Remembering Khabib Vs. McGregor A Year On From Their UFC Grudge Match
It was meant to be the night Conor McGregor the mixed martial artist was reborn. The night he reminded the world why he's the undisputed king of the Octagon and not just a trash-talking whiskey mogul. Instead, he never looked more human, more helpless, more out of his depth. And after Khabib Nurmagomedov had cranked his neck and forced him to tap in the fourth round at UFC 229, he sat up against the cage, his lungs desperately trying to pump oxygen around his body, as Khabib turned his attentions to McGregor's corner. Then, all hell broke loose.
Khabib flew over the Octagon with a flying stomp aimed at McGregor's cornerman and Bellator fighter Dillon Danis. Back inside the Octagon the vanquished Irishman got to his feet and fought with three of Nurmagomedov's team. Bodies piled in. Fans hit record on their camera phones. UFC president Dana White said he was "disgusted and sick" over the incident.
But he shouldn't have been surprised. The build-up had been ugly, fueled by racism, insults and an attack on a bus full of fighters. The aftermath, on the other hand, has taken some unexpected twists and turns. McGregor refused to press charges against the members of Nurmagomedov's team who were arrested for attacking him.
The Nevada State Athletic Commission suspended Conor for six months and hit him with a $50,000 fine. Nurmagomedov's punishment was more severe - $500,000 and a nine-month ban.
A year on from the infamous melee, SPORTbible takes a look at the lives of an unbeatable champion and a fallen icon.
Even before their scuffle at the T-Mobile Arena, McGregor's stock had been falling. The feeling of invincibility he gained from his historic achievements inside the octagon was creating a monster outside of it.
That was only exacerbated by his boxing match with Floyd Mayweather Jr in August 2017. McGregor lost "The Money Fight" via TKO in the 10th round, but earned himself a reported $80 million. While observers respected the courage of a mixed martial artist who dared to step into the ring with one of the greatest boxers of all-time, he was losing his artistry in the press conference.
Humour and wit came second to talk of benjamins and business. His tone more aggressive and brash as his everyman story was reduced to a footnote on a sermon of self-promotion. In November 2017 he caused chaos at Bellator 187 when he jumped the cage to celebrate SBG teammate Charlie Ward's TKO victory and almost five months later he injured a number of fighters after he launched a dolly through a window of a bus following the UFC 223 media day. White described this as the "most disgusting thing that has ever happened in the history of the company".
In the fight game, a comic book world of heroes and villains, McGregor was still the box office mischief-maker fans wanted to watch. He was The Notorious - the working-class fella who scrapped his way to the top, who knocked out Jose Aldo in 13 seconds, who became the first-ever two-division UFC champion, who went up a weight division to fight Nate Diaz, who told Rafael dos Anjos to break out the red panties, who made a meme out of Jeremy Stephens and he was the guy who wanted to apologise to "absolutely nobody."
Except, now he is sorry. Least he says he is. There have been a number of damaging headlines since his loss to Khabib, but The New York Times report that he's under investigation for sexual assault in Ireland and then the TMZ video of him punching an elderly man in a pub in Dublin in a dispute over whiskey, have done the kind of damage that sticks.
"I was in the wrong," McGregor told ESPN's Ariel Helwani. "That man deserved to enjoy his time in the pub without having it end the way it did.
"I must come here before you and take accountability and take responsibility. So, if I have this opportunity before me, if I don't execute this and get this right, make this happen for the children of my children's children, all of my successes, all of everything I've achieved will be void, will be meaningless to me.
"I must get this right and I must not go down that path, the written path, the cliché of the fighter that has it all and ruins [it]."
McGregor hasn't won an MMA fight since defeating Eddie Alvarez in November 2016 and it's his lack of activity that has jarred more with fans than his misdemeanours, according to former UFC bantamweight fighter Brad Pickett. "He hasn't been in the media spotlight for what made him famous - fighting," he told SPORTbible.
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"He's a very exciting fighter and charismatic and that's why fans love him. I would never ordinarily watch press conferences or any fight build-up but I'll always tune in to watch Conor.
"I wouldn't say fame and money have become a distraction, he's just a very busy man with his various business interests and young family."
Khabib, meanwhile, has been active both in and outside of the Octagon, capitalising on his newfound global fame. His father may have "smashed" him for sparking a brawl at UFC 229, but the Russian president Vladimir Putin wanted to congratulate Khabib on regaining his title and told Nurmagomedov Snr "not to punish him too severely".
He then called out Mayweather Jr and challenged him to a fight in Moscow. Talks fizzled out, but it saw the UFC lightweight champion occupy more column inches around the world.
More juice on the circuit, means more preferential treatment. European super clubs Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan both had the Dagestani football fan watching games from their VIP boxes.
But, during his nine-month ban he didn't get too comfortable living the red carpet lifestyle, he trained like he was preparing for a fight. And he got one in September - a lightweight championship title unification bout against interim champion Dustin Poirier at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi.
Poirier, who had been on a tear defeating a who's who of the division including Anthony Pettis, Justin Gaethje, Alvarez and Max Holloway, was just another world-class fighter who was made to look like an amateur by the 155lb king.
Just like the 27 fighters before him, Poirier knew what was coming but he couldn't stop it and when The Eagle locked in a rear-naked choke in the third round, he tapped and saw his dreams evaporate.
But there was no riot after this 12 minute-mauling, just a nice photo between two honourable combatants who have nothing but respect for one another and a $100,000 donation from Khabib to Poirier's charity, The Good Fight Foundation.
Acts of kindness, breaking the spirit of seasoned warriors, adhering to the martial artist's code of conduct, developing his grasp of the English language and of course, wrestling bears as a child, have endeared Nurmagomedov to a wider audience.
"He's always been a superstar in Russia, but now he's more mainstream because he's the champ, he's 28-0 and it's remarkable the competition he's been beating," says Pickett. "He's been more charismatic on camera and we're seeing more of his personality coming through in his relationship with Daniel Cormier. Fans respect him because he's a beast."
So, what's next for both of these two titans? A rematch would do huge numbers, potentially historic. The first fight drew an attendance of 20,034 fans, setting the record for a live mixed martial arts event in Nevada. It also set the record for the biggest MMA pay-per-view event, with 2.4 million buys in America.
McGregor would be a huge payday, but the right fight to make, the one that makes the most sense competitively is Tony Ferguson. The undefeated champion vs the fighter on a 12-fight win streak.
For Conor, the man who appeared to manipulate the space of the octagon like Neo and down his opponents with a sonic boom from his left hand, feels like a fighter who has lost control of his destiny.
His story was meant to be one of eternal greatness and timeless quotes, but it's now in danger of descending into a tale of chaos and collapse.
"I must get my head screwed on and just get back in the game and fight for redemption, retribution, respect -- the things that made me the man I am," said McGregor. "And that's what I will do."
This is a rematch that has to be made. Just not yet. It's not the right time. Conor has a bigger battle on this hands.