Tonight, the tumultuous year for Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) comes to a head as it finally churns out the fight we’ve been waiting for: Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, the unstoppable grappling machine, against former 145- and 155-pound champion, Conor McGregor, the transcendent star whose charisma and stunning power outshine his best attempts to destroy his own legacy. There are additional fights as well, including what may be a final eliminator between madcap maulers Tony Ferguson and Anthony Pettis, but they are so much window dressing in the face of what is, for once accurately, called the biggest fight of the year.
It will not be nearly as competitive as that label would suggest.
It has been one year, 10 months, and 24 days since Conor McGregor last stepped foot in the Octagon. He has spent the intervening time losing a boxing match, shoving a referee, and throwing a dolly into a bus window, scrapping three fights in the process. Tonight, he faces the most overwhelmingly dominant takedown artist the Lightweight division has ever seen.
Forgive me for being pessimistic about his chances.
That’s not to say he doesn’t have any — Nurmagomedov has absorbed powerful blows from Michael Johnson and Al Iaquinta without issue, despite Joe Rogan’s hysterics, but “Mystic Mac” has amply demonstrated that no feats of durability can prepare one for what he brings to the table. Jose Aldo — who had shrugged off one of the most beautiful uppercuts I’ve ever seen from a terrifying puncher in Chad Mendes — succumbed to a single punch, after all.
But, that’s just it. Literally the only chance McGregor has is the early knockout. He cannot outlast Nurmagomedov, cannot potshot him for a decision. In Nurmagomedov’s 10-fight Octagon career, he has failed to take down only two men: Gleison Tibau, who found his offense almost entirely muzzled by “The Eagle’s” pressure, and Thiago Tavares, whom Nurmagomedov knocked unconscious before he could bother trying to take him down. There will not be a moment in this fight where Nurmagomedov is not pressing forward and looking to drag McGregor to the mat.
There, McGregor faces the classic dilemma that has ground so many men to dust: Try to stand up, knowing he’ll immediately be taken down again, or try to wait out the hurricane of punches and hope for the best in the next round. His cardio — suspect enough that he gassed in a boxing match against a man notorious for pushing a sedate pace — simply cannot endure the Sisyphean endeavor before him.
That is Conor McGregor’s task: Knockout Khabib Nurmagomedov, who has yet to flinch through 26 fights in the world’s most volatile sport, before the Dagestani can grab hold of him and mash him into paste. If anyone can do it, it’s McGregor, but this is beyond even the “Notorious” one. The fight lasts as long as Nurmagomedov wants — if he’s feeling generous, he’ll submit McGregor either late in the first or early in the second. After their war of words, however, I can’t imagine there being an ounce of mercy in Nurmagomedov’s heart. He stretches this out as far as he can, mauling a quickly fading McGregor until the referee steps in to save him.
Prediction: Khabib Nurmagomedov via third-round technical knockout
MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 229 fight card on fight night (click here), starting with the Fight Pass “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on FOX Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET.