Pre-Fight Thoughts: Conor McGregor -vs- Khabib Nurmagomedov
A year ago, I was incredibly skeptical that this fight would ever happen; McGregor was fresh off the most lucrative fight of his career — and, in fact, most fighting careers period — and could well have opted to never fight again. Khabib Nurmagomedov was vying for a shot at the lightweight title, but concerns about his ability to remain injury-free and make weight without ending up in the hospital hovered over him. Basically, I wasn't sure if McGregor would 'settle' for a comparatively meager UFC payday against an opponent with a history of not making it to the cage on fight night. So, it was quite a surprise when the UFC actually announced this fight — and with only about 2 months worth of lead time.
So, with the fight actually upon us, it's time to delve into the reason we're all following the saga of these two men: the fighting. This match has been touted as a a modernised version of the classic Striker versus Grappler match-up from the primordial days of MMA. That characterisation elides a fair bit, as this is modern MMA and neither fighter is a complete novice in the other's domain of choice. I'm not expecting Conor to try and flex his wrestling or submission grappling muscles in this fight, but he's not a complete fish out of water on his back; in past fights, such as against Chad Mendes, Conor has shown good positional awareness and an ability to scramble to his feet when openings present themselves. Likewise, Khabib's striking is decent although he'd be an utter fool to try and box his way to victory.
The hook for this fight is the tension in wondering which of these two highly skilled fighters will get to assert themselves; will Conor spark Nurmagomedov out with his legendary left hand, or will the Dagestani wrestler take the Irishman down and bludgeon him while smothering the confidence and energy out of him? I know it's a bit of a cop-out, but this fight really is close to a coin-flip; both men have made careers on one-sided, brutal wins — making elite competition look like rank amateurs in the process. It's fine to have a favourite in this fight, but to write the other off would be the height of ignorance in my estimation.
Conor's route to victory seems fairly straightforward: he's going to need to wrap things up within 2 rounds or so, unless somehow both fighters spend inordinate amounts of time tentatively circling one another. Both fighters utilise pressure to their advantage, and Conor has, historically, not fought well when forced to back up or give ground to his opponents. Khabib's been tested a little less, as Edson Barboza — a fearsome striker in his own right — made the egregious tactical error of trying to fight Khabib while literally running backwards. I do not expect Conor to backpedal away from Khabib, but he could find himself forced against the fence where the threat of takedowns could trigger some panic instincts and lead to him being taken down.
Of his many talents, it seems as though his ability to gague and cover distance is Conor McGregor's greatest attribute. Second to that would be the precision of his shots; watching Conor McGregor beat Eddie Alvarez senseless, like the man was a novice on his first day of boxing class was remarkable to behold. So, while Khabib's takedowns and pressure game are definite threats, the fact is that he has to get close to McGregor to implement them, and if McGregor is even remotely on his A-game then it's likely he'll be timing the entries and looking to land kill-shots. Just as Nurmagomedov's arsenal consists of more-than one takedown, McGregor's striking has wrinkles to it, as he likes to work the body with stinging shots before landing the finishing blows.
Both fighters have nuanced games, and yet the fight could very well be a one-sided win. It's such an odd dynamic these days, especially given the prominence of wrestle-boxers who end up stifling each other when matched up at the elite level. Nurmagomedov's grappling has a mystique that seems to terrify — and possibly mentally defeat fighters — before they even lock up with the Dagestani. McGregor's unshakable ego and sense of self-confidence should aid him greatly here, although hopefully it's tempered with enough realism that he is respectful of what his opponent can do. It will take more than arrogance to dispell an aura that is more than just hype, although past performance indicates that McGregor does in fact do his homework.
This is a really difficult fight to pick, because I feel like the winner will be notching a classically one-sided win. I don't have a strong feeling one way or the other, but if pressed I have to go with Conor simply because I appreciate him as a fighter and a personality. His cult of fanboys is nauseating at best, and a detriment to the sport at worst, but that's not Conor's fault. Khabib's associations with sketchy managers, Chechen warlords and other dubious political figures is concerning but also not something that will influence the fight. It would be quite amusing to see the UFC try and market a Salafist champion, given that the bulk of their sponsors are some sort of vice that is prohibited by Nurmagomedov's religious beliefs, but I'm hoping the situation just doesn't come up.
The only outcome that would surprise me is a decision. Even more surprising would be Conor winning said decision, as his style is just not built for that sort of fighting, and it would be utterly bizarre if he'd spent his training camp turning into such a fighter. Either Nurmagomedov is getting blasted to sleep with pinpoint shots, or Conor is going to get ragdolled until he's so exhausted that he gives up a rear-naked choke because he can barely breathe anyway — and Khabib might just pound him out to prove a sadistic point. Regardless, I'm far more interested in seeing how the fight plays out than picking a winner. MMA needs marquee fights like this, and I'm glad this one held together.
Published: October 6th, 2018.