CONOR McGREGOR is back in the Octagon and once again capturing the imagination of MMA fans around the world. This time though it could be his toughest test inside the cage yet, as he has set his sights on re-capturing the UFC lightweight title on Saturday at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
In the opposite corner is Khabib Nurmagomedov. The ruthless, unassuming champion who remains undefeated and in search of a defining victory. A win over McGregor would certainly provide that and also provide the UFC with the biggest fight in the 25 year history of the sport.
We got the views of Jim Edwards and Nick Peet, two of the most prominent MMA journalists in the UK and pressed them for their thoughts on the main event, as well as asking what else to keep an eye on on Saturday.
How big is the fight between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor?
Jim: You can sometimes over-egg these fights and build them up into something they aren’t, but there was no need for this one. It has everything. A personal rivalry that has grown and the beauty of this sport is that we all get to witness it settled in the Octagon. Hopefully there won’t be too much madness this week, as this fight does not need that and most importantly we get to see Conor McGregor back in the UFC. This is the big bang that the owners wanted when they bought the company for $4bn and we’ve seen many of these huge fights fall by the wayside for one reason or another. All being well, this will be the one and we will all be happy on Saturday.
Nick: This fight is huge. Conor is the PPV star of fight sports and he is back in the UFC where he belongs. He’s not just using one aspect of his arsenal, like he did against Floyd Mayweather, he can use it all and he is back in the circus, entertaining the masses, which is his bread and butter. His personality draws people in and he’s coming back against one of the best, so he has shown everyone that he never takes the easy route. The owners must have worried that he might never come back and why would he with $100m in the bank? But, he does it because he loves it and enjoys facing adversity, like Khabib Nurmagomedov. This fight gives him the chance to re-affirm his legacy and outside the Octagon, he is the best to have ever done it. Inside the Octagon, he has some catching up to do. But, he wouldn’t be in this fight, if he didn’t truly believe he had the beating of Khabib.
Each man seems to have the style to beat the other, how do you see it all panning out on Saturday?
Jim: This sport has gone through periods where certain styles take over for a set time. In the beginning, Jiu-Jitsu was dominant, then the wrestlers began to take over and now we have that hybrid style where strikers with a solid grappling base are in control. What he have in this fight is two men at the opposite ends of that spectrum. Most importantly it is the best vs the best which makes it so intriguing, so it could be crazy, however one style may totally overcome the other and it becomes a very one-sided fight. It’s hard to say how this one goes. Conor has never been out of action for this long before, as he was always so active. The last time was when he suffered the knee injury against Max Holloway, when he was out for a year and then was superb in his return against Diego Brandao. Different fighters react differently, like Dominick Cruz, who was as good as ever when he came back after a long lay-off and immediately back to his best.
Nick: Khabib is arguably the best grappler in the UFC and once he gets his hands on you, he is an unforgiving man who rag dolls his opponent in the Octagon. No one escapes him on the ground. On the flip side though every fight starts on the feet, which is Conor’s world. He is sensational on his feet, whereas Khabib has holes in his stand-up game and his footwork isn’t great. He uses his strikes to set up the takedown, so he’s there in the open for the taking for Conor, who looks to knock you out with every strike that he throws. That’s what makes it so intriguing. It will be strange seeing Conor come out first, but it will be special just to see him back. For me, “The King” is back and he will stop Khabib in the second round. It could be similar to the Chad Mendes fight, where Chad had success in the first, but at the end of the day, Conor’s ground game is very undervalued. But, as I keep saying the fight will begin on the feet and Conor has the power to knock anyone in the division out. Khabib was caught by the likes of Michael Johnson and Al Iaquinta, who carry decent power, but Conor is a finisher. Khabib may shoot for a takedown, especially if he’s just been caught and his head may not be clear, so that could be when Conor ends matters.
The two previously met in a press conference that got everyone talking, what did you make of both men that day?
Jim: I don’t think Conor got inside Khabib’s head at all. That is just how Conor is at press conferences. In fact when it came to the stare-down between the pair, Conor was showing more emotion and Khabib wasn’t affected in the slightest, unlike the likes of Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier in the past. The fighters are usually quite calm outside of fight week, however when it gets closer and we’re in the hustle and bustle of a Conor McGregor fight week, we may see a different side to Khabib. It will be a very interesting couple of days.
