A wolf in black sweats prowled the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn on April 6th. Manic and swaggering was Conor McGregor as he lead his pack through the bowels of the arena looking not for prey, but to make a point.
Days earlier one of McGregor’s den-mates had been surrounded, humiliated. A patronizing squeeze on the scruff of his neck had told the world that Khabib Nurmagomedov, the undefeated Eagle of the North Caucasus, thought the lowly Russian Hammer Artem Lobov — an adopted Irishman — was beneath him.
The tableau was beamed across the globe, reaching Dublin. In Éire a fuse was lit, which sizzled for the length of a transatlantic flight, and found its powder keg when McGregor and his cronies poured out of an elevator and into an underground parking lot.
Having satisfied their media duties ahead of UFC 223 fighters were being transported from the arena in a swank shuttle. As the bus holding Nurmagomedov, along with Rose Namajunas, Michael Chiesa, and Ray Borg, ambled toward an exit, McGregor’s raiding party struck.
They howled threats and skipped behind the slowly rolling vehicle. Then McGregor broke from the group. He flanked the bus, found a weapon and … CRASH.
When the window shattered, inches away from Chiesa’s face, it didn’t sound like breaking glass does in the movies. There was no flutter of sharp harmonies, like you’d get out of a wind chime. Instead the window broke with a bass-rich thud and a sickening crack. The assault drew blood and ire.
When McGregor destroyed that physical barrier between he and Nurmagomedov he removed any doubt that their destinies would meet. Soon after, all obstacles were removed and papers were signed. Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor was on.
The bout will break records. Maybe all of them. For pure sport, the match-up fascinates like few others. But the intrigue in this meeting goes far beyond that. For greater appreciation, and understanding, of the approaching spectacle we must look deeply into the divergent lives, styles, and beliefs of the Dubliner and the Dagestani.
On September 20, 1988, Khabib Nurmagomedov was born to Avar parents in the modest village of Silde, Dagestan. His father, Abdulmanap, claimed that his son learned to walk on a wrestling mat. And the adage was no exaggeration. A hardened coach with a remarkable resume of championships and accolades from his glory days during the USSR, Abdulmanap was training more than a dozen wrestlers on the bottom floor of his two-story residence at the time his son was born. During practices, young Khabib would crawl around on the mats in the gym and watch his father in awe.
Around the time of Nurmagomedov’s ninth birthday, his father brought him face to face with a chained bear cub. The cub was larger and heavier than the trembling boy dressed in a red and blue tracksuit. Abdulmanap turned on a handheld camera, looked down at his son and ordered him to wrestle the animal. Well accustomed to the Dagestani culture and patriarchy even at his young age, the boy knew better than to question his father’s wishes. He tucked his chin into his chest, bent forward with his arms extended, and began to wrestle the unmuzzled bear.
Abdulmanap observed his second-born as he rolled around in the dirt, digging his heels into the ground before pouncing on the bear. Khabib was relentless. The young boy collided with the bear cub, testing his strength with the furry beast’s own power. Only determination and the desire to please his father kept his fear at bay.
Khabib’s upbringing was not particularly unique among Dagestani families. He hails from one of Russia’s most troubled republics – a region that is home to the highest amount of terrorist crimes in the entire Russian Federation (966 cases of terrorism-related incidents were recorded in 2016 alone). This societal tension coupled with a hopeless economic climate left much of Dagestan’s youth at a crossroads: flee into the depths of the mountains and pledge allegiance to terrorist causes, or improve one’s life through organized, competitive sporting activity.
Sports such as judo and sambo were sponsored by the Dagestani government and encouraged by parents with the intention of pivoting their children away from potential extremism. Khabib’s father, Abdulmanap, provided a small gym that encouraged rural youth to participate in basic combat sports to build confidence, discipline, and ensure preparedness for the potentially traumatic experiences that ravished the North Caucasus.
