Conor McGregor has never really found his equal in the cage, at least not at his natural weight divisions. He has arguably never found a worthy adversary on the mic.
If that long-discussed bout with Khabib Nurmagomedov happens, he will find both.
Nurmagomedov (prounced "Nerm-uh-go-MAY-dov") has been spoiling to face McGregor for years. In April, the Russian beat Al Iaquinta for the vacant UFC lightweight title just days after the company brass stripped The Notorious of said title for refusing to defend it.
We'd need a truckload of pixels to recap their media tit-for-tat, but Nurmagomedov's blast on Tuesday to Russian sports website RU24 (h/t Karim Zidan of Bloody Elbow) was the latest and one of the strongest:
"I do not yet know who my opponent will be [for UFC 229]. The fight will likely take place in Las Vegas. I want to fight McGregor; the fans are also waiting for this fight. I hope that Conor wants this fight. He talked a lot but for some reason, as soon as it came down to real negotiations about the fight, he fell silent.
"In what round will I be able to knock McGregor out? I do not know, and no one can know this. I’m going to destroy him."
Nurmagomedov fans will recognize his swagger, disdain and prediction-making. McGregor fans will recognize it, too, though it might be strange to see the Irishman on the receiving end.
McGregor has proved himself at the highest level. There hasn't been a talk he wasn't able to walk, assuming you forget about the boxing ring. Nurmagomedov is more of a question mark. He has some big wins, but does he have the tools to consistently win on the biggest stages, against the biggest of opponents? Can he knock the most famous MMA fighter of all time off his perch?
Yes to both. Nurmagomedov is a nightmare matchup for McGregor.
The Irishman is a poet in open space, using brilliant angles, a deep cardio tank and a diverse array of strikes to confound and down his opponents. We of course must also mention the most feared left hand in the business. It has its own nicknames: "Touch of Death" and "Celtic Cross." In his 21-3 pro record, 18 of the wins are knockouts, including seven of his nine UFC victories.
"Nobody can take that left-hand shot," McGregor once said. That appears to be true.
However, he has a weak spot. Thus far, most opponents haven't been able to exploit it, but it's definitely there.
Like many other European fighters, McGregor's skill base is striking. His schooling in jiu-jitsu and wrestling pales in comparison to the bone-deep mastery of those who started those pursuits at younger ages.
Nurmagomedov is just such a person. The man is a grappling machine, with a black belt in judo and high rankings in freestyle wrestling and pankration. Perhaps his greatest strength, almost literally, is sambo, the Russian combat style that blends various martial arts into one.
McGregor has a takedown defense rate of 73 percent, according to UFC stat keeper FightMetric. That's very good but doesn't mean much against Nurmagomedov.
Nurmagomedov is a takedown machine. In his hands, the takedown is a weapon in itself. The occasional power wrestler such as Gleison Tibau has staved off the attack, but even in optimal conditions the resistance is temporary.
And the mat is where it really gets scary.
It's hard to do it justice on paper. The way Nurmagomedov holds down and controls his opponents, it's like he can turn his insides to concrete. Then the strikes rain down. He plays with his food before he eats it.
Nurmagomedov doesn't just hurt, he humiliates. It's hard to know which one McGregor might fear more.
When fighting on the mat, McGregor tries to get up as quickly as possible or work his guard from the bottom. Neither are much help against Nurmagomedov.
McGregor will need the kind of power and muscle memory on the ground that you can't pick up in the course of one training camp. His ongoing fixation on his own celebrity and the court case related to his attack on a helpless bus (one Nurmagomedov was aboard) doesn't instill confidence in the Irishman's commitment to craft.
In all likelihood, his best hope is a flash knockout. That's not a foreign concept to McGregor. His left hand will never not be a weapon, but his margin for error is smaller. Nurmagomedov has a combination of skill set and killer instinct that are hard to match. It's why he feels so comfortable suggesting The Notorious is afraid of him.
From the outside looking in, such statements can't be anything more than conjecture. McGregor is known for seeking and meeting big challenges—and letting everyone know he's doing so. So it says a lot when Nurmagomedov's challenges are met with a whole lot of nothing.