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Return of the Notorious Conor McGregor

Return of the Notorious Conor McGregor

The upcoming bout between Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov for the Lightweight Championship at UFC 229 on Saturday October 6 is set to be the biggest bout in the promotion’s history. McGregor is back from a near two-year hiatus from MMA following his last fight at UFC 205 in November of 2016. Since then, he has fought once in boxing against Floyd Mayweather in 2017, a fight which did a near-record 4.3 million pay per view buys. Formerly a dual champion at both Featherweight and Lightweight, McGregor has since been stripped of both titles, owing to his inactivity in the UFC Octagon. His return fight, against current champion and undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov promises to be an enthralling contest, for a variety of reasons.

Why is this fight so significant?

Though Conor McGregor is undoubtedly a superstar who has transcended the sport of mixed martial arts, all truly great fighters require a rivalry to take them to the next level. Enter Khabib Nurmagomedov, the 26-0 undefeated phenom and current UFC Lightweight Champion. Such a record is almost unheard of in modern mixed martial arts, which is a significant selling point for this fight of itself. The contrast of styles adds another level of intrigue to this bout. The biggest selling point of this fight for a majority of fans, however, is the escalating rivalry between the two fighters.

The rivalry began in earnest back nearly two years ago at UFC 205, where Conor McGregor attained the Lightweight Championship belt from Eddie Alvarez. Khabib Nurmagomedov also fought on the undercard of this event in a onesided beating of Michael Johnson. The two fighters got into an altercation backstage at the event. The rivalry escalated this past April, where prior to his fight for the Lightweight Championship, Khabib Nurmagomedov confronted Conor McGregor’s teammate, Artem Lobov, about comments Lobov made to Russian media. Following the UFC’s media day the Thursday prior to the fight at the Barclays Centre, Conor McGregor attacked the bus Nurmagomedov and other fighters were on as retaliation. This was the now-infamous ‘dolly incident’ where McGregor threw a dolly through a bus window.

Conor McGregor: From Welfare Recipient to Cultural Icon

The rise of Conor McGregor from being a welfare recipient in Ireland just a few years ago to a household name is one of the more remarkable sporting stories in recent decades. A rags-to-riches story such as McGregor’s is by no means a unique one within combat sports. The manner of McGregor’s rise, as well as the sheer speed of his ascension to the pinnacle of the mixed martial arts landscape, however, is unique within the sport. Nobody has gone from fighting on the regional circuit to breaking pay-per-view records and attaining hundred-million dollar paydays in less than five years.

There have been other fighters, such as the former Light Heavyweight champion Jon Jones, who have attained a championship belt faster than McGregor has. McGregor, while an accomplished fighter in the UFC, does not, at least at this stage, have the resume of other fighters, such as the aforementioned Jones, Georges St-Pierre or Anderson Silva.

None of these fighters, however, have come close, apart from former Bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, of attaining mainstream popularity in the way McGregor has. Being an elite-level fighter is not enough to become a star in the sport. MMA, despite what some of its more hardcore fans claim, is as much about spectacle and theatre as it is about a sporting contest between two competitors in an octagon. The crossover between MMA and pro wrestling is indicative of this. Many fighters in the UFC have also wrestled in the WWE, and vice versa. Apart from this obvious connection, there are some more subtle similarities between the two sports. Though the fights in the UFC are real, there is a blend of sport as well as entertainment in MMA. Those who are able to understand this fact and create a character and a persona, similar to pro wrestlers, stand out from the crowd in the UFC. Conor McGregor has done this better than any other fighter in the history of the company. His flamboyant, charismatic style both in and out of the octagon has won him legions of fans and provided a template for other fighters in the promotion to imitate. Many have since tried to imitate his style of brash fight promotion, to varying, but ultimately lesser degrees of success than McGregor.

