It’s been a long and winding path to get to UFC 229, where undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov will defend his UFC lightweight championship against former UFC lightweight and featherweight titleholder Conor McGregor. How did we get here?
Yahoo Sports looks at the top 19 most important moments along the way for both competitors in the Oct. 6 bout at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, this time with McGregor.
The native of the Crumlin section of Dublin was not an overnight success, getting submitted twice in his first six fights as he competed in Ireland. But the Straight Blast Gym competitor eventually caught on with one of Europe’s leading promotions, Cage Warriors, and in 2012 he captured championships in two weight classes over consecutive bouts in Dublin: McGregor submitted Dave Hill in the second round of his June 2 bout to capture the featherweight title, then knocked out Ivan Buchinger in the first round on Dec. 31 to take the lightweight crown.
Nurmagomedov’s base is the Russian grappling art of sambo. The Dagestan native was so good at the sport, in fact, that he was a two-time gold medalist at the World Championships in Kiev in 2009 and Moscow in 2010. Those medals, though, came after he had already debuted as pro mixed martial artist. Nurmagomedov turned heads by winning three times in one night in the Pankration Atrium Cup in Moscow on Oct. 11, 2008, and needed just over three years to blitz to a record of 16-0 before getting the call from the UFC.
McGregor signed with the UFC and wasted little time making a big impression. “The Notorious” flattened Marcus Brimage with his big left hand to end their bout in just 67 seconds at UFC on Fuel 9 in Stockholm in April 2013. McGregor earned a $60,000 Fight of the Night bonus and made worldwide headlines for noting he had been on the public dole as recently as the week before the fight. He also asked for, and received, a day with UFC president Dana White traveling around Las Vegas in the latter’s convertible, a bold request that helped sell White on going all out in pushing McGregor.
Nurmagomedov had quite a bit of buzz with hardcore fans when he made his UFC debut on the undercard of the first UFC on FX card on Jan. 20, 2012, in Nashville. And “The Eagle” lived up to his hype against former WEC headliner Kamal Shalorus. Nurmagomedov dropped Shalorus early with an uppercut and instantly started his trademark aggressive ground assault. Shalorus escaped that time, but the scenario kept repeating itself until Nurmagomedov sunk in a rear-naked choke and got the tap at 2:08 of the third round.
As it turned out, by the time McGregor was again ready to fight, the UFC had a big date at TD Garden in Boston, America’s most Irish city. Despite fighting on the undercard of the Aug. 17, 2013 card, McGregor had his own media day at an Irish boxing gym, and was given a spectacular ring entrance with a light show, which raised the hackles of more established competitors. As for the fight, McGregor scored a one-sided win over a fellow you may have heard of named Max Holloway, who has since won 12 straight fights and become featherweight champion. The victory came with a cost, however: McGregor tore his left ACL during the fight and was out of action nearly a year.
Nurmagomedov continued to slowly work his way up the ranks, but the best fighters at 155 pounds all seemed to have other things do when presented the chance to fight the rising Russian. Undaunted, Nurmagomedov started rattling off wins, including a victory over Abel Trujillo at UFC 160 in which he landed a record 21 takedowns over three rounds; and had a memorable slam of Pat Healy over the course of a one-sided decision win at UFC 165. Nurmagomedov was next linked to fights with big names Gilbert Melendez and Nate Diaz, neither of which came to fruition, which caused the Russian to comment “If they want, I’ll take them on both at once in the cage.”
When McGregor returned, it was clear he hadn’t missed a beat. McGregor next fought on July 19, 2014, back home in Dublin in what turned out to be one of the most memorable events in UFC history. A raucous sellout crowd at 02 Arena saw Irish fighters go 4-0 on the evening, reaching earsplitting noise levels when McGregor steamrolled Diego Brandao for a first-round TKO in the main event. McGregor returned just two months later and starched Dustin Poirier at UFC 178 in 1:46, shutting up those who claimed he hadn’t beaten anyone good. Next came the jealousy-inducing megapush, as McGregor’s next fight, back in Boston against Dennis Siver, came on the night of the NFL conference championship games on Jan. 18, 2015. After McGregor was showcased all over the football games, 3.162 million viewers stayed up after midnight ET to watch McGregor’s second-round TKO, affirming the bombastic Irishman was a superstar in the making.
