All of the conflicts between Conor McGregor and the fighter who replaced him as UFC lightweight champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov, come to a head Saturday night when they step into the T-Mobile Arena octagon in pursuit of the same glory.
For the power-puncher McGregor, returning to the UFC at age 30 after taking nearly two years off, the opportunity at UFC 229 is to reestablish himself — in what he said could be a $50-million pay day — as the organization’s biggest draw and most entertaining star.
Russia’s far more stoic wrestler Nurmagomedov (26-0) is a slight betting favorite, and a victory would extend the success that encouraged the UFC to expand the international reach of its roster.
First in line among 24 fighters, Nurmagomedov was on the scale at 9:01 a.m., making the 155-pound limit on the dot to emphasize both his readiness and the strides he’s made since falling ill and withdrawing from a bout before a weigh-in 19 months ago in Las Vegas.
One hour later, McGregor weighed in at 154.5 pounds and underlined his preparedness by unleashing a primal scream.
When the fighters faced off, McGregor slapped the right arm of Nurmagomedov, then sent a left kick toward the champion’s head that didn’t land.
“The king is back!” McGregor roared to the majority of fans who supported him.
Nurmagomedov thanked the Irish fans for supporting the fight and told them, “Tomorrow, I’m going to smash your boy.”
McGregor (21-3) has masterfully broken down past champions Jose Aldo and Eddie Alvarez with his witty and biting pre-fight remarks and he’s pursued the new champion by insulting his father and his Islamic principle of not drinking alcohol.
But Nurmagomedov has impressively answered McGregor with a refusal to be moved during last month’s news conference at New York’s Radio City Music Hall and his exit before the habitually late McGregor showed at Thursday’s session.
“I’ve seen a man who doesn’t want to be here … I know every move everyone makes. I keep my eyes on the game,” McGregor said. “He’s had his last chance at running. He’ll try to find an exit to take off, but I won’t let him.”
Will the words materialize in results again as they’ve done in McGregor’s career, or is there a new reality?
Nurmagomedov has massive incentive to perform. After this fight, he’ll have only one bout remaining on his UFC contract — perfect timing for a lucrative extension.
“Pressure has helped me. I feel pressure,” Nurmagomedov said this week while discussing his 2012 UFC debut as a 23-year-old, a third-round submission of Iran’s Kamal Shalorus in Nashville that marked his first time in the U.S. and first experience of fighting in a cage.
Nurmagomedov revealed that because the UFC had been so frustrated in its attempts to deal with Russian fighters — most notably heavyweight legend Fedor Emelianenko — that first fight was more significant than most know.
“When the UFC signed me, people thought it was nearly impossible — because in Russia they didn’t have good managers with good connections to the UFC — and people said, ‘OK, you’re going to fight and we’re going to watch. If you win, a lot of [Eastern Europeans] can come. If you lose, OK, UFC is at a different level.’ So I felt very big pressure when I go into that cage.”
Nurmagomedov cut Shalorus under the right eye by battering him with punches in the third round, then submitted him by rear naked chokehold, with the announcer bellowing, “Welcome to America!”
Ali Abdelaziz, Nurmagomedov’s manager, said he now represents 30 Russian UFC fighters.
“If you can change people’s lives, it’s pretty good,” Nurmagomedov said.