Nick: It was a bit political at times, especially when Conor was insinuating that Khabib had turned his back on his country, amongst other things. Conor went in with an agenda to try and get under the skin of Khabib and I do think he was starting to do that towards the end. I think we’ll be sure to see more of that from Conor this week, as he is always amped up when the media are around him. It’s a crazy man act designed to try and unnerve his opponent and it has definitely worked in the past with Alvarez, Poirier and most famously Jose Aldo. He got in all of their heads and they walked into a big left hand, having been beaten before they got in the Octagon. I actually liken it to how Cassius Clay, as he was at the time, acted against Sonny Liston. Totally outlandish and intimidation of a different kind. Khabib has only just taken his first steps into Conor’s world and how he handles the occasion will be an indicator as to how he copes on Saturday night.
In the co-main event, Tony Ferguson returns to action, no doubt with his eye on facing the winner of the main event. What do you make of “El Cucuy’s return?
Jim: Tony Ferguson is legitimately one of the best fighters in the UFC. Conor and Khabib are standouts in striking and grappling respectively, but Tony can do both to a very high level. I love covering his fights, as he is so exciting to watch, but he’s now right on the cliff edge and needs to take that jump to see if he is that true elite level fighter. If he smokes Anthony Pettis on Saturday then he is right up there, but we’ll see how he does as he is coming back from a serious knee injury. If you saw the photos, it looked like half his leg had been chopped off! Pettis was once a star, but he regressed a lot, focusing on his grappling which got him in a lot of trouble and made him look distinctly average at times, for example in the Rafael Dos Anjos fight. But in his last fight, he went back to his striking and looked like the old “Showtime”. However, I think if Tony has made a full recovery he will be too much for Anthony Pettis.
Nick: Tony is undoubtedly one of the best on the planet, but the hardest thing for him has been keeping fit. A big performance for him could secure him the money fight in the division which is Conor McGregor. He needs a sensational win and performance to keep his name in the frame to win the sweepstakes, especially as Conor will also have an eye on the Dustin Poirier – Nate Diaz fight on November 3. If they create a 165lb belt, which is rumoured, then Conor will have the chance to become the first three-weight champion in the UFC, so Tony could be passed over once again, so he’s got to impress. As for Pettis, he looked better than ever in his last fight, as Michael Chiesa is no joke. He’d been left for the proverbial dead and he’s got another chance to bounce back again and he certainly will be well and truly back in there with a win over Ferguson. Whoever wins better hope Conor wins on Saturday because as long as McGregor is there, the big money is there for the taking for all the lightweight division.
What do you make of the rest of the card?
Jim: I was really looking to the Sean O’Malley fight, but with the recent news of a failed USADA test, it’s a shame that he won’t be on the card. Keep an eye out for Dominick Reyes, the light-heavyweight, who takes on Ovince Saint Preux on the main card. He was handed a big contract by the UFC, which they don’t often do for prospects, so they must see something in him. OSP will never win the title but he is a solid test for anyone in the division, so we will see what Reyes is about on Saturday. He has lots of potential and with it being a Conor McGregor fight week, there will be plenty of eyeballs on him and he may shine under the lights.
I’m also interested in the heavyweight clash between Alexander Volkov and Derrick Lewis, which could be exciting. Volkov will be confident coming in and will be aggressive in the fight. As for Lewis, he’s coming back off an injury, so how much has he been able to train? How much is his heart really in this? I’m going to edge towards a Volkov decision, although I’m not entirely confident myself because, as we all know, in heavyweight fight’s, one punch can change everything.
Nick: It’s a good card, with the likes of Volkov-Lewis, who with another win could secure a shot at heavyweight gold, whilst Michelle Waterson and Felice Herrig is a fight that a lot of fans want to see for a whole host of reasons. It’s a shame Sean O’Malley is now off the card, as this could have been the ideal platform for him to catapult himself into the upper echelons of the UFC. But, let’s be honest, there is one reason that people will be watching this weekend and that is Conor McGregor. Whether you’re watching to see him win or lose, or are just intrigued by the man, you’ll be watching. Saturday night will the Conor McGregor show.