Conor McGregor is an expert at manufacturing rivalries. At the drop of a hat, the man can whip up a compelling grudge match unlike anything ever seen and transform a standard fight into a vicious bloodfeud.
That said, few have been able to keep step with McGregor for any length of time. Fighters like Dustin Poirier, Cole Miller and Eddie Alvarez have been compelling foils for the Irishman, but none were able to enjoy the spotlight for any serious length of time. Meanwhile, potential opponents like Donald Cerrone, Rafael dos Anjos and Jeremy Stephens all made a splash at one point or another but were unable to take a real shot at the king.
Khabib Nurmagomedov, who faces McGregor at UFC 229 next month, is the sole fighter who has managed to stay in McGregor's orbit for years on end. Though it hasn't consistently made headlines, Nurmagomedov and McGregor have been going back and forth for years and have planted plenty of seeds ahead of their epic showdown.
But when did this happen? And what led to their paths finally intersecting? Read on and find out!
July 14, 2014—The First of Many
Nurmagomedov has been pegged as both championship material and a potential breakout star for the UFC for years now. He only recently began realizing that potential, though, because he struggled with almost constant injuries from 2014 to 2016.
Shortly after being attached to a fight with Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone at UFC 178, he suffered a serious knee injury. The bout was then rescheduled for UFC 187, but once again, Nurmagomedov was forced off the card. When he was booked to return opposite Tony Ferguson at the finale to The Ultimate Fighter season 22? Well, it's easy to guess what happened.
Thankfully, he turned a corner in 2016 and began getting healthy and demonstrating an ability to remain active. Unfortunately, he'll never be able to recover all the time he lost during this stretch.
March 26, 2015—Mystic Mac Strikes Again
While it flew under the radar until recently, the McGregor vs. Nurmagomedov rivalry isn't a new thing. The first sign of this came back in 2015.
Ahead of his fight with featherweight champion Jose Aldo, a fan asked McGregor about making a run for the lightweight title. When pressed about who he thought would eventually hold the title, McGregor briefly mulled it over before saying, "I think Khabib will get the lightweight belt."
McGregor almost certainly didn't see their showdown taking place under these circumstances, and it's open for debate over whether he was even serious. Still, this shows that Nurmagomedov has been on his radar for a long, long time now.
April 2, 2015—Khabib Returns the Favor
During his time on the shelf, Nurmagomedov maintained his spot in the news cycle by talking smack on an almost-constant basis. For the most part, this was standard fare directed at potential opponents like Anthony Pettis and Nate Diaz. One of the most surprising and intriguing call-outs, however, was directed at McGregor.
Though McGregor was still a featherweight contender at the time, Nurmagomedov made it clear that he wanted a crack at the Irish striker, coining his "smash" catchphrase in the process.
The side-by-side of the Nurmagomedov during this time and the Nurmagomedov of today is an interesting one. Though the Eagle's brand in 2018 is that of a stoic killing machine focused solely on competitive greatness, it wasn't that long ago that he was spraying smack talk and looking to keep his name out there.
December 12, 2015—Conor McGregor Wins 145-Pound Title, Immediately Sets Eyes on 155 Pounds
A rib injury forced Jose Aldo out of his scheduled title defense opposite McGregor at UFC 189, but the fight would eventually go down at UFC 194. There, McGregor captured the belt from the long-reigning champ in the most shocking way possible; knocking him out in just 13 seconds.
Purely on its athletic merits, McGregor's win was a massive shakeup to the UFC. It got even more wild, though, when the immediate aftermath of the fight was dominated by discussion of McGregor moving up to the lightweight division.
Though it took months for plans to be made certain, the wheels were turning. McGregor, sooner or later, was going to be going for another belt and was on a collision course with whoever happened to be at the top when the time came.
December 27, 2015—Khabib Changes His Tune
Though Nurmagomedov bragged about how he would effortlessly take out McGregor a few months prior, he went in a much different direction when talks of McGregor moving to 155 pounds started heating up. Speaking on The MMA Hour with Ariel Helwani, he stated that McGregor's focus shouldn't be on a second title but, instead, defending his strap from Frankie Edgar.