While most children did not have judo and wrestling champions for parents, almost all young boys between the age of eight and ten tested their resolve on a wrestling mat. Khabib had a natural instinct for grappling, though he only realized his true potential when he transitioned from freestyle wrestling to Combat Sambo and Judo. From there, he went on to rack up multiple titles, including a National Championships in Combat Sambo as well as European titles in Army Hand-to-Hand Combat and Pankration. A move to MMA seemed like a natural step for the Dagestani phenom.
Khabib eventually made his pro MMA debut in September 2008, defeating Vusal Bayramov via triangle choke. The entire fight lasted a little over two minutes — a formidable display that set the stage for a decade of dominance.
Conor McGregor came into the world on July 14th, 1988; the son of Tony, a Liverpool-born taxi driver, and Margaret, a laundry-worker from Pearse Street in Dublin’s city centre. Margaret spent only an hour in labour delivering her youngest child and only son. “Conor was in a hurry to make himself known,” joked Tony years later. As a midwife swaddled the newest member of the McGregor clan she told the parents, “this fella’s going to be a boxer.” The couple was confused. Then they looked down and saw the baby’s tiny pink hands clenched into fists.
Though Tony’s father had boxed, and served in the Navy, McGregor was not raised with any expectations of combat. Instead the McGregors tried to instill an interest in more scholarly pursuits, hoping their bright boy might become a lawyer.
When McGregor’s schoolmates got old enough to turn cruel, he became a target. At Coláiste de hÍde, a Gaelic-speaking school in Tallaght, kids called him ‘Snowball.’ The jeer referred to McGregor’s golden mop of hair, which had been sculpted into a perfect (though, tragic in hindsight) bowl-cut.
At 12-years-old the skinny lad worked up enough nerve to enter Crumlin Boxing Club for the first time. The cozy gym was lined with sweat-streaked mirrors and faded posters of famous Irish fighting men. The structure’s high a-frame ceiling gave the building a look and feel somewhere between a barn and a chapel.
The schoolboy looked around and saw hard nuts from the neighbourhood thudding pads. The constant wet crack of padded leather filled the air. Mixed with these sounds were the barks of club owner Phil Sutcliffe, who was slaloming between sparring partners and heavy bags.
McGregor told the grown-up that he wanted to join. Sutcliffe said ‘fine’ and told him to sign some papers in his office. McGregor chose to meander towards a punching bag instead. A furious Sutcliffe ordered him to stop. He’d noticed that McGregor’s boots were caked in mud and that there was a trail snaking from the back of his heels to the doorway. McGregor never was shy about leaving his mark.
Though his parents weren’t thrilled, McGregor knuckled under at Crumlin Boxing Club; showing promise beyond his years. But the Queensberry Rules couldn’t contain him. As a teen he started skipping some boxing classes in favour of kickboxing sessions across town.
When he aged out of school, McGregor felt a mercy had been delivered upon him. His loathing of the classroom ruined his parents’ hopes for a legal career. Instead they pushed him to take up a trade. He chose plumbing, but didn’t last more than a year into his apprenticeship.
While working on u-bends and plugholes he met Tom Egan and immediately bonded over a shared love of fight sports. Egan, who would become the first Irishman to compete in the UFC, told McGregor there was somewhere he needed to go: SBG Ireland.
John Kavanagh’s MMA gym in Crumlin was just steps away from where McGregor grew up. Inside McGregor discovered the tools that would become his obsession and a crew that could unlock their potential.
In March 2008 McGregor entered the fighting arena for the first time. In a rickety cage inside of a basketball court, McGregor weathered a tense round against Gary Morris before finishing him via TKO. He was on his way to becoming the brightest star the sport had ever seen.
Radio City Music Hall is a dazzling entertainment venue. Once a leading tourist destination in Manhattan, and now recognized as an official New York City landmark, the historic building hosted a press conference featuring two of the most popular prizefighters on the planet, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor.
