Why Conor McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov might be the most significant fight in UFC history

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports

The UFC is filled with extraordinary athletes who, when matched properly, can do amazing things in the Octagon.

No fight that currently can be made, no fight that has ever been made in the UFC, has the potential to be quite like Khabib Nurmagomedov against Conor McGregor.

The bout, to be held Oct. 6 in the main event of UFC 229 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas for the lightweight championship, has an opportunity to sell two million on pay-per-view.

It literally is unique in UFC history for the level of trash talk that will be exchanged; for the unprecedented public relations and marketing blitz that will accompany it; for the vast amount of money the fighters will earn and, yes, for the quality of the match it has the potential to be.

Perhaps no fight in combat sports history since the epic March 8, 1971, heavyweight championship boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier will approach this one in terms of significance within the sport, demand from the public and contrast in style from an athletic standpoint.

Ali and Frazier entered that 1971 bout – still known as “The Fight of the Century” – each undefeated and each with a claim to the heavyweight championship. It pitted an icon of the sport in Ali against his successor as champion in Frazier, who while not as revered had quietly built an extraordinary reputation.

Ali was the classic boxer while Frazier was the puncher with the relentless bob-and-weave style that had helped him produce 23 knockouts in his 26 pro fights heading into the first bout with Ali. Ali was 31-0 but was returning after having been banned from the sport for more than three years because of his refusal to be inducted into the military.

Conor McGregor will return to the Octagon after nearly two years away in the main event of UFC 229 against Khabib Nurmagomedov. (USA TODAY Sports/File Photo)
Conor McGregor will return to the Octagon after nearly two years away in the main event of UFC 229 against Khabib Nurmagomedov. (USA TODAY Sports/File Photo)

McGregor returns having never lost his championship in the ring. He was stripped of the featherweight championship he’d won by beating Chad Mendes for the interim belt and then knocking out Jose Aldo for the full-time one after he defeated Eddie Alvarez in 2016 to win the lightweight title.

And he was stripped of his lightweight belt for not defending it in a timely fashion against Nurmagomedov earlier this year.

In the old days, the UFC used to give its fights names. If it did that for this one, it would be, “King vs. King.”

These two represent the pinnacle of MMA at this point at the intersection of business and sport. McGregor is the acknowledged No. 1 star in MMA and his promotional genius helped the fight with Mayweather become the second-biggest PPV ever with 4.3 million sales.

McGregor is 21-3 overall in MMA and 9-1 in the UFC, with his only loss coming to Nate Diaz at UFC 196 in a welterweight bout, when he was choked out. Before making the announcement that McGregor and Nurmagomedov would fight, the UFC announced that Diaz would return for the first time since losing a rematch to McGregor on Aug. 20, 2016, when he fights Dustin Poirier at UFC 230 in New York on Nov. 3.

Unlike many big-selling bouts, this one isn’t just hype. Even if Nurmagomedov and McGregor weren’t the most popular fighters in their sport, the match between them would be hotly anticipated because of the difference in style.

McGregor is the classic MMA striker, and has powerful hands, debilitating kicks and dangerous knees and elbows. Nurmagomedov is a feared grappler who takes opponents down and doesn’t let them up. McGregor showed his vulnerability to jiu-jitsu in his loss to Diaz, while Nurmagomedov’s vulnerability to high-level striking appeared in his April win over Al Iaquinta.

The Westgate Las Vegas opened Nurmagomedov as a minus-180 favorite, with McGregor as a plus-150 underdog.

This will be an extraordinary event from a financial standpoint for the UFC. The UFC’s largest gate was $17.7 million when McGregor defeated Alvarez at Madison Square Garden in UFC 205 in 2016. UFC 129 in Toronto did $12.075 million and UFC 200 had a $10.7 million gate in Las Vegas.

A McGregor-Nurmagomedov fight threatens to become the first UFC bout to hit $20 million in live gate.

It’s a virtual guarantee the fight will break the all-time UFC pay-per-view record, which is 1.65 million for UFC 202. Social media is going to be filled with #ConorKhabib talk in September.

“I think when all is said and done, this will be the biggest fight we’ve ever done,” White told Yahoo Sports. “Conor is one of the biggest superstars in the world and Khabib is the undefeated champion. These are two flat-out killers in their primes squaring off with everything on the line.

“I hate to talk about what happened in New York, but these guys have a ton of animosity and everybody saw what happened and that’s going to help this, too. And what I love is, you hear guys say they will fight anyone, but then it’s after I do this and after that. These two, Conor and Khabib, as soon as it was possible for them to fight, they said, ‘Let’s fight.’ I love that and I think people love that about them.”

The Westgate Las Vegas opened Khabib Nurmagomedov as a minus-180 favorite, with Conor McGregor as a plus-150 underdog. (Getty Images)
The Westgate Las Vegas opened Khabib Nurmagomedov as a minus-180 favorite, with Conor McGregor as a plus-150 underdog. (Getty Images)

The good thing, though, is that this is a fight that can deliver. The two fighters are relentless in the cage and provide bell-to-bell action.

The UFC announced a slew of great fights on Friday. Combined, though, none is going to get a sliver of the attention that Nurmagomedov-McGregor will receive.

Given how deep in talent the lightweight division is, that will make for some hellacious fights in 2019. Imagine if Nurmagomedov beats McGregor and Poirier defeats Diaz, how big the Nurmagomedov-Poirier title fight would be. But if McGregor bests Nurmagomedov and Diaz tops Poirier, McGregor-Diaz III for the title would be another fight with a chance to hit two million PPV sales.

And then, don’t forget Tony Ferguson, the former interim champion who has been sidelined by injury. He would make a classic bout with any number of lightweights.

“It wasn’t hard putting this fight together at all,” White said. “Conor is a guy who loves to fight and when he was able to, he said, ‘Let’s do it.’ That’s why he’s such a huge superstar. In boxing, everyone knows what fight should be happening. How can they not have made [Anthony] Joshua and [Deontay] Wilder? That’s always what happens. But these two guys, they’re pure fighters and that’s why this is going to be so special.”

So, while many have been bemoaning the UFC’s lack of stars, McGregor’s return changes that in a substantive way.

It’s fair to say that no matter who wins on Oct. 6, 2019, it is going to be the “Year of the Lightweight.”

But before that, Oct. 6 will be the “Night of the Lightweight.” I, for one, cannot wait.

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