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December 18, 2018

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More than words: The lead-up to McGregor vs. Nurmagomedov has an air of unpleasantness

Conor McGregor

Mary Altaffer / AP

Ultimate fighting star Conor McGregor heads to a vehicle to leave Brooklyn Criminal Court, Friday, April 6, 2018 in New York.

Fans filled Times Square on a recent Thursday evening for an official watch party of a news conference featuring Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov at Radio City Music Hall.

Click to enlarge photo

Russia's Khabib Nurmagomedov celebrates after beating Pat Healy in their UFC 165 bout in Toronto on Saturday Sept. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Chris Young)

The scene surrounding the UFC lightweights’ lone media appearance leading up to UFC 229 fight week looked almost as chaotic as the last time they crossed paths in New York, albeit in a different way. In April, Nurmagomedov was a few days away from fighting at UFC 223 in Brooklyn, when he got into an altercation with Artem Lobov, one of McGregor’s teammates, at the event’s host hotel.

McGregor hastily flew in from his native Dublin, Ireland, and tried to confront Nurmagomedov as he left an open workout at the Barclays Center. With Nurmagomedov unwilling to exit a bus transporting fighters, McGregor turned unruly and threw a dolly through the vehicle’s window.

UFC 229

• When: Saturday, October 6 (preliminary card at 3:30 p.m. with pay-per-view at 7 p.m.)

• Where: T-Mobile Arena

• Tickets: $205-$2,505 (sold out)

• Pay-per-view: $64.99

• Main event: Khabib Nurmagomedov (26-0 MMA, 10-0 UFC) vs. Conor McGregor (21-3 MMA, 9-1 UFC)

• Betting line: Nurmagomedov -160 vs. McGregor +130

Injuries sustained from the shattered glass caused two fighters, Michael Chiesa and Ray Borg, to pull out of their scheduled bouts and another, Rose Namajunas, to suffer emotional trauma. The New York Police Department put out a warrant for McGregor’s arrest for assault charges within hours.

It appeared the incident would further delay McGregor’s UFC comeback—he hasn’t fought in the octagon since November 2016—if not outright derail his career. UFC President Dana White called it “the most disgusting thing that has ever happened in the sport” at the time.

But it didn’t take long for White to backtrack on that comment. McGregor faced no additional UFC punishment after pleading down to disorderly conduct and was sentenced to community service in July. The UFC announced the fight between McGregor and Nurmagomedov less than a week later.

Ever since, McGregor’s crime has been at the center of the promotion. Commercials show footage of McGregor’s bus attack, and the incident is what the fighters have most discussed while doing limited press.

“I just thank the lord Jesus Christ that that man did not have the balls to step foot off that bus or that the bus door did not open, because if that bus door had opened, this man would be dead right now,” McGregor said at Radio City Music Hall. “He would be in a box, and I would be in a cell. And we would not have this great fight ahead of us.”

The blatant monetization of McGregor’s crime feels at best, uncomfortable, and at worst, disturbing. It put UFC 229 in a classic combat-sports quandary—a must-see matchup for fans between two generation-defining fighters in their primes tainted by a surrounding immoral circus.

“It’s a part of the storyline; it is what it is,” White said about making McGregor’s bus attack the focal point of the fight’s build-up. “There’s been other situations where things have happened leading up to a fight, and you play the story the way the story played out.”

There have been other situations, however, in which fighters were punished for far less serious offenses than McGregor under the UFC’s code of conduct. It’s no secret why McGregor received preferential treatment—he’s almost certainly the most lucrative active prizefighter in the world.

White told ESPN that UFC 229 is trending toward 2.5 million pay-per-view buys, which would set the company record by 900,000 purchases. That surge comes at a time when pay-per-view sales are down; reportedly no other event this year has sold more than 500,000.

The bout fits with White’s long-stated mission of delivering the fights fans most want to see. It’s an incredible matchup between mixed martial arts’ biggest star, McGregor, and its most dominant, undefeated fighter, Nurmagomedov—and it’s equally intriguing stylistically. While McGregor has relied on preternatural one-punch knockout power throughout his career, Nurmagomedov uses pressure and control to suffocate opponents.

“You dive onto legs and hold onto them for dear life,” McGregor yelled at Nurmagomedov during their media conference. “What kind of fighting is that?”

Nurmagomedov, content to sit stoically, barely got a word in without McGregor interrupting him. “I come here to smash this guy,” he said. “Me and him are going to be alone, and that’s it.”

Nurmagomedov might look squeaky clean next to McGregor, but he’s actually dealing with issues of his own. The Dagestan native has been financially backed by Ziyavudin Magomedov, who’s currently in prison in Russia on embezzlement and organized crime charges. Nurmagomedov controversially used his last televised post-fight interview to plead with Russian President Vladimir Putin for Magomedov’s release. Nurmagomedov also has ties to the Head of the Chechen Republic Ramzan Kadyrov, whom the United States has sanctioned for human rights abuses.

Even from a pure fighting perspective, the infrastructure of Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor is tangled. McGregor officially comes in as the challenger for the lightweight title, though from a lineal standpoint, he should be the champion.

McGregor never lost the 155-pound division championship after defeating Eddie Alvarez; the UFC just stripped him of the belt for inactivity. The promotion decided to make Nurmagomedov’s last fight for the title even though he was a 10-to-1 favorite over Al Iaquinta, who took the bout on a day’s notice after injuries to original opponents Max Holloway and Tony Ferguson. 

Iaquinta hadn’t fought in nearly a year and went as far as beginning a career in real estate during a contract dispute with the UFC. Nurmagomedov defeated Iaquinta by unanimous decision. “Beating the No. 11-ranked real estate agent and you bring that belt up onstage like it’s a real belt,” McGregor chided. “You’re a phony. You’re a fake, and I’m going to expose you.”

Few UFC fights have ever carried expectations this high, and they’re justified based on the athletes’ résumés alone. It’s just a shame the bout isn’t coming under better circumstances.