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UFC 229: Conor McGregor vs Khabib Nurmagomedov preview

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LAS VEGAS — And now, a word about weigh-ins. The real thing happened early Friday morning, atop an old-school scale that looks ideal for routine physicals, inside a casino ballroom adorned with framed pictures of dehydrated local fauna. The process lasts about 30 seconds per fighter, max, most of which is spent by the judge gently flicking the mechanical beam. They come out, strip down, stand up, flex a bit, and then leave. It is by far the most mundane part of an event—in this case, UFC 229—at which grown adults attempt to destroy each other.

All of which made the three armed police officers outside the ballroom, plus an additional two near the stage, somewhat superfluous. Turns out that one of them loves MMA, a regular attendee back when the MGM Grand hosted fight cards and tickets weren’t so expensive. He occasionally works these weigh-ins too, though his protective services have never been needed. Then again, he says, gesturing to the metal dividers separating reporters from some fans in the back, “There are bike racks here.” The unspoken part: And so is Conor McGregor.

It was McGregor, of course, who almost hurled one of those barricades toward a bus at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in April, an attempt to coax Khabib Nurmagomedov into squaring off right there in the loading dock. Instead they will meet Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena, Nurmagomedov’s undefeated record (26–0) and lightweight belt on the line. The 30-year-old Dagestani has played the favorite role well, largely staying quiet while his opponent peacocks at press conferences, save for some humdrum trash-talk about McGregor’s drinking habits and Ireland’s lack of Gaelic speakers. Which brings us back to weigh-ins.

After their official numbers were logged in the morning—McGregor at 154.5 pounds, Nurmagomedov at 155—both fighters set about recovering from their weight cuts and stockpiling mass. Nurmagomedov, in particular, is known for beefing up before the bell rings, which lends to his strengths as an expert ground grappler and inexhaustible attacker. They reconvened around 5:30 p.m., for the ceremonial weigh-in, more dance party than doctor’s appointment. The building pulsed with bass-heavy techno beats as custom Irish flags filled the lower bowl, including one that displayed McGregor holding two title belts, and another that read, KHABIB OR KEBAB.

If Nurmagomedov is to suffer his first UFC defeat—he has not even lost a round—the general consensus holds that it will happen fast. McGregor throws a wicked left-handed counterpunch that ends fights in a flash, but Nurmagomedov needs time to wear down opponents, trench warfare in a cage. “If Conor wins, that means he was able to stop some of the early takedowns by Khabib and catch him and knock him out,” UFC president Dana White says. “If Khabib wins, it means he was able to take Conor down at will, pin him up underneath him against the fence.”

Hailing from the historically plighted North Caucasus region of Russia, Nurmagomedov reflects his people: rugged and stoic, craggy-featured and pious. Shortly after his ninth birthday, Khabib’s father made him wrestle a bear cub that was chained to a tree; this has become the easiest way to summarize his upbringing. And now, shortly after his 30th birthday (Sept. 20), the pursuit of glory has Nurmagomedov fighting a self-described “Irish proper animal.”

“Beginning of the first round, I have to be careful,” Nurmagomedov said recently. “He have good timing, good boxing. My wrestling is my pressure.

“I have to stay relaxed, but keep going and maul this guy.”

As McGregor stepped from the scale and began stalking the stage, Nurmagomedov made his entrance last. He wore a red UFC training shirt and a papakha—the blonde wool hat used by Dagestani shepherds, who traditionally never removed their headgear unless they were entering battle. He climbed aboard the scale, raised one finger skyward and walked toward McGregor for the faceoff, a hold-me-back moment exclusively meant for cameras.

With White working a power stance between them, arms at full extension, Nurmagomedov raised one fist, extended another, and stood statue-still. McGregor, however, steadily inched forward, yammering at Nurmagomedov while White tried to keep peace. “No touch,” he said. “No touch.” Eventually, McGregor got close enough to smack Nurmagomedov’s hand and, upon getting swiftly separated, attempted a kick that cut air. With Drake hanging out behind him, draped in Irish flag, McGregor slapped his chest and made one more lunge at Nurmagomedov.

“Don’t let that smelly rat put that hat on your head, Joe,” McGregor said later, speaking onstage to announcer Joe Rogan. “It’s good to be f—– back. The king is home.”

There have been moments when Nurmagomedov has felt like the challenger—to McGregor’s comeback story after a two-year MMA hiatus, to the legions of Notorious loyalists around Las Vegas, to a UFC bottom line that prints cash when McGregor is on top. McGregor is the only fighter with belts at multiple weight classes (feather, light), and only lost both due to inactivity (fatherhood, boxing). Nurmagomedov, on the other hand, will make his first title defense after beating Al Iaquinta by decision for McGregor’s vacated lightweight crown on April 7. “If he beats Conor,” says White, “he’ll be looked at as one of the pound-for-pound best in the world.”

Six months later, Nurmagomedov can indeed write his legacy. He does not possess the full-throated showmanship of McGregor, or the knockout left hook, but an eight-figure payday awaits—not to mention whatever could come from a possible rematch. Nurmagomedov has climbed the MMA ladder for a decade now, gaining enough swagger to tell White in the middle of what became his 24th victory, “I’m going to smash your boy.” The unspoken part: That would be Conor McGregor. Finally he gets that chance.

Back at T-Mobile Arena, Nurmagomedov took a moment to thank “all Irish fans” in the crowd, many of whom were still booing. “The champ, ladies and gentleman,” Rogan said. And as the stage cleared, a fistfight broke out in the floor seats between a McGregor loyalist and a Khabib diehard, who had started beefing during the weigh-in.

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