While music halls are loud venues built to host thousands of eager listeners, the UFC 229 press conference was closed to the public. The magnificent yet desolate venue served as the bizarre backdrop for the two fighters to promote their upcoming showdown. Limited to a smattering of journalists, McGregor resorted to unprecedented tactics.
“It’s s**** on the bus’s birthday!” McGregor bellowed into the microphone as he poured a glass of Proper Twelve, his own brand of Irish whiskey, into a plastic cup. He reached across the podium and attempted to pass the drink over to Dagestani fighter sitting across the stage from him.
“I don’t drink,” Nurmagomedov responded.
“Why don’t you drink?” asked McGregor.
“I never drink.”
“I’d say you’re some buzz at parties, you mad, backwards c***! You’re dead when I get my hands on you. You’re dead.”
When the echo from McGregor’s microphone died down, the room was left in palpable silence. Nurmagomedov maintained his stoic demeanour and calm disposition despite the calculated attacks on his religion. McGregor’s antics were strategic — an attempt to enrage a fighter known for his piety and distract him during a crucial stage of his training.
While it is not uncommon for fighters to rest their faith in a higher power when stepping into the cage, Nurmagomedov is both vocal about his beliefs and strict about its implementation, particularly when factoring it into his professional career as a fighter. An example of this is how Nurmagomedov handles the holy month of Ramadan.
Ramadan, one of the five pillars of Islam, is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar where muslims fast to observe the initial revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. During the fasting period, which typically lasts from dawn until dusk, participants are required to abstain from food, water, and sexual intercourse. It is considered a period of spiritual enlightenment, where Muslims are expected to hold themselves to the highest standards – increased prayers, alms-giving (zakat), and meals provided to the less fortunate are typical examples of the increased effort shown during Ramadan.
While many Muslim athletes compete during Ramadan, Nurmagomedov chooses to abstain from fighting all together. In fact, Nurmagomedov once willingly sacrificed a potential title fight in order to complete Ramadan without any interruptions. In 2014, Nurmagomedov turned down a fight with Donald Cerrone because it conflicted with Ramadan. He also refused to fight on the landmark UFC 200 show, as it took place a few days after Ramadan in 2016. It was clear that his faith outweighed his career ambitions.
”Sport is different but Ramadan for me is No. 1,” Khabib said following an open workout session at UFC 197. “It is ok, UFC and everything, but Ramadan is a different level. This is everything for me. I cannot fight in Ramadan.”
Nurmagomedov’s relationship with Islam and his determination not to advance his career at the expense of his religion is rooted in his upbringing. His father had emphasized the importance of faith from a young age and endowed Nurmagomedov with a foundation of spiritual apprehension. According to Abdulmanap, “Faith and religion is very important for a fighter. It brings discipline in his life. If you are a religious person, you face different restrictions in life. A faithful man is a healthy man. He has no pride within and his mind is strong.”
Nurmagomedov is also outspoken about his religiosity. When EA Sports released its second UFC game in 2016, the Dagestani native complained that his avatar performed the sign of the cross as part of his victory celebration. Nurmagomedov took to twitter and explained that he is a devout Muslim and “not baptized.” EA Sports later apologized for the oversight.
More recently, Nurmagomedov has been vocal about the surge in rap concerts taking place in Dagestan. However, his controversial comments resulted in significant backlash from his fellow Dagestanis as well as from Russia’s burgeoning rap community. The situation grew more tense when rapper Egor Kreed was forced to cancel his performance in Dagestan after being threatened with rape. When Nurmagomedov was asked to share his thoughts on event cancelation, he stated that losing the event was “no great loss.”
The UFC champion’s refusal to denounce the threats that led to the cancelation of the rap concert fuelled his critics. Timati, Russia’s most recognizable rapper and the owner of the Black Star label that represents Egor Kreed, criticized Nurmagomedov for “inciting ethnic conflict on the basis of religion.”
