When asked how much he’d make on his first fight back in the octagon at Thursday’s UFC 229 press conference, Conor McGregor looked up at UFC president Dana White as if to gain approval before answering. White must have given him the green light, because McGregor adjusted himself in his seat like the gravity in the room was shifting.
“We’re estimating around 3 to 3.5 million [pay-per-view buys]. I’d say I’ll close in around the $50 million mark,” he said, almost casually. “So, for a mixed martial artist to make $50 million from a mixed martial arts bout, it’s quite breathtaking.”
Let’s face it, McGregor was never not going to boast of the biggest payday in UFC history, which he’ll achieve for his lightweight title fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov on Saturday. And “breathtaking” is a good word for the payout, especially given that his rough estimate is seven times more that Georges St-Pierre made in his disclosed money during his 15-year career. Of course, St-Pierre has earned much more in undisclosed money and PPV points, but it’s doubtful that—even if you added up all 13 of the PPV events he headlined since 2004—that his earnings would approach $50 million total. This is one of the reasons why most of the UFC roster stares in awe of Conor McGregor and wants to emulate his every move, while at the same time cursing him mightily under their breath.
“I have to thank my management stable, Paradigm Sports Management,” McGregor continued. “I’ve got to thank Dana White. I’ve got to thank Lorenzo Fertitta and Frank (Fertitta), who schooled me in the game. And the new owners … W–what’s the name? … WME-IMG? Those guys as well. I haven’t really met them that much, but they’ve been good to me so far— Ari [Emanuel] and those guys. Life is good.”
It’s good to be king, and to be cast as a savior. McGregor is coming back from two years away to face the undefeated Nurmagomedov, a powerful human being who likes to reduce his opponents to rubble using his ground game (you can read about him here). At one point in time White said that nobody in their right mind would want to face Nurmagomedov, who, in his youth back in Dagestan, wrestled a bear. McGregor took advantage of the moment to build a mega-fight that would coincide the release of his new Proper No. Twelve whiskey line. McGregor also signed a new deal with Reebok for north of $5 million. When somebody asked him how long it would take until he becomes a billionaire, McGregor, 30, all but took out his fingers to do that math.
“I’m 30 years of age. … I’d say by 35,” he said.
McGregor’s come a long way from being the Irish kid who knocked out Marcus Brimage in his UFC debut just four and a half years ago and declared afterward, “This is the best moment (of my career) so far. I didn’t have money before this. I was collecting €188-a-week off the social welfare, and now here I am with a 60 G’s bonus and then my own pay.”
Who said it doesn’t pay to be a fighter? Here’s a look at UFC 229, beginning with all the beautiful nuance to be found in the historic main event.
Round 1: There’s a Lot Going on Between Conor and Khabib
The lead-up to this mega-fight has been strange, in that the two principals have barely been spotted in the same room together since the bout began to take shape. There was the dolly incident in April, when McGregor showed up to Brooklyn ready to confront Nurmagomedov for getting in the face of his training partner, Artem Lobov. But that spectacle just pitted Conor against a bus. They never really crossed paths. Nurmagomedov showed up right on time, spoke for 15 minutes, then bolted. Ten minutes later, McGregor arrived, did his thing, and posed for the media alone.
The only time McGregor and Khabib had appeared together heading into Friday’s weigh-in was in New York two weeks ago, at an empty, cathedral-quiet Radio City Music Hall. The UFC kept multiple police officers on the stage just in case anything went sideways. McGregor hammered Nurmagomedov for his politics, for his disloyalty to his country, for his glass jaw, and for having Ali Abdelaziz—a “fucking snitch terrorist rat”—for a manager.
As odd as it’s been essentially keeping Nurmagomedov and McGregor apart before letting them loose Saturday, White (and McGregor) keeps projecting the PPV buys for UFC 229 at higher and higher numbers. Two weeks ago, White suggested that there would be 2.5 million buys, which would be nearly a million more than the record-holding event between McGregor and Nate Diaz at UFC 202. Early this week, White tossed out an estimate of 3 million buys, which began to feel like drunken optimism. That is, until McGregor garnished that at Thursday’s press conference by projecting 3.5 million buys.
