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Top MMA storylines of 2018: 1. Conor McGregor-Khabib Nurmagomedov saga

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

A slap. A bus attack. Shattered glass. Injured fighters. An arrest. A post-fight melee.

In the end? The highest-selling UFC pay-per-view event of all time.

Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov had a year that was both infamous and incredibly lucrative. No one left UFC 229 on Oct. 6 in Las Vegas looking all that great — not McGregor, not Nurmagomedov and not the UFC. Yet, all the parties involved made a boatload of money. The event sold 2.4 million pay-per-views, obliterating the previous record of 1.6 million.

How did it end up the way it did? It started months before the fight, long before the event was scheduled.

McGregor and Nurmagomedov had exchanged trash talk on social media and in interviews. It reached a fever pitch at UFC 223 in April when Nurmagomedov and his team surrounded McGregor’s team and friend Artem Lobov, who was fighting on the same card in Brooklyn. Nurmagomedov slapped Lobov for what he felt was disrespecting him in the Russian media. Both men hail from the country.

Later that week, two days before the event, Nurmagomedov and other fights from the event were leaving media day at Barclays Center on a bus when McGregor, who presumably had flown from Ireland, and more than a dozen other men stormed the loading dock in search of Nurmagomedov.

Security stopped Nurmagomedov from leaving the vehicle. McGregor picked up a dolly nearby, ran toward the bus and hurled it at the window. Glass shattered and cascaded onto fighters inside. Two of them, Michael Chiesa and Ray Borg, were injured and forced to pull out of their UFC 223 fights. Chiesa is currently suing McGregor for the incident.

That night, McGregor, the biggest star in the history of the UFC, was arrested on three counts of assault and one count of criminal mischief. In July, he reached a plea deal, pleading to disorderly conduct, and got off with community service and no criminal record. The UFC did not pursue any kind of discipline against him, though it said it prevented McGregor from taking any fights during that time period.

Meanwhile at UFC 223, Nurmagomedov fought Al Iaquinta, a late fill-in for Max Holloway, who was pulled by the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) due to what they felt was a hard weight cut. Nurmagomedov won by unanimous decision to win the UFC lightweight title that McGregor once held. McGregor had not defended it going back to November 2016 when he won it and the UFC chose to move the division on without him. At least temporarily.

In August, it was announced that Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor would finally be happening in October. Of course, in the very first promo for the event and subsequent ones after that, the UFC used footage of the bus attack — and there was plenty of it, since UFC Embedded cameras were following fighters from UFC 223 around that whole week.

Nurmagomedov and McGregor met face to face at a press conference in New York in September. It was a huge spectacle, simulcast on the mammoth screen in Times Square. And it got ugly from a verbal point of view. McGregor brought up Nurmagomedov’s religion (Islam) and called his manager Ali Abdelaziz a terrorist. Oh and he also said he would have killed Nurmagomedov if he got off the bus back in April.

“I just thank the Lord Jesus Christ that that man didn’t have the balls to step foot off that bus, or that the bus door did not open, because if that door did open, this man would be dead right now,” McGregor said. “He would be in a box and I would be in a cell and we would not have this great fight ahead of us.”

As unseemly as it might have been, the promotional tactics worked perfectly. Fight week in Las Vegas in October was an odd one. McGregor was late to the pre-fight press conference, which prompted Nurmagomedov to stay and answer questions for 15 minutes and bolt, not wanting to be kept waiting. The two didn’t actually have a staredown that week until a very heated one during weigh-ins. The fight, years in the making backed by a very real dislike of one another and what they stood for, was already sold.

In the Octagon, Nurmagomedov did exactly what he said he would do. He imposed his will on McGregor, eventually submitting him with a face crank in the fourth round. McGregor had his moments, especially in the third, but it was Nurmagomedov’s fight to win from early on. He even dropped McGregor, the striker, in the second.

The bad blood didn’t end there. Nurmagomedov lingered near a seated McGregor up against the cage and said something to him. McGregor’s corner shouted at Nurmagomedov from across the way. Nurmagomedov walked toward them, in particular McGregor training partner Dillon Danis, and fired his mouthpiece at them against the fence. He then shockingly climbed out of the cage and attacked Danis, igniting a wild brawl in and out of the fighting surface. Perhaps buoyed by the UFC’s unwillingness to punish McGregor and team for the bus incident, Nurmagomedov was taking matters into his own hands.

McGregor ran across the cage toward his corner and climbed on top of it. He was met there by Nurmagomedov’s teammate Abubakar Nurmagomedov. McGregor fired and landed a punch on him. Both men were pulled down by security, Las Vegas Metro police and Nevada Athletic Commission (NAC) inspectors. Back inside the cage, McGregor exchanged blows with Zubaira Tukhugov, Nurmagomedov’s training partner, and another Team Khabib member Esedulla Emiragaev punched McGregor from behind.

An ugly build to the fight got even uglier. Nurmagomedov apologized afterward, but still pointed the finger at McGregor.

“I do not understand how people can talk about ‘I jumped from the cage,’” Nurmagomedov said. “Worry about, he talked about my religion, he talk about my country, he talk about my father, he come to Brooklyn and he broke bus, he almost killed a couple people. Worry about this. Worry about this sh*t. Why people talk about ‘I jump over the cage?’ Why people still talk about this? I don’t understand.”

People are going to be talking about it for a long time. Regulators still are as we head into the new year.

Nurmagomedov, McGregor and others involved with the post-fight brawl are all facing fines and suspensions from the Nevada commission. Their disciplinary hearings were scheduled for Dec. 10, but have been moved back due to the inability to come to any kind of settlement agreement. There likely won’t be any clarity as to how long both men will be out until the end of January at the earliest.

That more than likely means the biggest story of 2018 will extend far into 2019. Nurmagomedov is still the UFC lightweight champion and it’s unclear when he’ll be able to return to defend his title.

There has been talk of a big-money rematch — and make no mistake, it would approach historic PPV numbers — but the future for both is unclear. The two great fighters will be linked to each other for a long time, unfortunately for their exploits outside the cage and not inside it.

However, the amount of money made and the fans who came out in droves to see it was yet another lesson that mixed martial arts and the UFC are driven by outside-the-cage dramatics and not necessarily true sport.

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