The Question: Is Conor McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov a Mistake for the UFC?

Steven Rondina@srondinaFeatured ColumnistAugust 6, 2018

GDANSK, POLAND - OCTOBER 21:  UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor cheers on teammate Artem Lobov in his featherweight bout against Andre Fili during the UFC Fight Night event inside Ergo Arena on October 21, 2017 in Gdansk, Poland. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

After months of drama and mystery, MMA fans were given a definitive answer to the lingering question of "What comes next for Conor McGregor?" 

On October 6, 2018, at UFC 229, he will face off with Khabib Nurmagomedov in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The initial reaction was a mix of excitement and relief. MMA in 2018 has been an ugly thing, with few bouts worth getting excited about and even fewer worth remembering. Having a specific date, place and opponent for the biggest star in the sport gives MMA fans the legitimate must-watch event they haven't had in a long time.

That said, while this might be the biggest, best fight the UFC has ever put together on paper, the deck looks to be stacked against McGregor in an overwhelming way as he comes back from a two-year layoff from MMA to face the man who has long been viewed as his kryptonite.

Is the situation really that bad for McGregor? If so, should the UFC and McGregor have weighed other options? Bleacher Report's Steven Rondina and Jeremy Botter are here to discuss whether Khabib vs. Conor was the right call. 

Khabib Nurmagomedov has mauled all comers to this point in his career.
Khabib Nurmagomedov has mauled all comers to this point in his career.Al Bello/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Steven Rondina: I know that what I'm about to say will be seen as utter blasphemy by a lot of folks, but here it is: I'm actually on the fence on Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor.

Yes, I acknowledge that from a technical standpoint, Khabib vs. Conor is one of the greatest fights in UFC history. Yes, I acknowledge that the grudge-match angle is absolutely delicious. Yes, I acknowledge that this is going to be the biggest fight in UFC history and that I said it needs to happen just a few short days ago! But hear me out.

The most-watched fight in McGregor's career to this point came last year, when he was knocked out by Floyd Mayweather in a boxing match. The next biggest after that was a razor-thin decision win over Nate Diaz. The next after that? His prior submission loss to Diaz.

McGregor came out on the wrong end of "The Superfight" last year.
McGregor came out on the wrong end of "The Superfight" last year.Eric Jamison/Associated Press

Nurmagomedov stands as the toughest conceivable stylistic matchup there is for Conor, and he opened as the betting favorite to win for a reason. Even if McGregor wasn't coming off a two-year hiatus from the cage, the chances of the Russian winning would be high.

This fight sets up McGregor to take another high-profile loss, and with Nurmagomedov's ground-and-pound-focused style, it could be an ugly one. Correct me if I'm wrong, Jeremy, but I don't think he can just keep catching L's under the spotlight and have his drawing power hold up.

Jeremy Botter: I mean, you're not wrong. McGregor's drawing power will be hurt if he keeps losing every time he goes in the Octagon. There's no real way around it. Yeah, there are a lot of people who will watch McGregor even if he's eventually on the wrong end of an 18-fight losing streak and about to face Fedor Emelianenko in the 2024 Bellator Grand Prix.

What I'm saying, I guess, is that McGregor is a made man. And once you're a made man, you stay that way, sort of. Just ask Tito Ortiz.

Is Conor's aura going to be hurt by spending 25 minutes underneath a sneering Khabib Nurmagomedov? I guess it might hurt him with a small percentage of the UFC's fanbase. (Which is where I'd ask those fans: Did you see the Mayweather fight? The first Diaz fight? Most of the second Diaz fight? Have you just expunged those memories completely?)

John Locher/Associated Press

But Conor's thing—the reason we all tune in to see him—has never been an aura of invincibility. We've never viewed him the way we did, say, Anderson Silva.

Sure, McGregor's legend is bolstered by the big moments he's had in the Octagon. But had he lost to Jose Aldo, or to Diaz the second time, he'd still be the most famous and richest fighter on the UFC roster.

And from the UFC's point of view, it's simple logic. That McGregor came back to fight for them at all? That is a gift. They aren't going to worry about whether a loss to Khabib will hurt their chances of selling Conor vs. Insert Literally Any UFC Fighter Here down the line. Because there may not be anything down the line.

McGregor can do anything, whether it's fighting Khabib or boxing Paulie Malignaggi (above).
McGregor can do anything, whether it's fighting Khabib or boxing Paulie Malignaggi (above).Alex Livesey/Getty Images

McGregor may do this fight and then leave forever, or for two years. He may go do a boxing fight against Paulie Malignaggi, god help us all, or he might continue expanding into the entertainment industry. Nobody knows what he'll do, and there is nobody more aware of this than the brass at the UFC who spent two years essentially begging McGregor to fight for them again.