While Nurmagomedov is popular among Muslim MMA fans in Russia’s North Caucasus, as well as in the surrounding post-Soviet states, his religiosity is controversial among ethnic Russians. His ongoing conflict with Timati emphasizes the duality of the Dagestani native’s stardom and the limitations his religiosity places on his starpower within the Russian Federation.
If Conor McGregor’s practicing of Christianity goes beyond buying Christmas presents, we’d be surprised. Only because McGregor has not publicly displayed much reverence, if any, for revealed religion. And he’s had plenty of opportunity to do so. Though, it’s entirely possible that some areas of McGregor’s life are considered too precious to splash over Instagram or weave with curse ridden smack-talk.
Something close to spirituality, that McGregor can be confidently tied to, is the new age religion of positive thinking. David Mullins, a sports psychologist who has worked with many fighters at SBG Ireland, revealed that McGregor is a ‘big fan of The Secret.’
The Secret by Rhonda Byrne was published in 2006. The book focuses on the so-called law of attraction, which dictates that our thoughts can directly change the world around us. According to that book, visualizing your desires is a key component to receiving — from the universe — all you have ever dreamed of. It has sold over 30 million copies worldwide.
”I used to pretend that my Peugeot driving to the gym in the rain in Dublin was a Ferrari on the Vegas strip. And now that I have that? I can’t even describe that feeling,” said McGregor in a 2016 interview. In that instance he also cited hard work as integral to his success, but mentions of visualizations and manifestations pop-up elsewhere in McGregor’s narrative.
A prime-time example of this came on the night he had his greatest sporting achievement; winning the lightweight title, while reigning as featherweight champion, at UFC 205. He handily dispatched then-155 lb champ Eddie Alvarez in under two rounds. He didn’t celebrate the TKO, instead he coolly paced around the canvas as if the result were preordained. Then, as the post-fight ceremonies were under way, the newly minted double-champion shook his head in disgust.
”Where the f–k is my second belt?” he yelled into Joe Rogan’s microphone. “Cheap motherf–kers.” McGregor fumed as he explained, “They should have had two belts ready, specially for me!” His temper tantrum was quelled only when a UFC suit emerged with a second shiny belt. When McGregor saw himself grasping both trophies, elation washed over his face. “This is what I dreamed into reality,” he said.
But McGregor’s vision boards likely held more than just UFC victories. Based on what he parades on social media, McGregor might have dreamed tailored suits, designer watches, and luxury cars into being also. McGregor’s relentless showcasing of wealth and status symbols is enough to wonder if the Irishman’s higher power is the Almighty Dollar.
Although, perhaps money is not the focus of McGregor’s worship. Instead, cash could just be a tool used to worship his ultimate idol: himself.
The belief that his will shapes the universe, unending self-aggrandizement, and constant tributes paid to-and-from himself, may support a thesis for McGregor having a God Complex. Add to it graven images, a loyal cluster of disciples, and millions of adoring followers and it’s easy to imagine McGregor thinking himself special, if not divine. Only McGregor can tell us if these trappings provide spiritual fulfillment and whether or not he cares.
When Khabib Nurmagomedov stepped into the Octagon against Michael Johnson at UFC 205, many anticipated it to be one of the biggest challenges in the Dagestani lightweight’s professional career. Fresh off a knockout victory against Dustin Poirier, Johnson was brimming with confidence and momentum. Nurmagomedov’s most recent victory, however, was a TKO win against Darrell Horcher, a UFC debutant with little credibility as an elite fighter.
For the first minute of the bout, it looked as though Johnson could do no wrong. He tagged Nurmagomedov with several stinging jabs before unleashing a flurry of strikes that had his undefeated opponent backpedaling. UFC commentator Joe Rogan took notice of Johnson’s onslaught and screeched into his microphone: “”Oh, he tagged him! He hurt him bad! Nurmagomedov is hurt right now! He’s wobbly and hurt! He’s moving around but, Nurmagomedov is still in trouble, Mike. His legs are not under him completely.”