He finally got a name opponent at UFC on Fox 11 on April 19, 2014, when he met future UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos in Orlando. Nurmagomedov was his usual wolverine-like self against dos Anjos, and survived a hairy moment in the second when RDA sunk in a guillotine choke. But he survived and shut dos Anjos down the rest of the way to earn 30-27 scores across the board. That marked dos Anjos’ only loss in an 11-fight stretch which led him to the lightweight crown.
McGregor then set his sights on longtime featherweight kingpin Jose Aldo, which turned into MMA’s biggest storyline of 2015. The duo went on a multi-country press tour to hype their planned UFC 189 bout, but Aldo had to pull out just two weeks before the fight because of a rib injury. McGregor accepted a bout with replacement Chad Mendes for an interim championship, saving the show. McGregor answered critics of his wrestling game by withstanding the former NCAA wrestling standout’s grappling game for two rounds before smoking Mendes with his big left and ending things with two seconds left in the second. McGregor and Aldo were rescheduled for UFC 194 in December, which came to a swift and stunning conclusion when McGregor dropped Aldo with a left and took the belt via knockout in just 13 seconds. Not only did McGregor take the featherweight belt, but the Mendes fight did 825,000 per-pay-view buys and the Aldo fight 1.2 million, establishing McGregor as a transcendent star.
While the win over dos Anjos appeared to put Nurmagomedov square into the lightweight title picture, injuries nearly derailed his career and it would be nearly two years before he returned to the cage. The Russian was twice expected to face Donald Cerrone, at UFC 178 and 187, and both times knee injuries kept him out. Then he busted a rib, causing him to pull out of a fight with Tony Ferguson scheduled for Dec. 2015. The latter injury caused the then-25-0 Nurmagomedov to say on “I’m not sure if I will ever be back” on Instagram.
Just as McGregor had won belts in consecutive fights in Cage Warriors, he wanted the same in the UFC. McGregor got his wish and signed to meet lightweight champ Rafael dos Anjos at UFC 196 in Las Vegas. Dos Anjos, however, broke his foot two weeks out, and Nate Diaz came in as a replacement in a bout fought at welterweight. McGregor dominated the first round, but was gassed in the second and was submitted by Diaz. It was another box-office smash, as the card, which also featured Miesha Tate’s bantamweight title win over Holly Holm, did 1.317 million buys.
Rarely has a fight between two fighters as talented as Nurmagomedov and Ferguson been teased to MMA fans so often without being delivered. The two superlative lightweights were first linked at “The Ultimate Fighter 22” finale, but the previously mentioned rib injury shelved Khabib. Then Ferguson had to pull out of the rescheduled date due to a lung issue. As the duo continued climbing the ranks, however, it was clear the fight would have to be signed again somewhere down the road.
Here’s where McGregor solidified his superstar status: Unlike fellow star Ronda Rousey, who disappeared after losing to Holm at the height of her fame and lost touch with her fanbase, McGregor demanded an immediate rematch, and Diaz, who had received far and away the biggest payday of his life for the first fight, certainly didn’t object. The duo were slated to meet again at UFC 200 … until McGregor and the UFC got into a dispute over media obligations, whereupon the UFC yanked the fight and McGregor announced his retirement. Cooler heads eventually prevailed, and McGregor eked out a majority-decision victory in a barnburner of a five-round fight at UFC 202 in Las Vegas. Diaz-McGregor 2 did 1.65 million buys, which still sits as the company record.
