Great sportsmanship from Steve Erceg.
“If you wanna fight me then please, just send me location.”
Well Khabib, the location has now been sent to you.
The stage has been set for one of the biggest mixed martial arts contests ever on October 6th 2018 in Las Vegas when the returning king, Conor McGregor, locks horns with the current alpha, Khabib Nurmagomedov.
The fight will be captivating, it will be watched and it must deliver. It is a fight that has been almost two years in the making since UFC 205 where Nurmagomedov confronted McGregor backstage before the Irishman’s clash with Eddie Alvarez for the lightweight title.
The seeds were placed then and it was inevitable that both men’s paths would cross again, eventually leading to Las Vegas two months from now.
The most beautiful truth of the sport is that it reveals everything about the men who engage inside those 25 minutes. Their dreams, their will and how much they would sacrifice in order to claim what they seek.
This is the fight that every combat sport fans will want to see as both men have history outside the Octagon, the fight itself is too unpredictable for anyone to write off either men and given the lean year the UFC has had in terms of viewings and fight quality, this is the fight that the competition desperately needs between two of the biggest names currently in the sport.
The smoke has been rising since 2016 for the eventual collision between the Notorious One and the Eagle. Before McGregor’s bout on the 13th of November 2016, cameras backstage caught a hooded figure confronting him to the point where both parties had to be separated by security.
That figure was a young up-and-coming Russian fighter called Khabib Nurmagomedov. A fighter who boasted an undefeated record, with whispers around the UFC that he would one day challenge McGregor for the throne. A man with a fighting style that many believed could trouble the Irishman.
On that night, McGregor went on to duly annihilate Alvarez in two dominating rounds to claim the lightweight belt and be the first man to hold two belts in different weight classes. On that night, Nurmagomedov watched from the shadows. He knew that soon enough his time would come and it’s because he knew this that he confronted McGregor earlier that night.
The decisions of both men that night would light the fuse culminating in this that will define their legacies and the legacy of the UFC.
There were comments made from McGregor leading up to the showdown with Alvarez that indicated he no longer sees any challenges left in the UFC for him. This led to him eventually leaving the sport for more than a year in order to pursue a now infamous boxing match with one of the all-time greats in Floyd Mayweather where he lost in the tenth round to a technical knockout.
Of course, the ramifications of this were far-reaching for McGregor as his time away from the UFC also took away his time to defend both belts with UFC President Dana White eventually stripping him of both titles resulting in Max Holloway claiming the featherweight title while Tony Ferguson took the interim lightweight title.
Despite the clear underlying calls from Dana White for his most prized asset in McGregor to step back into the Octagon, these calls went unheard as McGregor indulged himself in the money he made from the lucrative match with Mayweather. Time passed and White’s patience was reached.
The lightweight title would be up for grabs and Nurmagomedov’s time has come. The ruthless Dagestani had mauled all opposition before him and had never lost a fight. He duly went on to take the belt against Al Iaquinta at the Barclay Centre in Brooklyn.
However, in the years to come, the event will not be remembered for the fights that took place or for Nurmagomedov’s success. It will be remembered for what happened on April 5 2018.
Since Nurmagomedov’s first encounter with McGregor, there were passing verbals from both camps at each other with the Russian labelling McGregor a “chicken” with a poor ground game resulting in retaliation from the Irish camp from Artem Lobov, McGregor’s training partner, taking aim at Nurmagomedov’s constant failure to make weight.
As tensions rose, it finally culminated in Nurmagomedov confronting Lobov outside their hotel rooms in an exchange that resulted in the Russian slapping Lobov before both parties had to be separated. The news reached an infuriated McGregor resulting in him flying across to New York with his entourage to attack the bus that Nurmagomedov was on.
Chaos ensued, McGregor was arrested and worse yet, a few days later his belt rested on the Russian’s waist.
Almost a year ago, it was Nurmagomedov looking up to McGregor and waiting for his chance to take his place as the UFC lightweight king. Now, it is the Irishman in the uncomfortable position of having to reclaim his title.
If the Notorious One made a foray into boxing due to no longer having a challenge in the UFC, make no mistake, the challenge is there now and it is waiting for him on October 6.
Now that the date has been set, the conversations leading up to the fight will be around how both fighters will approach it and what tactics will be deployed. Stylistically, both cannot be any more different from each other.
Nurmagomedov’s game is built on a vicious takedown before he proceeds to dominate his opponent on the ground with his steely grappling and delivering blows to them while they are trapped.
