On Saturday night, at the T-Mobile arena in Las Vegas, the UFC lightweight champion, the bear-wrestling Khabib Nurmagomedov, will fight Conor “The Notorious” McGregor. And for the first time in UFC’s history, the fight is for so much more than the title.
There is no denying that Conor is the face of the fight game, the enfant terrible of the UFC, a title he garnered through his cunning ability to work the media and amp his hooligan fan base. But the animosity he brings to this fight is more than just a press-thirsty stunt.
The story began In April, before UFC 223, when Khabib ran into Conor’s training partner, Artem Lobov, who had posted a slew of derogatory comments about Khabib online. Khabib confronted Artem backstage. “Don’t say my name, you understand me? Say it to my face,” said Khabib as he gripped Artem by the back of his neck. “You said I’m a pussy? I’m asking you, say it to my face!” Artem denied making the comments and was slapped in the face. Amid escalating threats during the event, organisers were forced to remove Artem from his hotel because he was no longer safe. A few days later, Conor and his teammates flew to New York and gained access to the backstage area of the Barclays Centre, where Khabib was onboard a bus. Conor, along with his entourage, proceeded to hurl railings and bins through the bus' windows, which injured several fighters travelling with Khabib on the bus. Conor was charged with disorderly conduct, and sentenced to five days community service and an anger management program.
“Of course they know a lot of security here [and] the media, it’s going to be big. They come with 30 people,” Khabib told Anatomy of a Fighter after the attack. “Why don’t they send me a message, like a location, I'm gonna come. Whatever you want, doesn’t matter. Ireland. New York. Moscow. Tell me, where?”
In September, both fighters came face to face for the first time. During a strange press conference at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, organisers decided that the event was not going to be open to the public, and access was only granted to staff, reporters, security, and police.
Conor spent the majority of his time promoting Proper Twelve whisky, his new business venture—even going as far as offering Khabib, a devout Muslim, a glass of whiskey. When Conor was turned down, he called Khabib a “mad, backwards c***.” Khabib turned to the reporters, and casually replied, “he thinks whiskey is going to help him.”
Conor proceeded to interrogate Khabib’s shady associations in Russia. Khabib’s gym was financially supported by Ziyavudin Gadzhievich Magomedov, a Russian billionaire who was imprisoned this year for embezzling state funds. And he is a supporter of Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen dictator who is accused of well-documented human rights abuses.
But on Saturday night, all the politics behind the saga will be settled the old fashioned way. There will be no diplomacy and fans can expect an MMA dog fight. There has been a lot of speculation about whether Khabib will be issuing a 25 minute mauling, or if Conor will be delivering a sharp and clinical knockout. But the truth is, in such an elite contest that supersedes athleticism and ability, the deciding factors will be the immeasurable variables like emotions, stress, hunger and desperation.
Conor is a master of juggling the extraneous factors. His reckless attitude is nothing new for his fans, and when he steps into the octagon he’s a totally different person. Conor is a dangerously composed and tactical fighter, who lures his opponents into range before snapping them with the venom of his left fist. Jose Aldo, described by Joe Rogan as an assassin, was the undisputed champion of the division for seven years, and he was dropped by Conor within seconds.
On the other hand, Khabib has never lost a fight in the UFC. He hasn’t even lost a single round. Having wrestled bears, real fucking bears, in the mountains of Dagestan since the age of four, his destructive grappling ability is the stuff of legend. Khabib’s fights are consistently described by commentators as maulings, a term he made his own when he told Conor, in a slightly aloof and cold voice, “I will maul you.”
He has a fighting style that plays out like a horror show; high amplitude takedowns that disorient his opponents, before he rag-dolls them around the octagon, wrapping them up like a snake until they’re immobile, then savagely beating them to a pulp while yelling, “this is my legacy.”
Last night, during the final press conference, a Russian reporter asked Khabib if the octagon was going to feel like 25 minutes in jail for Conor Mcgregor. “Win or lose,” Khabib told the pre-fight press conference, “I will not shake his hand.” Twenty minutes into the press conference Conor still hadn’t showed up. Khabib explained to the roaring Irish fan base that this was a sign of disrespect, so he stood up and left.
“There is way deeper shit than just a fight on Saturday night,” asserted Conor upon arrival, “I always say, you should aim for peace. But if you can’t aim for peace, you should aim between the eyes.” He then began hurling wild 9/11 conspiracies about Khabib’s manager, Ali Abdel-Aziz, claiming he was “a terrorist snitch” after he was caught with five passports on a flight to Cairo on September 11, 2001.
On Wednesday night, during Khabib’s open work-out, he finally responded to the booing Irish fans: “I have question to Ireland…what’s wrong with your [national] language? You switched to English? You changed your language.” Khabib, while smiling, explained, “[Conor’s] grandfather, Christopher McGregor, worked with the English navy and killed your people. Now you guys support him? I’m going to change this on Saturday night.”
But Conor’s fans are confident, even though he has lost before. Conor has little to prove in this fight. Aside from the fact that he will be earning $90 million for the bloodthirsty soiree, his motives are about backing your mates. And I don’t think his fans will think any less of him if he loses. The fight for him is principally about defending Artem Lobov’s honour, which he already proved a willingness to do when he attacked the bus in New York. In principle, he doesn’t really lose much.
For Khabib the fight is about pride. It’s about his legacy as an undefeated champion in the UFC. It’s about the abuse hurled toward his friends and family. It’s about the veiled insults to his religion. It’s about Russia and the West. It’s about arrogance and humility. This is not a sport, it has become a war for him. And the stakes are everything he believes in.
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