LAS VEGAS – It’s not hard to find popular support if you think Conor McGregor is going to win this weekend. For a start, there’s a very loud, very opinionated, very confident Irishman who will happily tell you in the most colorful ways possible how he is going to inflict concussive damage upon Khabib Nurmagomedov.
No one sells a fight better than McGregor. The problem is, no one fights a fight – at least in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s lightweight division – better than Nurmagomedov.
The undefeated Russian is a betting favorite, and rightly so. And while there is no such thing as certainty in the world of scientific mayhem that is mixed martial arts, there is a far more convincing case to be made for the guy who is not dominating all of the headlines and promos.
That’s why Nurmagomedov is USA TODAY Sports’ pick to win Saturday’s UFC 229 main event at T-Mobile Arena, a bout that promises to be the biggest-selling pay-per-view event in company history.
Here are the primary reasons McGregor’s juggernaut of noise and cockiness is going to be cut down on the biggest night of his career.
No one beats McGregor when it comes to pre-fight mental warfare, but if anyone has provided an ideal blueprint of how to survive the inevitable onslaught of psychological jibes, it is Nurmagomedov. At the big lead-up media event in New York City, he calmly put down his microphone whenever McGregor tried to talk over him (spoiler alert: it was a lot) and refused to get ruffled, like so many others before him.
This week, he declined to wait when McGregor arrived late for a Thursday news conference, instead answering questions for 15 minutes before leaving, thereby avoiding a face-to-face with his rival.
And at the official weigh-in on Friday morning, he was the first man of all 24 fighters on the card to tip the scales, and he was back in his room resting and rehydrating by the time McGregor made the 155-pound limit 65 minutes later. Advantage: Khabib.
The advertising footage promoting the bout has featured McGregor in extensive wrestling sessions back in Ireland, practicing defending takedowns extensively. If only it were that simple.
For any elite UFC fighter, it is possible to become adept at avoiding a singular takedown attempt through repetition. Where Nurmagomedov excels is chain wrestling – namely, transitioning from one attacking maneuver to another with no respite.
He should be good at it – he was groomed in the art of grappling from the time he could walk and is the son of a legendary coach in the Russian region of Dagestan. Nurmagomedov is 26-0 for one main reason: Because no one has effectively been able to keep him away from the mat for the duration of a fight. McGregor needs to find a way to do so for five, five-minute rounds.
It would be utter foolishness to suggest McGregor went “soft” after cashing a check of around $80 million for boxing Floyd Mayweather. He’s a warrior, and there is nothing soft about him. However, it would also be unrealistic to expect that the same extreme level of fanatical hunger that propelled him to stardom and riches persists, now that a lifetime’s worth of wealth has been assured.
On the flip side, Nurmagomedov has all the motivation in the world to draw upon. Not only does he feel slighted, ignored and underpaid by the UFC, but he has a one-stop shot at changing the course of his life on Saturday. With two fights left on his current contract, taking down the biggest name in the sport would guarantee a monumental pay spike the next time negotiations roll around.
And that’s without taking into account just how much he wants to shut McGregor up, and make him pay for April’s infamous bus attack.
While McGregor was trying to learn boxing, indulging in wild parties, launching a whiskey brand and buying fancy toys, Nurmagomedov has never been out of training. OK, that’s a bit of a simplification, and everything suggests that McGregor has applied himself diligently in camp.
But a two-year layoff is not an insignificant amount of time to be away from the octagon. Since both men fought separate opponents on Nov. 12, 2016, Nurmagomedov has seen competitive MMA action twice, McGregor zero. It is not a deal-breaker, but in a fight regarded by many as a pick ‘em, it could come into play.
Quality of opposition
There is a perception in the UFC that McGregor’s body of work is far more convincing that Nurmagomedov’s. It is, but the discrepancy is not as great as it is projected. McGregor’s defining win was his 13-second demolition of Jose Aldo, who was coming off a 10-year undefeated streak.
But McGregor split fights with Nate Diaz — who was a heavier man but not a top-ranked foe — and while Eddie Alvarez was a champion, he will not go down as anything approaching a dominant one. Nurmagomedov’s overpowering displays against Edson Barboza, Michael Johnson and Rafael dos Anjos are all worthy of respect.
For Nurmagomedov, the key will be steering clear of McGregor’s ferocious left hand, the weapon he has used to secure his biggest and best wins.
The circle of UFC life
This is the UFC, which means that no one is safe at the top for long. Boxing champions tend to reign for extended periods. Life as a UFC belt-holder is far more tenuous. Ronda Rousey went from looking like the most dominant athlete in sports to a has-been in little more than a year. The record for most title defenses in the heavyweight division? Three. Only Jon Jones has kept his record as champ unblemished, though his personal life has been anything but.
While McGregor is not the champion, having surrendered his belt through inactivity, he is most definitely the top dog in the organization, and that’s a position that doesn’t appear to have a great shelf life.
My [Martin Rogers] Prediction
Nurmagomedov wins by fourth-round TKO.