Johnson’s early onslaught sparked a fury within Nurmagomedov. Eyes renewed with focus and determination, he charged at Johnson with a jab and follow-up punches before changing levels to secure the underhook grip. Within seconds, Nurmagomedov had tripped Johnson to secure the takedown, and mounted his opponent.
The remainder of the fight was a masterclass in grappling dominance.
While Nurmagomedov’s victory that night — a third-round submission win — extended his undefeated record to 24-0 and inched him closer to a coveted title shot in the lightweight division, it was overshadowed by the chilling advice he gave Johnson in the middle of the fight.
“I need to fight for the title,” Nurmagomedov told Johnson after landing several unanswered shots to the dazed fighter’s chin while in mount position. “You know this. I deserve it. You must give up.”
Nurmagomedov’s blunt honesty was matched by his spacial awareness. Between rounds, he turned to UFC president Dana White, who was seated in the front row behind the Dagestani’s corner, and informed him that he will “smash his boy” — a reference to Conor McGregor.
McGregor, who headlined UFC 205 against Eddie Alvarez, emerged victorious and was crowned a two-division UFC champion hours following Nurmagomedov’s win on the preliminary portion of the card. It was a banner night for the two men now scheduled to meet in the Octagon 23 months later, one that emphasized their dominance over the division, as well as their contrasting fighting styles. While McGregor’s win came in the form of a highlight-reel knockout, Nurmagomedov’s was slow and methodical.
It is these differences that make the UFC 229 main event a compelling fight. Apart from the differences in their personalities, Nurmagomedov and McGregor represent two distinct styles in mixed martial arts. The Dagestani is a representative of his republic’s grappling culture. His foundation is rooted in combat sambo, judo, and freestyle wrestling. He uses that particular skill set to create a claustrophobic environment for his opponents.
“My background is to smash opponents – make him flat, make him give up, make him broken; this is my style,” Nurmagomedov told UFC.com ahead of UFC 219. “This is my style. It doesn’t matter who my opponent is – Edson Barboza, Tony Ferguson; it doesn’t matter. I’m going to keep going and I’m going to break these guys.”
While Nurmagomedov’s style is not one that fans clamour to watch, his mastery over his craft and his calm composure make him a surreal figure to behold in the Octagon. Few fighters can boast to an undefeated record. Far fewer can declare that they have never officially lost a round in a UFC fight. Nurmagomedov can lay claim to both.
Another interesting aspect of Nurmagomedov’s fight persona is his approach to prizefighting. While most fighters, including McGregor, compete to earn a living and advance their financial standing, Nurmagomedov has repeatedly stated that money is not a primary factor in his career: “I don’t fight for the money. I fight for my legacy.”
While Nurmagomedov’s nonchalant approach to his career is idealistic, it is also inconsistent. During the negotiation process for UFC 229, Nurmagomedov’s manager, Ali Abdelaziz, demanded a $10 million price tag for the UFC to enlist the fighter’s services against McGregor. When Nurmagomedov was asked about the starling figure, he doubled down.
“If [UFC] want to use me to make a lot of millions, no way,” said Nurmagomedov. “They want a money fight, please pay me.”
The greatest victory of Conor McGregor’s MMA career came at UFC 205 in November, 2016 — the same night Khabib Numagomedov brutalized Michael Johnson. That night, at the hallowed Madison Square Garden in New York City, McGregor beat Eddie Alvarez to claim the UFC’s lightweight title. The victory crowned McGregor as the first concurrent two-division champion (or ‘champ-champ’) in the promotion’s history.
As he walked to the cage that night, he gazed through the camera’s lens while Sinead O’Connor’s rendition of ‘The Foggy Dew’ echoed through the arena. The ballad of Irish resistance carried him part of the way to the prep point, but 50 Cent’s ‘I Get Money’ finished the job.
In the Octagon, McGregor served a ‘billionaire strut’ to a chorus of Irish ‘Olès’ before touching gloves with his game opponent. When the opening bell rang, McGregor hopped from a crouched position and took the center of the cage; it would be his for the rest of the night.