The full interview is an interesting one, and it marked the beginning of his shift from attention-seeking smack-talker to the meat-and-potatoes fighter he has become. Though one can practically hear Nurmagomedov's troublesome manager, Ali Abdelaziz, telling him what to say here, this is still a subtly important interview.
January 7, 2016—Conor's Move to 155 Pounds Confirmed
Less than a month after capturing his first UFC title, McGregor got the UFC on board for a move to lightweight. And not just "a move to lightweight," either, but a championship bout opposite then-reigning 155-pound king Rafel dos Anjos. The bout would never come to fruition, though.
After Dos Anjos was forced out of the contest due to a foot injury, he was replaced with Nate Diaz. This kicked off the feud that would dominate the MMA news cycle in 2016 and cement McGregor's place as the biggest draw in the history of the sport.
April 16, 2016—Khabib Finally Gets Back Into the Octagon
After three scrapped bouts, and nearly two full years out of action, Nurmagomedov returned to the Octagon at UFC on Fox 19. Initially scheduled to fight Tony Ferguson, he instead wound up facing a debuting Darrell Horcher. The late replacement was a shot to the gut for MMA fans who were looking forward to a high-level scrap, but in retrospect, it was good that Nurmagomedov got an opportunity to showcase his skills.
From start to finish, Nurmagomedov imposed his will on Horcher, taking him down with little difficulty and demonstrating more fearsome ground-and-pound than what he had shown prior. The fight ended in the second round via TKO, and it left Nurmagomedov looking like the beast that fans had long hoped he would be.
It wasn't the biggest win of Nurmagomedov's career, but it was one of the most important. Just like that, the Eagle was viewed as one of the elites of the lightweight division.
September 23, 2016—Khabib Gets Played
After seeing Frankie Edgar get soundly defeated by Aldo at UFC 200 and edging out Nate Diaz at UFC 202, the path between McGregor and a lightweight title fight was clear. The only hurdle was getting the UFC, McGregor and newly minted lightweight champ Eddie Alvarez to agree to terms.
That was easier said than done, though. While Alvarez vs. McGregor felt like the clear-cut, slam-dunk main event to the UFC's long-awaited return to New York, UFC 205, fans and pundits were left scratching their heads when Dana White tweeted to a fan that Alvarez was instead facing Nurmagomedov. As time went on, it had the look of a straightforward contract dispute—with Alvarez, in particular, looking for a larger cut of the proceeds—but the UFC upped the ante by roping Nurmagomedov into it, going so far as to send him multiple bout agreements in an effort to force Alvarez into line.
Ultimately, the Alvarez vs. McGregor fight came to pass, with Alvarez buckling to the UFC's pressure. Nurmagomedov, meanwhile, was left frustrated by the whole sequence of events. He lashed out for a short time, before quietly falling back in line himself.
November 11, 2016—McGregor and Nurmagomedov Have First Backstage Altercation
The consolation prize for Nurmagomedov missing out on a title shot was competing on the stacked UFC 205 card (albeit against Michael Johnson). Still, Nurmagomedov's eyes still seemed fixed on the prize of a money fight with McGregor. This was demonstrated well at the weigh-ins when McGregor and Nurmagomedov were caught in a shouting match backstage.
Unfortunately, the only trace of the back-and-forth is a nine-second clip that shows the two being led in different directions while yelling back and forth. No real details have surfaced about what sparked the incident or how it played out.
November 12, 2016—McGregor Wins Second Title, Sets Sights on Mayweather
After dominating the featherweight division and making the most of his welterweight layover, McGregor finally stepped into the cage as a lightweight at UFC 205. There he utterly toyed with Alvarez, battering him with punches and finishing the fight in the second round.