But we do know this: He's going to fight at least one more time. Why not try to transfer some of that star power to Khabib?

Steven: There might not be anything down the line between Conor and the UFC, sure. Then again, there might be.

If McGregor indeed has one foot out the door at this point, why give him that extra shove through the threshold? Does the UFC really want to have another Ronda Rousey situation, except this time without another draw to fall back on? Granted, the promotion is notorious for doubling down on mistakes rather than learning from them, but come on now!

And if the UFC is indeed in end-game mode with McGregor, is Nurmagomedov the guy you want to give the rub to? You might disagree, but I see Nurmagomedov as the Russian male equivalent of Joanna Jedrzejczyk—a favorite among hardcores who has little appeal outside the bubble—except with a tendency to disappear for 12 to 18 months at a time due to the fact his joints are made of porcelain.

Even with Khabib looming, Diaz vs. McGregor 3 feels like an inevitability.
Even with Khabib looming, Diaz vs. McGregor 3 feels like an inevitability.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Sure, you can make the case that Khabib vs. Conor makes enough money to ignore the consequences, but I'm not even sure it's the biggest option out there for Conor! Not with the Diaz rubber match and Georges St-Pierre in play.

Despite how it sounds, I utterly love this matchup and I'm not actually feeling all that bearish when it comes to McGregor's chances. When the time comes, I'll probably actually pick him to beat Nurmagomedov. Still, in my estimation, the risk here just seems to outweigh the reward.

The UFC is looking to expand its presence in Russia, and Khabib is an important part of that.
The UFC is looking to expand its presence in Russia, and Khabib is an important part of that.AFP/Getty Images

Jeremy: You compared Khabib Nurmagomedov to Joanna Jedrzejczyk. And I think you probably kept a straight face the whole time. Bless your heart. It's adorable. Not to disparage the former Ms. Champion or anything, but there's just no way that comparison holds water in any conversation between sane people.

Nurmagomedov's appeal stretches beyond the hardcore fanbase; namely, he's a big international draw and a crucial cog in the UFC's attempts to hack their way into Russia and gain a foothold for more international expansion. Without Nurmagomedov and the powerful cabal he surrounds himself with, there's little chance the organization would be welcome on Russian soil.

Beyond the international expansion, there is some evidence that Nurmagomedov is resonating beyond the UFC's niche audience, but it is cursory at best. He drew approximately 350,000 buys against Al Iaquinta earlier this year; that's a number I'd credit mostly to Nurmagomedov and not Iaquinta, Rose Namajunas or Jedrzejczyk. It's not a great number, of course. But it's substantially higher than the UFC bottom end for buy rates, which hovers somewhere right around 125 pounds.

To the UFC's chagrin, Conor has been calling his own shots for a while.
To the UFC's chagrin, Conor has been calling his own shots for a while.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

The main thing we have to consider in all of this is something we've overlooked thus far: McGregor runs his own show, and he's a businessman. He decides he's going to return for at least one fight. He looks at the lay of the land and he sees a guy he's lost to once before and barely beat in a rematch. He sees Tony Ferguson, maybe, if he can stay healthy. He sees Dustin Poirier, who he's already beaten. He sees St-Pierre, maybe, but also maybe not.

And then he sees Khabib, who is easily the most dangerous opponent but who is also the only opponent who can be hyped up by rolling clips of McGregor hurling a dolly through a bus window.

It's a no-brainer, frankly, and any other fight would have been silly. This is the biggest fight the UFC can make this year, and it might be the biggest fight in history, and it's an intriguing style matchup that'll be preceded by many hours of bloviating and perhaps random moments of violence breaking out in various locations.

Steven: Indeed, we've known for a while now that Conor gets what Conor wants. If Conor wants to fight Diaz, he's fighting Diaz. If he doesn't want to rematch Jose Aldo, he's just not going to do it!

Given the whole "fly across the Atlantic on your private jet to smash up a bus because he dissed your BFF" thing, it's a pretty safe bet that he wants to fight Khabib. Even if the UFC didn't want that fight, I'm not sure it could stop him.

And ultimately, this is still Conor McGregor we're talking about. His entire competitive career to this point has been spotting the highest mountain and climbing it. His returning after two years to tackle an undefeated monster who also happens to be a stylistic nightmare? No matter what his naysayers might believe, that's completely on-brand for him.

Despite any of my reservations about this one, this is still an extraordinary fight. Is the future uncertain? Sure. But MMA is a sport where it's best to just kick back and enjoy the ride.

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