The Irishman returns to UFC action on Saturday but despite the pre-match war of words he will be unwise to take his opponent lightly
Moment of truth awaits Conor McGregor against undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov
In The Fight – Norman Mailer’s 1975 account of the Ali v Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” – the Pulitzer prize-winner wrote: “It is not uncommon for fighters’ camps to be gloomy. In heavy training, fighters live in dimensions of boredom others do not begin to contemplate.”
“Boredom” is not a quality which can be applied to MMA cash-cow Conor McGregor, even though the Irishman’s camp has been locked up tighter than Fort Knox ahead of Saturday’s lightweight title fight with reigning champ Khabib Abdulmanapovich Nurmagomedov.
Nor can the 30-year-old Dubliner be accused of playing second fiddle. But McGregor will have to wait in Las Vegas’s T-Mobile Arena for his Russian opponent to enter the octagon second – a privilege extended to the title holder.
Galling though that may be to the mercurial McGregor – who told a pre-fight news conference this week that he’d like to “put a hole in [Nurmagomedov]’s skull” – it’s a fact that belts and titles don’t carry that much weight in the turbo-charged world of UFC.
Money talks in a sport which was described in 1996 by former US Senator John McCain as “human cockfighting”. UFC President Dana White has taken no-holds-barred combat – by both sexes - as close to the sporting mainstream as it is likely to get, but without cash it would retreat back into the shadows.
This is where fights like McGregor versus Nurmagomedov prove indispensable – they are box office. McGregor last fought in the octagon in November 2016, taking the UFC lightweight title from Eddie Alvarez. Since then McGregor bagged millions in his much-hyped (and derided) switch to the sweet science against Floyd Mayweather in August last year.
Then, in April this year, there was the chaos in Brooklyn, where a beef between McGregor and Nurmagomedov saw “Mighty Mac” fly across the Atlantic to launch a violent attack on a bus carrying the Russian and a group of other UFC fighters.
It ended with the Dubliner pleading guilty to multiple criminal charges in a New York City courthouse.
So, it is perhaps unsurprising that the UFC branded Saturday’s clash between the two men as “Bad Blood”.
This bad blood may, or may not, be for real. What is for real is McGregor’s central role at the beating heart of UFC, where even a defeat on Saturday is unlikely to stop the Crumlin native’s advance. He too is box office and he knows it.
But his opponent brings something to the octagon which even McGregor cannot boast: an undefeated record.
Unbeaten fighters are not uncommon in the UFC but for Nurmagomedov, at 30, to have a 26-0-0 record – a unique UFC achievement - shows McGregor would be foolish to discount the Dagestan grappler.
Nurmagomedov’s wrestling background – including two Sambo world championship titles – more than makes up for his lack of striking ability.
And as McGregor commands passionate travelling support – he remains a raucous hero to some in Ireland, despite sniffy treatment from the country’s sporting establishment – Nurmagomedov’s Russian background and Muslim piety have won the hearts of what one report described as a “hidden army” of fans.
Where McGregor has been accused of being a dilettante in the world of boxing, Nurmagomedov recently staked his own claim to the sport, posting an online video message of support from Muhammad Ali’s former manager Gene Kilroy.
Against Mayweather McGregor showed he could punch - and he has a four-inch reach advantage on the Russian - but the boxer’s superior endurance saw the Dubliner blow himself out before losing on a TKO in the tenth round.
Not that defeat keeps McGregor quiet for long. His first loss – being choked out by Nate Diaz in March 2016 in an ill-judged switch up to the welterweight division – was rectified in an August re-match that year.
Training videos from that time show McGregor to be lithe, agile and alert. But he will need those qualities to combine with his undoubted striking power if he is to overturn the expectations that Nurmagomedov will walk out of the octagon on Saturday with his title.
UFC: mad, bad and dangerous to know? For sure. Boring? Never.