McGregor vs Nurmagomedov – fight analysis

In terms of the actual fight, the contrast of styles between McGregor and Nurmagomedov is a compelling one. This fight, on paper, is a classic ‘striker-vs-grappler’ fight, which is somewhat of a rarity at the upper echelons of modern mixed martial arts, where fighters are generally well-rounded in all aspects of the sport. In some ways, a grappling-reliant fighter such as Khabib Nurmagomedov is an ideal opponent for a striker who excels in countering oncoming opponents, as McGregor does. While he is a respectable striker, his understanding of this part of the game, especially its more intricate elements such as distance control and timing, is not in the same league as Conor McGregor. Previous opponents who have come from a grappling background, such as McGregor’s last opponent, Eddie Alvarez, proved no match for McGregor largely for this reason.

McGregor has proven to be vulnerable in the grappling aspect of the game at times, however. His first fight against Nate Diaz is a prime example of this. Considering Nurmagomedov’s grappling credentials as well as his previous fights, it is almost certain that he will take McGregor down to the ground at some point, barring an early knockout by McGregor. Whether McGregor can quickly get back to his feet once this happens or not is critical to his chances of success.

I do not intend to provide a prediction of an outcome for this fight. MMA is a difficult sport to predict at the best of times, owing to the sheer number of variables that arise over the course of a fight. This is even more true of a championship-calibre fight like the one taking place this Saturday. Though McGregor and Nurmagomedov are of course adept in all areas of the game, in their respective disciplines of boxing and sambo, they are among the most skilled in the sport. In championship fights, it is as much tactics and the fighters’ gameplans as it is skill and athleticism that separates victory from defeat. Despite both McGregor and Nurmagomedov heavily leaning toward the striking and grappling aspects of MMA respectively, their success in the sport to date is in part due to their ability to dictate the terms of the fight. In this fight, controlling the terms of the fight is especially important owing to the large disparity in skill levels between the two in their favoured aspect of the fight.

As is the case with every Conor McGregor fight, regardless of whether you love or loathe him as a fighter and character, his fight Saturday is must-watch television for anyone even casually interested in combat sports. He is a rare combination of athletic talent and charismatic entertainer which comes around only a handful of times every generation. For what it’s worth, McGregor has hinted that retirement may not be too far off, as has his opponent Khabib Nurmagomedov. There may not be many more chances to see these exceptional talents compete – their presence should be enjoyed while they are still around.

Scott J Davies

Associate Editor
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Scott Davies is a freelance writer and tutor. He is currently studying a Master of Education. He is interested in education, economics, geopolitics and history. He's on Twitter and has a Medium page.

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18 thoughts on “Return of the Notorious Conor McGregor

  1. I’m not going to lie. I used to make fun of MMA referring to it as redneck karate. This is despite being an unapologetic boxing fan. However the boxing bout against Mayweather may have softened me on MMA. The spectacle was great and I ended up finding it far more entertaining than the last few Mayweather fights. Sadly I have a wedding to attend this weekend otherwise I’d certainly find time to watch.

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  2. I have to pull for Khabib on this one. Connor’s precision striking is a joy to watch, but he refuses to defend his titles and holds up the division. UFC’s 155 is the best division in the MMA. It’s fighting weight for most men. The huge amount of competitors means the fighters in the top ten of the division are usually elite in a way the top ten at 205, for example, don’t have to be. It’s a shame to watch challengers at 155 logjam while McGregor’s off making whiskey and losing boxing matches.

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  3. I’m looking forward to this one and will be watching tomorrow night. If it goes to the ground, God help McGregor. Khabib’s wrestling is ridiculous. On the feet, I think McGregor could easily knock him out in the 1st. His left hook is a thing of beauty.

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    • The book on McGregor, and this was proven again last night, was if you can survive the first round or two he tires and you can beat him, especially a grappler of the caliber of Khabib. He’s fearsome but comes full bore with no pace. As for the after fight, it will have wide ranging complications for the sport. The Nevada State Athletic Commission is not going to let this slide, and potentially could harm the relationship between UFC and their premier event site. Whatever hammer the NSAC swings, Dana White is going to be obliged to take it, however painful.

