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Khabib Nurmagomedov beat McGregor on Saturday night in the main event of UFC 229.
“He bludgeoned him” is probably a more accurate way to describe it. It went precisely how most of the sport’s followers predicted it would go: If McGregor could not keep his back off the canvas, he was in big trouble. You know, like every other Khabib fight.
And it was like every other Khabib fight, right up to the part where it became unlike any other UFC fight in the history of the sport.
After three rounds of battering McGregor and putting him on the canvas, Nurmagomedov applied a rear-naked choke—the more painful variety, where Khabib’s arm was crushing McGregor’s jaw—and forced the Irishman to submit in the fourth.
That Nurmagomedov had to be physically pried off McGregor by referee Herb Dean should’ve been a warning sign that this would not be our usual post-fight scene. And it wasn’t. Nurmagomedov shouted at McGregor teammate Dillon Danis, which is understandable; Danis can be infuriating. But Nurmagomedov didn’t stop with the yelling. Instead, he vaulted over the cage and went after Danis.
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Bedlam ensued. The cageside area resembled a riot scene, and the chaos spilled back into the Octagon as the UFC production team pulled back into a wide shot so as to not endorse or highlight what was happening. Commentator Dominick Cruz spoke in hushed tones, telling us they couldn’t endorse what we were witnessing.
Of course, this is the same promotion that built an entire marketing package around McGregor assaulting a bus in New York City.
In another unprecedented move, UFC President Dana White sent both fighters to the back before the official announcement was even made, explaining to Nurmagomedov that he was afraid of what would happen if he put the belt around his waist.
Look closely enough and you could see the glimmer in White’s eyes. He was a man who just realized how much money he’ll make off the rematch.
Nurmagomedov was long heralded by plenty of very smart people as the best fighter in the sport, and that was before he won the UFC lightweight title.
Even teammate Daniel Cormier—who has won UFC championships in multiple weight classes and who thus knows a little something about greatness—just shakes his head when you ask him about Khabib.
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“People just don’t get it, man,” Cormier told me recently. “They don’t understand. He’s different than everyone else.”
The whole bear-wrestling thing? It’s a funny anecdote, sure, and it makes for easy branding. It looks good on a T-shirt. But wrestling bears as a kid hardly has any sort of correlation to athletic performance as an adult.
Or maybe the whole bear thing is important; maybe it tells us all we need to know about Khabib and how he started preparing for this life when he was just a kid growing up in Dagestan.
Maybe Dagestan and the environment that shaped him tells us more about Khabib than we realized. This guy is different than anyone else in the fight game. He cuts a great promo, and we all laugh and talk about how entertaining Khabib is, but the thing that we never took into account is how he might’ve been serious when he said those things.
Like when he said, “Honestly, this is for me more than just defend my title; for me, it’s more than just fight for the title. For me, it’s personal.”
Maybe it wasn’t just trash talk.
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It’s commendable that McGregor even attempted to beat Nurmagomedov after two years away from the sport. Instead of coming back and looking for the fight that would give him the biggest payday for the least amount of work, McGregor waltzed back into the UFC and stepped in the cage with perhaps the most terrifying lightweight of all time.
Critics will always find new and creative ways to denigrate McGregor’s accomplishments; that trend would’ve continued even if McGregor had knocked out Nurmagomedov in less than a minute after stuffing five takedowns.
But the fact is, McGregor didn’t have to fight Nurmagomedov. Hell, he didn’t have to come back at all. He has money and business ventures and a family. What could he possibly accomplish by coming back to the UFC that would top the stuff he’s already done? And why put yourself through the sheer torture of facing someone like Nurmagomedov?
He did it for competition and for sport, but it wasn’t much of a competition.
And what followed certainly wasn’t sport.