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McGregor vs Khabib: Making sense of the insanity of UFC 229

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LAS VEGAS — After the title fight was over, once the street brawl had subsided, Joe Rogan strolled past an empty octagon at T-Mobile Arena and turned to address press row. “What the f—, guys, right?” the comedian-turned-commentator said. “The most what-the-f— moment ever.”

Perhaps. On the one hand, the lightweight champion did climb over the octagon cage and leapt into the front row, attacking one of his opponent’s training partners and sparking a melee that netted three arrests, only moments after defending his undefeated mixed martial arts record (27-0) with a rear-naked chokehold in the fourth round of the most-hyped UFC bout ever.

Then again, it all seemed rather inevitable, didn’t it?

Both corners deserve ample blame for what transpired Saturday night, of course. The obvious culprit is Khabib Nurmagomedov, that aforementioned lightweight champion–until further notice, at least–who went all Ron Artest on Sin City when he should’ve been celebrating an eight-figure payday and combat sports immortality. But consider everything that had been swirling inside the cauldron before its contents frothed over: The metal dolly that Conor McGregor hurled through a bus window in April, the venomous one-liners that he laced with personal insults during promotional press conferences, the barbs that his jiu-jitsu coach Dillon Danis allegedly spewed ringside once McGregor had tapped out…

As Nurmagomedov explained later, seated behind a microphone and flanked by a shimmering gold belt, “I know this is not my best side. [But] I am human being … He talk about my about my religion, he talk about my country, he talk about my father. He come to Brooklyn and he broke bus. He almost kill couple people. What about this? What about this s—? Why people talk about I jump over the cage? Why people still talk about this? I no understand.”

Well, it’s quite simple, really. Confined solely to their fighting credentials, Khabib-McGregor would’ve been tantalizing enough on paper for any average fighting fan. A stoic grappling expert from Dagestan against the counterpunching, pot-stirring Irishman. An unbeaten mauler, mounting his first title defense, versus the former champ whose crown was stripped only because he decided to try boxing for a little while. But stats alone weren’t why pay-per-view buys should eclipse 2 million for the first time in MMA history. Or why celebrities like Matt Damon, Chris Pratt and Mike Tyson filled the floor seats. Or why McGregor took to Twitter at 2:20 a.m., local Las Vegas time, and sketched a roadmap for their mutual future:

No, people still talk because people can’t look away. Small wonder footage of McGregor’s rampage through the loading dock at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center was spliced into virtually every UFC-produced promo leading into its 229th event. “It’s part of the story,” president Dana White said, which is precisely the point. Now the story features Nurmagomedov loyalist Zubaira Tukhugov vaulting into the octagon and sucker-punching McGregor amid the chaos. It includes an ongoing investigation by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, which already saw enough to withhold Nurmagomedov’s $2 million prize purse after the fight but not McGregor’s $3 million. It is about the beer that showered Nurmagomedov while he was whisked away through the tunnel, and the charges that McGregor declined to press against his attackers, and the fatigue worn on White’s face as he addressed reporters.

“It’s really disgusting and disappointing for me,” White said. “[But] are we going to fold up the tents and go away? No. We’re going to keep putting on fights … We know this isn’t who we are.”

The rest of Saturday night will support this thesis. The undercard was bloody and brutal, yet spectacular and sportsmanlike. Heavyweight Derrick Lewis scored a buzzer-beating, come-from-behind TKO over Alexander Volkov and then stripped down to his skivvies while getting interviewed by Rogan, explaining that his “balls was hot.” Lightweights Tony Ferguson and Anthony Pettis both leaked enough plasma to stain the canvas rust-red but still kept smiling at each other mid-round, real recognizing real. Phalanxes of police officers patrolled around the octagon, the result of an exhaustive protection plan that, according to White, contained two meetings in the hours before Nurmagomedov and McGregor made their official entrances.

“Believe me, we’ve went above and beyond anything we’ve ever done in the history of the company to make sure this didn’t happen,” White said. “But what are you going to do when a guy flies like a freakin’ monkey over the cage? You can prepare, you can have all these people and stuff, but what are you going to do?”

Twenty-one years ago, White was sitting in the crowd at the MGM Grand when Tyson chewed off a chunk of Evander Holyfield’s ear, sparking a near-riot that spilled out of the arena and onto the casino floor. He recalls getting flashbacks as Nurmagomedov scaled the fence and tore after Danis, swinging and clawing before security pulled him back. “It was f—— scary,” White says. “Usually that stuff spreads like a wildfire. They did a great job of containing it.”

Even so, the incident will forever overshadow one hell of a scrap. The opening two rounds plodded past without much meaningful action, save several takedowns and ground-and-pound jabs from Nurmagomedov that chipped away at McGregor’s stamina. But the third marked a historic occasion: Until all three judges favored McGregor on their cards, Nurmagomedov had never lost a round in his MMA career.

And so the arena pulsed during the break, flapping Irish flags and singing olé, olé, olé, chugging beers and wafting weed smoke, confident that one landed blow was all McGregor needed to assume control. Their faith was never rewarded. Three minutes into the fourth round, Nurmagomedov rocked McGregor backwards and pressed his forearm against the challenger’s neck. A few seconds later, McGregor’s right hand patted Nurmagomedov three times and stunned boos cascaded from the crowd.

“I told you this, guys: Not only him, but his whole team, they tap machines,” Nurmagomedov said later. “When you put him wrong way, he gonna tap. What happened today?”

What happened, if nothing else, was at once the culmination of a longstanding personal feud and the potential start of a lucrative partnership. White would not guarantee that Nurmagomedov will retain his lightweight belt — citing safety concerns, he nixed the usual belt presentation ceremony after the fight — but deferred to Nevada Athletic Commission executive director Bob Bennett on punishment. “He doesn’t have to worry about me right now,” White said. “He has to worry about Nevada. The Governor was here tonight. The Governor went running out of the building. That’s not good. A Governor running out of the building isn’t good. He’s in trouble.”

Perhaps. It will be easy to make an example of Nurmagomedov–and Zubaira Tukhugov, the UFC featherweight who was scheduled to fight later this month against Artem Lobov, a training partner of McGregor’s whose April altercation with Nurmagomedov kickstarted their beef. (Got all that?) Travel visas could be revoked, heavy fines issued, lengthy suspensions levied. Surely hands will be wrung and fainting couches employed.

But at some point, assuming McGregor’s wish comes true, he and Nurmagomedov will share an octagon again. And when that time comes, we will all be glued for the next what-the-f— moment to leap from the cage and command our attention. “This isn’t the last time guys are going to say mean things to each other,” White said. “It’s the fight business. It’s the fight game. It’s how it works.”

 


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