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  4. The result was about as expected. Khabib dominated on the ground and McGregor really had no answer for that. He’s an amazing striker but unfortunately still a fairly one-dimensional fighter.

    My takeaway though was that McGregor exposed some holes in Khabib’s game as well. The strategy of wearing him down for a few rounds by making him wrestle hard and then starting to pick him apart with shots in the fourth was the best plan Connor could have had. It just didn’t work out.

    I could absolutely see Nate Diaz or Dustin Poirier or Tony Ferguson using that same strategy but adding in their solid ground games to make for a very competitive fight. Khabib is amazing but I do think there were moments where Connor made him look human last night. Interested to see what happens with the division going forward.

    * As for the nonsense after the fight, Dana White needs to decide what kind of organization he wants to run. If it’s all about hyping the big money fights and dramatic silliness, that’s fine but he needs to say that. If it’s a real sporting company then he needs to start acting like it. They would never tolerate this in any other league today. I honestly think he doesn’t care about people jumping over cages and starting brawls, but actually seemed legit scared last night when he suddenly realized there were thousands of angry Irishmen in the stands and he had a public safety issue on his hands. Maybe this will knock some sense into him but I doubt it. He has been incredibly inconsistent in the past with how he treats situations like this.

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    • They put a ton of effort into converting it from a basement spectacle to an accepted sport with rules and best practices, and now it looks like they’re going to let it slide back into spectacle because that’s how their parent company knows how to make money.

      I didn’t watch the Cormier / Miocic fight, but the clearly scripted “call out” and face off with Brock Lesnar afterward seemed like an indicator of things to come. Pro wrestling soap opera nonsense but with actual fights.

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      • Bellator does more stuff like that. I always wanted the UFC to be more ‘professional’ but this stuff has really gotten silly. Plus, it waters down the divisions when fight-making is based more on who can hype the most rather than who is actually the #1 contender.

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        • “Plus, it waters down the divisions when fight-making is based more on who can hype the most rather than who is actually the #1 contender.”

          The vast majority of fans don’t care about who is the #1 contender, though. Or even the best fighter.

          Demetreius Johnson is probably the best P4P fighter in the world, is spotless personally, and is a pretty exciting fighter. But nobody cares about him. So, at the end of the day, since there is no season-like structure, it’s all about what draws and outside of the couple hundred thousand people who watch MMA for the actual fighting, not the personalities, people like McGregor will always with out over the Mighty Mouse’s of the world.

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          • I’m definitely in the minority among MMA fans. I really want to see it be run with actual rankings and best fighting the best. I do get the hype stuff but even with this fight, it made the most sense.

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        • I hear that criticism and find it valid, but I try to give UFC the benefit of the doubt. Inherent to the sport, much as boxing before it and it’s black sheep cousin pro wrestling, the ratings and gate are only as good as your top attraction. It’s a personality based sport, so you are going to get the hype matchups. Fortunately over the years UFC has done a pretty good job of balancing hype to actually matching the best fighters. But once the entertainment box is opened hard to scale it back.

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  5. It’s weird that UFC events are numbered consecutively. Do fans really have conversations like:

    “Name the best UFC ever.”

    “129.”

    “You’re crazy, It’s 143.”

    “143 was just OK, It only seemed great because 141 and 142 had been such disappointments after all those great fights in the late 130s.”

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    • Aren’t Super Bowls also numbered?

      It’s rare that fans talk about an entire card as a whole, with a few exceptions. UFC just does it out of convenience though. Usually you would talk about McGregor vs. Nurgamedov or if they fight again, McGregor vs. Nurgamedov 1 & 2. This would similar to boxing.

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      • Aren’t Super Bowls also numbered?

        Yes, but I’ve never heard anyone use the numbers except for sportscasters, and when they do you can mentally add it to 1966 to get the year, which actually helps. My impression is that UFC matches take place less regularly than that.

        Usually you would talk about McGregor vs. Nurgamedov or if they fight again, McGregor vs. Nurgamedov 1 & 2.

        That makes sense. Like the first and second time the 49ers played the Bengals for the championship.

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