Either White and McGregor have adopted boxing’s sense of outrageous hyperbole, or they know something that we don’t. There hasn’t been a world tour to harness the bad blood and interest, like there was for McGregor and Floyd Mayweather last year. Yet there is enough “bigness” in the air for the fight to fester in the imaginations of fans.
Here’s everything you need to know about this fight: If scientists were to create a killing machine whose every strength was modified to exploit McGregor’s greatest weaknesses, it would be Nurmagomedov. Having competed in sambo and submission grappling his whole life, he wants to take people down and go berserk for as long as it takes for the referee to have mercy. He has dominated everyone he has faced thus far in his career.
Wrestling also happens to be McGregor’s area of deficiency. Chad Mendes controlled McGregor at UFC 189 for nearly two rounds using a dogged wrestling approach, yet ran out of steam near the end of the second. McGregor needed only an inch of space to turn the tables. As soon as McGregor was on his feet, he pieced up Mendes for a TKO victory.
And that’s because McGregor can dig deeper than anybody in MMA. In the second Diaz fight, when the volume punches began to take a toll, McGregor found it in him to kick into another gear. As a precision striker with nearly flawless timing, he is a sniper of the highest order. One false step and he finds his opponent’s chin. He knocked out José Aldo with a perfectly sequenced left, and bewitched Eddie Alvarez by controlling distance. If McGregor keeps Nurmagomedov at the outermost end of his punches, It’ll be McGregor’s fight.
Just as wrestling is McGregor’s weakness, striking is Nurmagomedov’s. This fight will be determined by the execution of their strengths. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Round 2: Tony Ferguson Is Pissed, and Anthony Pettis Is Back
This lightweight co-main event operates on different levels of fascination. For starters, Anthony Pettis—the sport’s version of Dominique Wilkins, a barefoot human highlight film—looked like he got back some of the mojo that landed him on the Wheaties box in 2014. He tapped submission artist Michael Chiesa in July, which proved that even though he is hailed almost exclusively as a dynamic striker, he is also a grappling wizard. Taking on a wiry pressure fighter like Tony Ferguson is a story with a million plots.
But Ferguson is the real marquee name here, and he has a chip on his shoulder. Ferguson won the interim lightweight title last October against Kevin Lee and was set to defend that title against Nurmagomedov in April at UFC 223. Bad luck struck him down, though. Ferguson hurt his knee a week before the Nurmagomedov bout and was forced to withdraw, subsequently being stripped of his title. Five months after having knee surgery, Ferguson’s back, and it’s no coincidence that he’s on the same card as Nurmagomedov-McGregor. Ferguson is essentially an understudy, ready to step in and fight Nurmagomedov or McGregor if one of them hadn’t made weight.
The stakes of this fight are simple. If Ferguson beats Pettis to extend his streak to an astounding 11 wins in a row, he’ll be in the pole position to challenge the winner of Nurmagomedov-McGregor. No matter whom that might be, there will be footnotes to sift through. Ferguson has been slated to fight Nurmagomedov on four separate occasions, only to watch the matchup fall through four times. Will the UFC consider booking it a fourth time, given how snakebitten it’s been?
And if McGregor beats Nurmagomedov, it’ll be almost impossible to hold him to a linear trajectory. There will be fights all over the place for him, including (but not limited to): a bout with Georges St-Pierre; a middleweight, just-for-shits-and-giggles bout with Anderson Silva; a welterweight title fight against Tyron Woodley; the trilogy fight with Nate Diaz; and—if McGregor has his druthers—a justice-serving fight with Ali Abdelaziz. (In other words, the stakes are clear for Ferguson, at least to him, but he might want to piss off McGregor on the microphone if he beats Pettis. It’s up to Ferguson to sell himself as the next challenger.)
