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Revenge, money, geopolitics and power: Layers of Conor vs. Khabib seem endless

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

There was a time when Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov were friendly. It started as these things do, on social media. Nurmagomedov replied to a McGregor tweet about a t-shirt, and possibly training together, and by the fall of 2014, they were standing, smiling, posing, each with a hand around the other’s back. At the time, McGregor had just knocked out Dustin Poirier in his first sojourn to Las Vegas. On the heels of the chills-inducing quote, “We’re not here to take part, we’re here to take over,” the Irish had invaded Vegas, and though McGregor was still three fights away from being an undisputed UFC champion, his destiny seemed sealed.

He wasn’t a fighter, he was a movement.

In that moment, Nurmagomedov looks like a fan. Offering a rare smile, he’s pointing at McGregor, the star of the show — the star of the sport. He’s the man, he might as well be saying. A few years later, he’s vowing to grind that honorific into dust.

It’s hard to imagine that in the span of a few years, we went from there to here, to a point where McGregor launching a steel dolly through a bus window has become emblematic of the enmity between them.

In retrospect, we should have seen it coming. If we have learned anything over the years, it’s that simple conflict no longer sells the conflict business. Fighting to be number one is laudable, but it also comes with a clear ceiling. To become a star, to sell events, the antagonism must be raised to new and unseen levels. That’s what McGregor-Nurmagomedov is — apex conflict. It’s a distillation of commerce, revenge, geopolitics and power. It’s everything, and everything matters.

How can we tell? If UFC president Dana White is to be believed, UFC 229 is on pace to become the best-selling mixed martial arts pay-per-view ever, and in fact, blow the current record out of the water. Within a matter of weeks, he has gone from predicting over 2 million buys, to over 2.5 million buys, to over 3 million, to most recently, possibly challenging McGregor vs. Floyd Mayweather’s 4.4 million buys. As far as he’s concerned, this thing is wildfire.

Even if there’s a dash or five of promoter hyperbole thrown in — a 3 million-seller, for instance, would nearly double the standing UFC record of 1.6 million for UFC 202 — White doesn’t usually throw around such lofty numbers unless he’s sure he’s reeling in a monster.

While that may seem irrelevant in the context of a fight, it is part of what got us here. McGregor is the most business-minded fighter MMA has ever seen, and any fight contract crossing his desk needs the promise of a whole lot of zeroes.

From a distance, Nurmagomedov doesn’t outwardly fit that column. He is Russian, mostly stoic and still steeped in some mystery. For example, he has a policy not to publicly discuss his family. As a result, many fans — even some hardcores — are unaware that he is married with two children. By contrast, McGregor has basically documented his entire life through his social media accounts and website. His family is omnipresent, so much so that his one-year-old son, Conor Jr., co-starred at Wednesday’s open workouts. The kid has an Instagram account with over 160,000 followers — verified, of course. McGregor is as candid as Nurmagomedov is closed.

The contrast between the fighters is part of the pull. McGregor is the loud, brash, wealthy-beyond-belief extrovert, and Nurmagomedov is the quiet, unflappable, modest introvert intent on teaching him some humility.

If it were just that simple, it still wouldn’t be enough, but in a stroke of synchronicity, it so happens that they align at a time when each has a meaningful claim of being the best cage fighter in the world.

Nurmagomedov’s 26-0 record is a unicorn in MMA. Few fighters in major competition reach such a mark; meanwhile, the sport has proven so easy for him — at least so far — that he’s won all 29 rounds in which he’s competed in the Octagon. In another bit of coincidence, he has a chance to break the UFC record if he shuts out McGregor in a decision victory. The current record for consecutive rounds won is 33 straight by Georges St-Pierre, only possibly the best fighter in history.

McGregor has his own hand to play, however. In his last three MMA victories, he’s won at featherweight, welterweight and lightweight. More importantly, he captured championships in two of those divisions, becoming the first person ever to simultaneously hold two UFC belts. Who’s the better man? Who knows! But these are big stakes they’re playing for — money, revenge and power.

Even their fight styles — the very thing that will settle the question — are at odds. Nurmagomedov is a grinder, intent on eliminating any semblance of personal space, while McGregor is a cool, calculated and powerful sniper who hunts from distance. In vs. out. In that way, preferences mirror personalities.

The stakes couldn’t be higher for the UFC, either. The company is still great at producing revenue — it generated a record $700 million in 2017, according to Moody’s — but its 2018 event calendar has been a bit of a dud, with few matchups capable of drawing in the larger sports world.

Part of that has been due to the absence of McGregor, who hasn’t competed in the cage in nearly two years after taking a brief but immensely profitable excursion into boxing. You might have heard about it.

But this rivalry between them had been brewing far before that. In April 2015, just a year after they appeared all buddy-buddy on film, Nurmagomedov was asked about McGregor potentially moving to lightweight, something that was only a rumor at the time.

“I like Conor McGregor, but he come [to] 155, four minutes, smash him, no problem,” he said then.

McGregor is a man who has never wasted a slight. He turns them into lighter fluid for feuds, some of which he immediately sparks, and others he saves for future infernos. His grudge with Nurmagomedov had been a slow burn that finally erupted in Brooklyn, the day after Nurmagomedov slapped McGregor’s close friend, UFC fighter Artem Lobov. McGregor immediately hopped on a jet, and the next day, chucked a dolly at a bus carrying Nurmagomedov. You might’ve seen it.

Since then, they’ve lobbed insults back and forth, with McGregor releasing some trash-talk deep cuts, including mentioning the arrest of Ziyavudin Magomedov, a Dagestani billionaire who served as a Nurmagomedov benefactor; as well as slamming Nurmagomedov’s dad as a “quivering coward” for polite remarks he made about Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov.

Is the psychological warfare working? Again, who knows! But there are levels to this, and that’s why there is meaning. It’s not just that they both want to be No. 1, or that they have fallen into hate, or that insults must be avenged at all costs. It’s everything, stuffed into an eight-sided powder keg, ready for some spotlight flame.

So that’s where we are now, in the best kind of fight, the one where the layers relentlessly pile one atop the other, and only stop when the strikes begin.

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