Preview: UFC 229 ‘Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor’

Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor

By Tom Feely Oct 3, 2018

UFC 229 is now available on Amazon Prime.

UFC 229 is finally here. The turnaround from fight announcement to actual fight has been quick, but the Conor McGregor-Khabib Nurmagomedov headliner has been teased for years, culminating in McGregor’s infamous bus attack at UFC 223. While the undercard has drawn some criticism, this is far from a one-fight show. Tony Ferguson’s return is crucial to the lightweight division; Derrick Lewis and Alexander Volkov could be fighting for a title shot at heavyweight; and there are some interesting prospects throughout the card.

Let us get to the breakdown of UFC 229, set for Saturday at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas:

UFC Lightweight Championship

Khabib Nurmagomedov (26-0) vs. Conor McGregor (21-3)

ODDS: Nurmagomedov (-160), McGregor (+150)

It’s good to have McGregor back. For one thing, every McGregor fight feels like an event, between his fervent fanbase and press conference that are equal parts the ramblings of a madman and a Nardwuar-worthy level of insight into his opponents. Then there’s the fact that McGregor is one of the most important fighters of all-time; the combined star power of himself and Ronda Rousey got the Ultimate Fighting Championship sold for billions, but most importantly, he was the first fighter to extract every ounce of leverage he had over the promotion. MMA has always been a sport built more on spectacle and star power than a pure sports mentality, but McGregor stressed that enough that he was able to upend the UFC’s entire matchmaking structure, setting a blueprint that seemingly every champion has gone on and tried to duplicate. However, even setting aside all the bravado and money, inside the cage, McGregor’s probably among the Top 10 fighters of all-time and has an exciting style, to boot. The UFC’s promotional machine may have given McGregor a platform, but once the cage door closed, McGregor cashed in on the hype more than anyone -- excluding himself -- could have imagined, knocking out foe after foe with his massive left hand. McGregor’s 13-second knockout of Jose Aldo was one of the most impressive performances in MMA history, and even McGregor’s recent loss to Nate Diaz wound up adding to his legend; after facing an absolutely wrong style matchup in their first fight, McGregor won the rematch in an exceptional example of fighting completely against type. Add in that those fights were the two biggest in the UFC’s pay-per-view history and among the best fights of 2016, and even when McGregor loses, he wins. He also became the first fighter to hold two UFC belts simultaneously with a win over Eddie Alvarez that, frankly, was a bit of an afterthought, as the Irishman took an advantageous style matchup and turned it into a blowout. McGregor’s done nothing but make history seemingly every time he appears, so it says a lot that the undefeated Nurmagomedov might be his toughest test to date.

Nurmagomedov’s win over Al Iaquinta at UFC 223 was a bit of an anticlimax; Iaquinta was basically the last option left after a bunch of late opponent changes thanks to various injuries. It almost did not matter, as Nurmagomedov was already sort of the uncrowned lightweight champion going as far back as 2015. Nurmagomedov’s 2012 debut led a charge of Dagestani fighters into the UFC, and he has remained the most fearsome of the bunch. Gleison Tibau offered a bit of resistance, but otherwise, Nurmagomedov has steamrolled opponent after opponent with his crushing wrestling game. A 2014 win over Rafael dos Anjos looked to put Nurmagomedov into title contention, but instead, it was the precursor to a wave of knee injuries that kept “The Eagle” out of action for two years -- a period which, amusingly, included dos Anjos going on to win lightweight gold. When the Russian returned, the results were a bit underwhelming; he looked rusty in his tune-up fight against Darrell Horcher and had to overcome a slow start -- and getting stunned early -- before dominating Michael Johnson. Naturally, that Johnson win gave way to another year-plus layoff, but this time around, Nurmagomedov has looked to be in the best form of his career. Nurmagomedov’s win over Edson Barboza was the platonic ideal of a performance, as he stalked Barboza down before dominating with his grappling game. Then there was the Iaquinta fight, where Nurmagomedov was only a victim of his high expectations. Iaquinta did little but survive, and Nurmagomedov was even able to handily beat him on the feet. Nurmagomedov’s game clicking into its career-best form only makes a fight this big all the more exciting.

At a certain level, this is a simple fight to break down, as it’s a stark example of a “two true outcome” fight. McGregor’s entire game is built around the knockout power in his left hand, which would be a bit one-note if the Irishman wasn’t a master of setting that shot up. On the other side, while Nurmagomedov’s style requires more levels and time, it’s also a basic game plan: get in on his opponent, and from there, rely on being one of the strongest wrestlers in the history of the sport. So as for those two true outcomes, it looks like either McGregor knocks out Nurmagomedov in short order, or the Russian gets the fight to the ground and dominates for as long as he wants to. If this fight was taking place shortly after UFC 205, I would favor McGregor. Nurmagomedov would still be able to end things as soon as he got the first takedown, but that version of “The Eagle” was slower and hittable, setting up things perfectly for McGregor. Given McGregor’s long layoff and Nurmagomedov’s recent form, I have to favor the Russian here. He’s still hittable enough for McGregor to score the victory, but again, the fight’s likely over as soon as Nurmagomedov gets that first takedown. While McGregor has shown a genius-level ability to fight against type, even with the right game plan, I’m not sure he can train his defensive wrestling hard enough to make up the difference against Nurmagomedov. It’s a credit to McGregor’s status as an all-time great that even against a dominant champion I’d give him a 40 percent or so shot of scoring a first-round knockout here. The pick is still for Nurmagomedov to get his wrestling game going and begin dominating this fight, earning a stoppage in the second round.

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