Nurmagomedov’s injury return was a one-sided victory over Darrell Horcher, a last-minute replacement for Ferguson, at UFC on Fox 19 in April 2016. Then, “The Eagle” returned at the legendary UFC 205 in November 2016, the company’s long-awaited debut at Madison Square Garden, which was headlined by Conor McGregor’s victory over Eddie Alvarez to claim the lightweight belt. Nurmagomedov not only absolutely pummeled one of the sport’s toughest fighters in Michael Johnson before submitting him in the third, but he also had a dialogue with UFC president Dana White, who was seated cageside, while he dished out the ongoing beating. The evening’s events led to chatter of a McGregor-Nurmagomedov fight on a mass scale for the first time.
After the Diaz affair was settled, the race to become the first two-weight-class champ in UFC history was back on. McGregor vs. Eddie Alvarez was signed for the main event of UFC 205 on Nov. 12, 2016, a landmark event in UFC history as the first MMA card held at Madison Square Garden after New York dropped its longstanding ban on the sport. McGregor once again lived up to the biggest moments, as he threw Alvarez off his game, swarmed him and finished him via second-round TKO to add the UFC lightweight belt to his collection. Elsewhere on the main card, Nuramgomedov improved to 27-0 with a dominant win over Michael Johnson. This time out, 1.3 million was the buy rate as McGregor finished a breathtaking 11-month run.
The fourth attempt at Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson happened when the duo were scheduled to fight at UFC 209. With McGregor angling for a fight with boxing superstar Floyd Mayweather Jr., the UFC created an interim lightweight belt which was supposed to go to the winner. Nurmagomedov fell ill during his weight cut, however, and had to be pulled from the bout. Ferguson would go on to fight and defeat Kevin Lee for the interim belt at UFC 216; while Nurmagomedov changed nutritionists and had no problems weighing in for his next fight.
The idea of a McGregor boxing match against Floyd Mayweather Jr. seemed too ludicrous to be true … right up until it became reality. Social-media buzz helped will the fight between the two biggest stars in combat sports into existence against all odds. A raucous and at times out of control week-long press tour helped elevate the Aug. 26, 2017, bout into a once-in-a-generation transcendent event, with a live gate of $55.4 million at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas and a jaw-dropping 4.3 million domestic PPV buys, falling just shy of the 4.6 million mark set by Mayweather’s fight with Manny Pacquiao. As for the fight, which was heavily derided by boxing intelligentsia, well, it won’t go down as a classic. But McGregor, who was stripped of both his UFC belts due to inactivity, put up a better showing than one might expect for someone making his pro boxing debut in getting into the 10th round before losing via TKO.
Ferguson vs. Nurmagomedov was put on the schedule an astonishing fifth time, this time as the main event of UFC 223 in Brooklyn. The full championship was on the line, as McGregor had been stripped of the belt due to inactivity. Ferguson, however, tripped over a production cable on the Fox lot during a media tour of Los Angeles and suffered a torn LCL. Featherweight champion Max Holloway stepped in on six days’ notice, only to be pulled from the bout by UFC doctors during his weight cut. Nurmagomedov ultimately fought Al Iaquinta and scored a dominated five-round win to claim the title and improve to 28-0.
McGregor made a reported $85 million from the Mayweather fight, and immediately started making the wrong type of news. He was caught using a homophobic slur at a UFC event in October 2017 for which he later apologized; had an alleged incident with an Irish mobster in November; and later that month caused a scene at a Bellator event by jumping into the cage and making a run at referee Marc Goddard. The low point came in April. Nurmagomedov’s team had a run-in with McGregor ally Artem Lobov at the fighter hotel on the week of UFC 223 in Brooklyn. McGregor’s response to this was to charter a private jet, fly out to New York with several associates, and then launch an assault on a van carrying Nurmagomedov and several other fighters on the card. McGregor was charged with a felony and three misdemeanors as a result of his actions, which injured several people. After settling the charges and being cleared to fight, the UFC wasted no time booking McGregor vs. Nurmagomedov.