An indicator of how powerful Nurmagomedov is that, in general, clinch tactics are deemed to be seen as uglier and the less attractive form of combat compared to the striker and yet the Russian is so good at his craft and so pure in his execution that the same perceptions are not applied to him.
Such is his strength that he is changing how people view it.
Like his personality, his style is cold, ruthless, brutal and absolutely terrifying. One cannot remember the last time he was rattled, when he speaks it’s calmly and quietly and yet everybody listens. He delivers his threats with conviction and terrifying confidence, and here is a beast that McGregor has not faced before.
Nurmagomedov doesn’t speak much unless engaged and inside the Octagon, chances are if anybody finds themselves on the canvas against him, their fight is almost over. Fighters find themselves not only losing the contest to him but also their spirit and eventually their will.
There is no doubt that this is a contest that if it is fought on the ground for the majority then the pendulum will swing heavily on Nurmagomedov’s favour.
But whether he can take the contest to the ground is another question and whether he can do it before being knocked out by the Irishman is something else altogether.
Nurmagomedov’s path to victory is easier said than done. On the opposite side of the octagon to him stands a man who has conquered all that he has faced in his professional career with one UFC loss coming to Nate Diaz, who he beat in the return fixture.
McGregor has fought opponents of various sizes and styles and he has not only come out victorious but doing so in stunning fashion, literally.
He possesses an absolute missile in his left fist which should it find its mark, will be lights out for his opponent regardless of whether it’s the first contact or not, such is the power that it might only need to connect just once.
The point here for Nurmagomedov to note? McGregor hits like a tank, just ask Jose Aldo.
McGregor has faced situations before where he was considered the underdog and yet came out on top. He stopped Aldo who was riding a ten-year undefeated streak, he stepped into a higher weight class and brutally took the belt from Alvarez and he even stepped into a different sport and went ten rounds with the greatest boxer of time.
McGregor thrives on challenges and some might say it’s where he does his best work.
While there is a perception that McGregor’s ground game is considered his weakness, it must be pointed out that the one UFC fight he lost on the ground was due to a tactical error by fatigued McGregor who himself engaged the takedown against Nate Diaz.
Many will also point to his fight against Mendes where his grappling game was exposed but credit there needs to be given to Mendes, who is one of the greatest grapplers in the game at the time and yet the man who stood victorious at the end of the night was still the Notorious.
Since then adjustments have been made to his game as demonstrated against Alvarez where McGregor’s takedown defence was a lot more evident as he muted every takedown attempt. Come two months’ time, we will see if those adjustments are enough.
What does the contest mean for both men? For Nurmagomedov, no disrespect to his victims, but this fight will present his toughest challenge. None of his previous opponents will even come close to the quality of the former two-time champion that will be standing across from him.
However, it must be noted that it is not due to Nurmagomedov that he has not fought anybody on the quality of Aldo, Alvarez, Diaz or Holloway. The Russian was poised to fight Tony Ferguson and then Holloway but both fights fell through due to no fault of Nurmagomedov’s.
Let it be clear, Nurmagomedov has not ducked anyone, this is a man who truly believes he can conquer all before him and if Nurmagomedov can pocket this fight, there will be no question to where he currently stands in the UFC as it will be at the top and alone.
For McGregor, he has been out of the game for two years. Yes, he fought a boxing match last year but the two sports cannot be compared in terms of intensity, conditioning and training.
How much will him being out of the sport be a factor in this fight, especially coming up against an opponent whose style is as gruelling and different to what he has been training for in the past year as Nurmagomedov’s?
The contest will not only return him to the pantheon of UFC but also put to bed any doubts about his abilities against a grappler especially if he stops one of this quality.
This is a contest that has been spoken about more than any other fight for the past two years and now the temperature has reached high heat. The sport has missed the personality and bravado of the outspoken McGregor and in the cold and unstoppable force that is Nurmagomedov. Dana White’s dreams to revitalize the UFC might finally be realised.
No doubt, White will leave no stones unturned in promoting this contest as it definitely fits its tag as possibly one of the greatest matchups of all time in combat sport.
All the ingredients are there; the differing fighting styles, the animosity between both men, their history together and the dreams they harbour that collide conveniently with each other.
The UFC, which has seen its popularity decline this year, seeks to pivot itself back into position as the of pioneer of combat sports and both Nurmagomedov and McGregor are now poised to place their names at the centre of it all.