In the early stages of the fight, a stone-faced McGregor stalked Alvarez. He swayed and craned his neck, looking over his target with care and interest. It was like he were a woodsman, studying a trunk, from all angles, before deciding how to hack it down.
He reached out, delicately, with his right hand and pawed Alvarez’s left. McGregor’s own left remained coiled. He was trying to create a reaction.
Causing a reaction, and then capitalizing on it, is a hallmark of McGregor’s incomparable career. The tactic is as prevalent outside the cage as it is within. He’s spent hours behind podiums needling his opponents. He’s made threats, lashed out, and mocked, he’s stolen and thrown objects, he’s raged and laughed maniacally. All of these were tests to see what precise ingredient was needed to boil the blood of each of his foes.
The McGregor mind game’s most famous victory came over the iconic José Aldo. The Brazilian’s battle-hardened aura of calm was evaporated by a grueling UFC-sanctioned schedule of abuse from McGregor. When their fight finally came, the usually composed and cerebral Aldo launched at McGregor haphazardly and ran into a well prepared left hook.
At UFC 205, McGregor had that same punch cocked and ready for Alvarez. And it didn’t take much longer than 13 seconds for it to connect.
After a minute of McGregor’s prodding, Alvarez caved and came forwards swinging a right hand. McGregor slipped the punch, minutely, and then responded with his fabled left mitt. It cracked Alvarez on the jaw. The American was wobbled. A second left landed. Alvarez dropped.
Alvarez survived that knock down. A few more would follow, in near identical fashion; with McGregor coaxing Alvarez forwards and punishing him when he did. Seizing an opportunity, in emphatic fashion, is another aspect of McGregor’s career that bleeds out of cage.
“We’re not here to take part, we’re here to take over,” said McGregor after defeating Diego Brandao at UFC Fight Night Dublin in 2014 (only his third UFC fight). That was a rallying call to his country-folk, but also a statement of personal intent. Throughout his time in the UFC McGregor has maximized every opportunity he has been given — and taken — in order to make an impact.
Alvarez fell to McGregor for the final time in the third minute of the second round. Just like the first knockdown, it came from McGregor poking Alvarez and daring him to step forwards. In this instance, the dare was outrageous. Before Alvarez launched on his final ill-fated flurry, the confident/cocky McGregor put his hands behind his back, creating an iconic portrait that may forever define his skill and bravado. The combination that ended Alvarez’s night included two lefts and two rights to the skull, in the space of two seconds. It was a lighting fast end to a quick night of work.
Three years, seven months, and six days since he blasted Marcus Brimage in Stockholm for his UFC debut, McGregor had eclipsed all others in MMA. He hoisted two belts over his shoulders, like nobody had done before. His rapid, though imperfect, ascendancy to the top of combat sports was complete.
His next challenge came in the boxing ring. There he seized his moment and tried, but failed, to force Floyd Mayweather Jr. into a rash reaction. Despite losing the contest, McGregor won a purse that was beyond anything MMA had ever seen.
With enough money to do whatever he pleased, it was a shock to see McGregor return to the confines of a cage. This might not have happened had Nurmagomedov not unwittingly taken a page out of the McGregor playbook and provoked such a wild backlash at the Barclays’ Center.
Over the course of the UFC’s 25-year history, it is difficult to pinpoint a championship bout with the contrasts and conflicting personalities featured in the UFC 229 main event. It is as much a clash of styles as it is a clash of identities. Beyond McGregor’s brash persona and god-like status stands a fighter who rose from a Crumlin boxing gym to unprecedented heights in the world’s largest MMA promotion. And while his opponent on Saturday night is best known for his stoic demeanour and relentless fighting style, he is also a man beloved by Muslims around the world, and fighter with the weight of an entire republic and its ancestral heritage on his shoulders.
Though their fight is anticipated for the moments that will take place within the cage, it is worth remembering the divergent paths that brought these fighters together.