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Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor. Two fighters whose names have been thrown around more than any other in the world of Mixed Martial Arts of late, and with good reason.
A week from now, Conor McGregor will make his long-awaited return to the Octagon to take on the current UFC Lightweight Champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov in a fight for the title at UFC 229. So far, the build-up and the obviously simmering pool of tension and dislike has been brimming and bubbling ever since McGregor smashed the bus window at UFC 223.
But beyond the dislike both men harbour for one another, why is this fight actually so important?
Is it because the UFC Lightweight Championship is on the line? No, but that definitely does contribute an added layer of significance to it. After all, Conor never lost the Championship in a fight, and it was stripped off him as he had not defended it in a long time.
Then perhaps, does it have to do with the return of the effervescent and controversial Irishman to the Octagon after two long years?
Conor is returning to the UFC for the first time since his boxing fight against Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather; a fight he lost but managed to put up better competition than anyone had expected from him. However, in pursuing that fight, he has been away from the Octagon for two years after picking up a win over Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205.
Again, this too adds a layer of importance – but it doesn’t capture the full essence of this fight.
Then what is it that puts this fight at such a level, where the entire world is waiting for the arrival of the 6th of October and UFC 229?
The answer can be summed up in one word.
There has not perhaps been another fighter to step into the Octagon with more sense of self-confidence than Conor McGregor – ever. However, he might have met his match in ego for the first time in the shape of Khabib.
The Russian fighter is known for his strongly idealistic views with relation to his religion and the importance of tradition; views which Conor McGregor has made it a point to mock ahead of their fight. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Khabib is undefeated in his professional either.
There is an intensity and hatred between the two fighters which cannot be explained without talking about what sparked off this rivalry.
At one point, unbelievably, both fighters shared mutual respect. This, however, came to an abrupt end the moment Khabib and his friends cornered Artem Lobov, a friend of McGregor, and slapped him.
What seemed like an innocuous confrontation set off a chain of events which had the whole MMA world reeling.
Conor McGregor, incensed at the way his friend had been treated, attacked the bus which had been carrying Khabib and other UFC fighters from the UFC 223 Press Conference. McGregor’s original intention had been to confront Khabib along with his friends, but arriving when he found himself unable to do so, he tried calling the fighter out.
When Khabib was stopped by his team members and other fighters from stepping out of the bus, McGregor lost control and threw a metal dolly, shattering the bus window and injuring both Michael Chiesa and Ray Borg in the process. McGregor ended up facing legal action.
Since that incident, Conor and Khabib have been at each other’s throats in the media.
After months of insults, the two met at the UFC 229 press conference, where Conor did not leave anything unsaid. Khabib struggled to get a word in edgeways but looked visibly offended when Conor offered him whisky from his new brand, as it was a direct insult to his religion which forbids him to consume alcohol; something that McGregor knew very well.
When the two finally do meet in the Octagon, even there, their contrasting style and skills seem to show off their different belief systems. Conor with his fast striking and aggressive offence, and Khabib with his slow, steady and powerful grappling. The fans will look on at the left hand of Conor, and the takedowns of Khabib to make the difference in the fight.
Both fighters now are struggling to prove to the world, even before entering the Octagon which of them is more powerful. Is it the Undefeated Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov who will make his record 27-0 should he put a mauling on the Irishman? Or is it the incorrigible but irrepressible ‘The Notorious’ Conor McGregor who will put the first dent in Khabib’s apparently impregnable armour if his left hand should find its mark?
There is just so much at play here that it’s really hard to weigh out one narrative over another and do justice to it. The UFC Lightweight Title belt. McGregor’s return to MMA. Khabib’s undefeated record. The two massive egos and the fact that they are of such contrasting ilk, that they just do not like each other.
Luckily, we can make sense of it all in just 6 days time.