After all the talk, the fight happens Saturday. But is the lightweight bout between Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov the biggest fight of all time?
UFC 229’s main event between Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov has been building for years. Looking at the match-up, it’s about as classic as it can be. A good striker vs. wrestler match-up that would leave even the earliest of UFC match-ups jealous. But in order to determine if this is the biggest fight of all time, we have to take a closer look at the fighters and where they come from.
Khabib Nurmagomedov, the Dagestani wrestler who has been wrestling since he was a toddler, and has even grappled with bears in his home country of Russia, is undefeated. Having gone on record as being “The Floyd Mayweather of MMA” Khabib is 26-0, looking to become 27-0. Fighting professionally since 2008, Khabib is bred for the sport of Mixed Martial Arts, and has been built by his father to be an absolute wrestling wrecking machine.
‘The Eagle’ joined the UFC in 2012, debuting against Kamal Shalorus and winning by rear-naked-choke. This was just the beginning of Khabib Nurmagomedov and his dominance in the UFC. He would then utterly dominate his next five opponents, with the biggest win being his destruction of Rafael Dos Anjos, who was on a five-fight winning streak at the time. After the fight, Dos Anjos would go on to become UFC lightweight champion.
However following the fight with Dos Anjos, Khabib’s career would take a turn for the worst. Pulling out of three fights over the course of two years, Nurmagomedov was getting injured at every turn. Suffering repeated knee injuries which forced him out of multiple bouts against the likes of Donald Cerrone and Tony Ferguson, the lightweight struggled to make it to the cage. Being out of the sport for essentially two years, a new Irish superstar would rise alongside him.
Debuting only one year after Khabib made his first appearance in the octagon, Conor McGregor’s first showing was a knockout victory over Marcus Brimage in 2013. This was the beginning of one of the best featherweight runs ever seen. McGregor would go on to defeat Max Holloway, who would himself go on to do big things in the UFC. It was the first decision win of McGregor’s career. But after the decision over Holloway, McGregor would then finish his next fight, landing himself a big fight against top-five ranked Dustin Poirer.
Khabib and Conor would see their paths cross early on. At UFC 178, Nurmagomedov was scheduled to fight Donald Cerrone, however he was forced out due to injury. It was the same card at which McGregor faced Poirier. On what could have been Khabib’s night to become a star, Conor McGregor made the headlines instead. Knocking out Dustin Poirer inside of one round, McGregor had arrived.
Soon, the Irish featherweight found himself in a title eliminator against one Dennis Siver, a fight Conor would win with ease in January of 2015. McGregor then found himself matched up with the greatest featherweight of all time. Scheduled for UFC 189, Conor McGregor was set to fight Jose Aldo for the undisputed UFC featherweight championship.
It wouldn’t go as planned. Only two weeks before the fight, Aldo pulled out due to a rib injury and was replaced by Chad Mendes, one of the best wrestlers in the UFC. Many wondered if McGregor would be able to deal with the switch in opponent and deal with the adversity that went along with that. After all, he hasn’t faced a formidable wrestler in the UFC before.
McGregor would then go on to pass the test with flying colors, defeating Mendes via second round stoppage, and capturing the UFC interim featherweight championship in the process. He was then scheduled to face original opponent Jose Aldo at UFC 194, and he did, and showed why he was a generational talent.
Jose Aldo was one of the best champions the sport had ever seen, and had proved his dominance over the featherweight division for ten years. Ten years without a loss, many of those as champion were then wiped away in 13 seconds, as McGregor knocked him out in the first round. Conor McGregor was on top of the world, having defeated some of the sport’s best, and becoming champion in the process.
‘Mystic Mac’ as he’d come to be called almost immediately set his sights elsewhere. McGregor would be scheduled to fight Rafael Dos Anjos at UFC 196 for the UFC lightweight title as he looked to make history as the first man to hold two titles simultaneously in the UFC. However, Dos Anjos would be injured and was replaced by Nate Diaz. He’d stop the McGregor hype train in the second round and kick-start one of the biggest rivalries in UFC history.
Conor McGregor’s rise and fall all happened in the time span that Khabib was on the sidelines. Khabib watched from the bench as a seemingly crazed Irishman became the sport’s biggest star. Khabib would finally come back a month after Conor’s defeat by Diaz, and dominate late replacement Darrel Horcher in April.
The two then both went down paths that led us to UFC 229. Conor McGregor would beat Nate Diaz in a massive rematch that would become the biggest UFC PPV of all time. He then captured the lightweight title at UFC 205 against Eddie Alvarez. It’s worth noting that Khabib was also on this card, and the two had multiple confrontations backstage at the event, most notably being before the weigh-ins.
McGregor then took a leave of absence from the sport of MMA, fighting Floyd Mayweather in Boxing and not returning until UFC 229. Khabib in the meantime dominated Edson Barboza and late replacement Al Iaquinta at UFC 223 to capture the UFC lightweight championship.
But Khabib’s title win was only a small part of UFC 223. The week leading up to the card is what ultimately landed us the main event of UFC 229. Artem Lobov, Conor McGregor’s teammate was confronted by Khabib Nurmagomedov during the week of the fight. Khabib got in his face and gave him a little slap for his troubles. Conor McGregor, being the man that he is, flew in from Ireland with a boatload of teammates and tried to fight Khabib. In a parking garage. Attacking the bus that Nurmagomedov was leaving the arena in.
The FINAL faceoff!
— UFC (@ufc) October 6, 2018
Then, in what became the Dolly throw heard round the world, hurled a moving dolly through the window of the bus. It’s worth noting that this led to McGregor’s arrest, criminal charges, and at least one lawsuit against him. But that one singular event made sure that Khabib vs. McGregor would happen, and be the biggest in UFC history.
When considering whether UFC 229 is the biggest fight in UFC history you have to look at many factors. One of the main ones being that the rivalry between the pair includes perhaps the most intense hatred we’ve ever seen between two fighters. Aside from the likes of Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier, we’ve never seen this level of hatred between two competitors.
We also haven’t seen McGregor fight in MMA in two whole years, and in that timeframe we’ve seen Khabib become a Russian superstar and capture the UFC lightweight strap, the title that McGregor once held, only to be stripped of for not defending it.
Will this fight get three million pay-per-view buys? Not likely. Will it break the record that McGregor-Diaz 2 set? It likely will. But regardless of all that, the path that has led us here has been incredible. Let’s hope the actual fight is as well.