Round 3: Two of the Hottest Heavyweights Clash
It is nearly impossible to win 11 out of 14 fights in the UFC’s heavyweight division, but that’s what Derrick Lewis has done. He is a ruthless, anvil-fisted, face-cracking menace in the cage, and not many people survive with him long enough to hear the scorecards. If he is able to obliterate the 6-foot-7 Alexander Volkov—who himself has won six straight, including a knockout of former champion Fabricio Werdum in his last fight—he will be right at the front of the line for a title shot.
The same goes for Volkov, though the UFC may be a little more patient with him, given that he’s appeared with the promotion in the States only once: in Kansas City last April, when he and Roy Nelson engaged in a colossal dud.
As with all heavyweight fights, there’s a good chance that Lewis-Volkov won’t extend past the first round. With Brock Lesnar tentatively set to challenge Daniel Cormier for the heavyweight title, the winner here is either trying to become an emphatic Plan B or setting themselves up for a big fight somewhere off in the gloaming. Either way, this one will be fireworks.
Round 4: Dominick Reyes Looks to Keep It Going Against Ovince Saint Preux
Since debuting in the UFC in June 2017, Reyes has gone a cool 3-0 with three first-round finishes. He needed fewer than 30 seconds to take out Joachim Christensen in his first fight (TKO), choked out Jeremy Kimball in his second (rear-naked choke), and blasted Jared Cannonier in his third (TKO). Impressive stuff. This fight against the hard-thumping stalwart Saint Preux is a kind of heat check, just to see how good the 6-foot-4 “Devastator” really is.
Yet, how remarkable Reyes has been early in his UFC career is almost secondary to the larger thing he represents: Reyes is new blood in the UFC’s light heavyweight division, which has needed new blood for the last decade. When Jon Jones arrived a decade ago, he was cleaning out an oldies circuit of names—names like Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Quinton Jackson (now in Bellator), Rashad Evans (now retired), and Lyoto Machida (now 40). Even in Jones’s time away serving suspensions, the cupboards haven’t exactly replenished at 205 pounds. Once a glamour division that had Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, and Randy Couture all roaming the ranks, it has dried up to become the UFC’s most decrepit division; it’s like the once-thriving Salton Sea, which now just stinks of dead fish.
Anyway, Reyes is the UFC’s hope to change all that.
Round 5: The Best of the Rest
Michelle Waterson vs. Felice Herrig—This is a great strawweight fight to kick off the PPV, featuring a pair of fighters the UFC has hoped to build into stars. Coming off a split-decision victory over Cortney Casey, Waterson has the potential to break out here. She fights like a banshee, but has a deceptively sweet demeanor. Meanwhile, Herrig—the original star of The Ultimate Fighter 20—is looking for her first finish since submitting Kailin Curran in 2016. This one is booked to kick off the pay-per-view portion because it promises action.
Lina Lansberg vs. Yana Kunitskaya—Just as UFC 230 in November will pit Conor McGregor conquests Nate Diaz and Dustin Poirier against one another, so does UFC 229 have a match where the principals share an ass-whooping in common. Both Kunitskaya and Lansberg have stood in against the ferocious featherweight champion Cris Cyborg, and both somehow retained their teeth. For Kunitskaya, this is a far better fight to showcase her skills than the debut with Cyborg, and given Lansberg’s willingness to trade, this bout could be a dark horse for Fight of the Night.
Gray Maynard vs. Nik Lentz—The clock has been ticking for the 39-year-old Maynard, who has been around since logging a memorable double-KO against Rob Emerson in 2007. A bulldog of a wrestler who fell in love with boxing, Maynard has gone 3-6-1 in his last 10 fights dating back to his title shot against then lightweight champion Frankie Edgar. Lentz is a tough old blade in the division, a guy who is guaranteed to take a little blood from whoever the UFC puts in there against him. He’s not the most exciting fighter, but he grinds away. If Maynard has plans of continuing his career, he might need to drag an exciting fight out of Lentz—either that, or knock him out cold.