A Conor vs. Khabib Rematch Would Take the UFC to the Next Level

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterOctober 8, 2018

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 06:   (R-L) Khabib Nurmagomedov of Russia pushes Conor McGregor of Ireland up against the cage in their UFC lightweight championship bout during the UFC 229 event inside T-Mobile Arena on October 6, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Nestled between the absolutely bonkers buildup to the bout (one that included a man throwing a dolly at a bus) and the somehow even wilder aftermath (that included a man flying off the UFC Octagon to attack a big mouth in the crowd), the actual fight between Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov is almost an afterthought.

And that's kind of a shame.

For 20 minutes, before anyone had sucker-punched anybody else or leapt into the audience, two of the best fighters in the world played a high stakes game of physical chess, one with a very slim margin for error.

It's easy, especially after seeing his definitive submission victory, to fall into believing a simple narrative. You can tell yourself Nurmagomedov dominated and dismantled his higher-profile rival. And it might even feel good. When someone talks as much as McGregor did before this fight, comeuppance can be sweet.

And there's no doubt that the signature moments all belonged to the new undisputed kingpin of the lightweight division. Whether it was his furious assault in the second round that nearly ended McGregor's night early, his booming right hand that preceded it or his complete loss of composure after victory was secured, this was clearly Khabib's night.

McGregor's arm slowly snaking up to meekly tap out is the defining snapshot of the fight—or at least it was until bedlam ensued. But before that, both men had their moments.  

It's hard to reconcile this with the outcome, but in many ways, McGregor had Nurmagomedov right where he wanted him.

The Russian had spent himself in the second round, raining down a furious succession of blows that made the crowd surge to its feet. But many of them fell short and clanged off the Irishman's intelligent defense. When the five minutes were up, it was the aggressor who looked spent. 

McGregor only smiled.

McGregor was all smiles after surviving Nurmagomedov's onslaught.
McGregor was all smiles after surviving Nurmagomedov's onslaught.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

If you'd told McGregor and his team that he would exhaust his opponent early and then spend the entire third round exchanging blows, you would have likely received another grin in return. This was the strategy after all—grapple well enough to survive, and lower the boom when an opportunity presented itself. 

McGregor, after the five worst minutes of his career, was finally able to implement the game plan. Nurmagomedov was right in front of him, missing takedowns and eating punches and knees.

The opportunity was there in Round 3. McGregor's vaunted left hand was not.

Fight Metric counted 34 blows. But none of them quite connected the way they were supposed to. Haymakers that had ended the night for so many others glanced off Khabib's armor or missed by mere inches. 

McGregor had rallied nicely; it was enough to take the round on every scorecard. 

But it turned out to be all he had left.

When Nurmagomedov took McGregor down in the fourth round, he didn't get back to his feet again until his opponent was hurdling the cage and well on his way to the crowd. Instead of patiently accepting his punishment, gritting his teeth and hoping for another chance, he instead went right to his knees. 

Here, things became binary. McGregor would either get to his feet or he would be caught in a rear mount he couldn't possibly escape. Nurmagomedov's iron grip ensured it, squeezing McGregor's face so hard that he was forced to tap in mere seconds.

Khabib with the submission.
Khabib with the submission.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

It was an ignominious defeat for the former champion. There were, however, glimmers of hope. McGregor will never be a complete match for Nurmagomedov on the mat. So far, no one has been. But he competed there well enough to keep the clock running, even holding Khabib to a stalemate in Round 1.

That was a victory of sorts—a small one, considering he wasn't able to take advantage of the additional opportunities to strike. But a victory nonetheless. When they fight again, and they will, McGregor will at least know he can put himself in a position to win. 

That's not nothing.

The UFC isn't likely to grant an immediate rematch. Nurmagomedov, lucky not to have been hauled to jail after his post-fight attack on McGregor's training partner Dillon Danis, will no doubt spend some time sorting out his punishment with the Nevada Athletic Commission.

McGregor, if he were smart, would be well-served by a tuneup match to get his timing and speed back. This was his first MMA fight in almost two years, and by the end of the fight, the mat was almost covered with the ring rust cascading off of him.

And then there's the small matter of Tony Ferguson—arguably the most impressive lightweight in competition that evening.

Tony Ferguson (L) won a spirited, bloody bout against former champion Anthony Pettis.
Tony Ferguson (L) won a spirited, bloody bout against former champion Anthony Pettis.John Locher/Associated Press/Associated Press

But, no matter when it occurs or whether Nurmagomedov is still champion, it's a fight that fans deserve to see again. This was a fight we were told over and over again was the biggest in UFC history.

Now, defying all odds, there are even more reasons for fans to tune in to see them run it back. There's little doubt accountants at the UFC are equally excited, already dreaming about the impact a second bout would have on the company's bottom line.

The dark, bubbling current of resentment that threatened to boil over has finally spilled out. A personal grudge match has taken on ethnic, religious and nationalist dimensions.

That is scary at times, especially as blows are being thrown outside athletic competition, but it seems the UFC has determined it's good for business nonetheless. 

More than that, the matchup remains a compelling athletic contest. It's a bout that was almost certainly going to end decisively one way or another. This time, it was Nurmagomedov who better executed when he had a situational advantage. Next time, it might be McGregor's night. 

Either way, it's a story that hasn't nearly reached its ultimate conclusion.

      

Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.

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