It was an amazing performance which led to the epic moment where McGregor lifted up the two titles but, unfortunately, it was a short-lived high. In the weeks following UFC 205, McGregor was stripped of the featherweight title and announced that he was taking time off from the sport. This sent the rumor mill into overdrive as talk began to swirl that McGregor's dreams of boxing Floyd Mayweather Jr. were going to become a reality.
March 3, 2017—Nurmagomedov Withdraws from Yet Another Fight
While Nurmagomedov had largely shaken his reputation for pulling out of fights due to injuries, that just meant he had the opportunity to find new reasons to pull out of fights. Once again set to face Tony Ferguson, Nurmagomedov withdrew from UFC 209 due to issues with his weight cut.
It was yet another massive setback for the Eagle, who once again was forced out of the cage for almost all of 2017.
August 26, 2017—Mayweather vs. McGregor
After a lengthy period of public back-and-forth between the different sides, the UFC, Showtime, Mayweather and McGregor came together to make the long-sought-after boxing match a reality. The bout happened on August 26, with McGregor losing via TKO in the 10th round of a fun (but not especially competitive) scrap.
Though the contest shook out well for everyone involved, the aftermath was defined by a prolonged contract dispute between McGregor and the UFC. This kept him out for most of 2018, though he managed to keep himself in the news with wild outbursts and new endorsement deals.
December 30, 2017—Nurmagomedov, Back in Action
Following his weight-cutting hiccup, Nurmagomedov returned to the Octagon at UFC 219. There, he faced Edson Barboza and picked up the best win of his MMA career to this point.
Though Barboza's takedown defense has long been established as his Achilles' heel, the Brazilian has improved steadily over the years and has enjoyed top-10 status since 2014. Despite this, Nurmagomedov had little difficulty at any point during the fight, out-wrestling Barboza throughout and nearly finishing him on multiple occasions.
That victory set Nurmagomedov up for his fateful title bout at UFC 223 opposite Tony Ferguson.
April 5, 2018—The Bus Attack
On April 3, video surfaced of Nurmagomedov and his entourage initiating a scuffle with Artem Lobov, a longtime friend and training partner of McGregor. Two days later, immediately following a UFC 223 media event, McGregor and a crew of his own arrived at the Barclays Center and discovered Nurmagomedov and his manager on a bus shared with a number of other fighters. When Nurmagomedov refused to exit the vehicle, McGregor responded by hurling a hand truck in his direction, breaking a window, which resulted in two fighters sustaining injuries from broken glass.
A warrant was issued for McGregor's arrest, and he turned himself in to authorities later that day, with charges of assault and criminal mischief being pressed. Though McGregor had regularly misbehaved over the previous years, this marked a new low for him as well as a potentially huge hindrance in his combat sports career.
April 7, 2018—Nurmagomedov Wins "Undisputed" Title, McGregor Stripped Again
After a pair of opponent changes, Nurmagomedov fought Al Iaquinta at UFC 223 for the lightweight title. While there were questions as to what this meant for McGregor's own championship status, those were answered shortly thereafter when Dana White announced at the post-fight presser that McGregor had been officially stripped of his second title, and Nurmagomedov was now the undisputed 155-pound champion.
While it made for big headlines and sent a strong message, it was a hollow gesture. The bus incident, and by extension the McGregor vs. Nurmagomedov rivalry, gained incredible mainstream visibility. A showdown was inevitable.
July 26, 2018—McGregor Receives Slap on the Wrist
The bus incident was a scary thing for McGregor fans at the time, but as the weeks passed by, it became more and more obvious that he wouldn't face any serious consequences. That came to pass on July 26 when McGregor pled no contest to a charge of disorderly conduct and received just five days of community service. That, coupled with White acknowledging that the UFC wasn't going to punish McGregor, cleared his path back to the Octagon.
August 3, 2018—Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor Officially Announced
Just a week after having his legal issues sorted out, McGregor was officially attached to Nurmagomedov for a fight at UFC 229. They will face off on October 6 for what could be the biggest fight in UFC history.