close attention to how the UFC operates — and has watched Nurmagomedov incinerate one fighter after the next — there is a feeling that UFC 229 will bring a twist. Nurmagomedov, who some people (including McGregor) think has been merely holding the title until McGregor’s return, has spent the last two years waiting for the opportunity to obliterate MMA’s biggest icon. The quest for victory is a paradox; forget looking — defeating McGregor would be literally punching a gift horse in the mouth.

Saturday’s main event might be the biggest UFC fight of all time, but it won’t be because of Khabib’s unblemished record (26-0) or his abilities in the cage. He wouldn’t have the payday he’s about to receive without McGregor. If Nurmagomedov were fighting Tony Ferguson, in what would be a super-compelling fight by the UFC’s usual standards, people would be wondering whether the fight could get to 500,000 pay-per-view buys. UFC president Dana White has floated the staggering number of 3 million PPV buys for Saturday’s fight. Everything that Nurmagomedov has worked for as a prizefighter is being realized this weekend because Conor happens to be on the other side of him.

Still, Nurmagomedov is carrying himself through the biggest fight week of his career like it’s his destiny to end tyranny, not to deliver a blow to the sport itself. He’s carrying himself, well, like a champion.

“I think about it, but I deserve this,” he told The Ringer after Wednesday’s open workouts. “[I’ve worked] since I was a kid, training every day, 25 years inside a gym. Now I am here a couple of days before the biggest fight in UFC history. If you keep winning, defending your belt, of course it’s going to be like this. Attention [comes]. Friends come. Money [comes]. Of course.”

The moment does not seem too big for Nurmagomedov. He taunted the mostly Irish gathering at his workouts and listened to every explanation of why he’ll come up short against McGregor. The most popular idea is that he won’t be able to survive McGregor’s deadly left hand, the one that smoked Jose Aldo back at UFC 194. Aldo, like Nurmagomedov, had an understated greatness to him heading into that fight, riding a decadelong winning streak. And still, McGregor ended the fight in 13 seconds, needing just one strike to collapse one of MMA’s rare titans.

Since then, McGregor’s legend has bloomed in more ways than one. The term “Mystic Mac” became a thing because McGregor called his shot against Aldo. He claimed he would be a two-division champion and accomplished that feat against Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 back in 2016. He said he would take on Floyd Mayweather in the boxing ring, which drew loud harrumphs from both sides of the MMA/boxing ledger, and he ended up doing it.

Officially, McGregor lost to Mayweather, but Conor has been flying on private planes ever since and dressing in tailored suits with the words “fuck you” making up the pinstripes. In other words, he didn’t really lose, and he never really does. That’s why in Las Vegas, when McGregor says that Nurmagomedov has a glass jaw, the fans tend to believe him, even though it doesn’t seem to be true. He says he will knock Nurmagomedov out, perhaps as early as the second round. And with every McGregor proclamation, the betting line tends to shrink. McGregor was at +190 just last week. This week he is at +130. By the time they touch gloves, he will very likely be a slight favorite. When McGregor’s the underdog, the line moves with the same nimbleness that he does in the octagon.

The thing is, McGregor almost always lives up to billing. His only loss in the UFC since debuting in 2013 was a late-notice, makeshift affair at welterweight against Nate Diaz, a loss he avenged at the same arbitrary weight after a full training camp at UFC 202. He is one of the few fighters — along with Ronda Rousey, Brock Lesnar, and to a lesser extent, Jon Jones — whom a casual MMA fan will pay a premium to see. McGregor is, in the gambling sense, a winner. He’s also a fun-loving caricature and a pop culture wonder who is telling the world with every breath he takes to seize the day.

You know it’s a mega-fight when faith begins to take the place of logic. Nurmagomedov has never been an underdog in a fight, and frankly, the odds shouldn’t be as close as they are here. He takes people down at will and crashes his elbows into temples. He took a normally sturdy Abel Trujillo down a record 21 times in a three-round fight. He treated Edson Barboza as a grappling dummy, flinging him about while conversing with Dana White right in the middle of the action. Everybody who pays attention can see that he is a steamroller of a fighter, yet the general feeling is that McGregor will prevail.

Nurmagomedov has been clear about what he wants to do from the moment the fight was made: He wants to take it all away from McGregor. He doesn’t want to beat McGregor; he wants to humiliate him. He wants this all to be his story. He has said that by fight’s end, the fans — even the ones from Ireland — will have come around to him. When Chris Weidman took out longtime middleweight champion Anderson Silva the first time at UFC 162, there was a backlash. He was an icon killer. He was Larry Holmes taking whatever was left of Muhammad Ali’s magic, or Brock Lesnar demolishing the Undertaker at WrestleMania 30.

Beating the icon doesn’t always make you one, but Nurmagomedov said he’s not overly worried about that. “It’s going into a tough challenge,” he says. “But I love this, because maybe you’re going to lose, maybe you’re going to win. This is how I compete since I was a kid, all the way through my professional career. I love this. I love competition. People come here and they support this guy. That’s OK. I’m good about this.”

Even as he’s saying this, you can hear the fans breaking into another chant for Conor McGregor in the arena. Nurmagomedov can hear it too. He produces a rare smile. He knows that the best-case scenario for him is to disappoint a lot of people.

“I cannot block this out, because everybody’s talking about this fight,” he says. “I can’t block this. You go [to the] internet, everywhere, pictures, video, somebody talking about this fight. I’m ready for this, and I understand. This is the biggest fight in UFC history, and that’s why everybody [is thinking] about this fight. And I’m good about this.”