This weekend’s UFC 229 card from Madison Square Garden could be a very historic event, both from a financial and promotional perspective. After months of tension, Khabib Nurmagomedov will defend his UFC Lightweight championship against the returning Conor McGregor, the most controversial and top star on the roster.
Ironically, McGregor’s return to the octagon will take place in the same arena where he last competed almost two years ago, knocking out Eddie Alvarez to claim the same 205 LBS title that he will compete for on Saturday. Since the victory that made him a double champion in November of 2016 at MSG, Conor made many headlines, but none of them were about his accomplishments in mixed martial arts. As I’ve written before, UFC management shoehorned McGregor into a scenario that provided him the chance to win two titles and gave the company the opportunity to market a double champion, granting him a shot at the 155 LBS title before he ever defended the featherweight championship that he won when he defeated Jose Aldo in late-2015.
Keep in mind, the UFC is as much of a business, if not more so, as it is a sport.
Many of the stars from the era that saw MMA surge in popularity had declined or retired so UFC brass knew they needed new athletes to market to the general public. The charismatic McGregor received the promotional push and was marketed as the top star in the organization. Don’t get me wrong, Conor is a tremendous fighter, but he doesn’t necessarily have the well-rounded skills that other top stars had from the previous era. Still, his Ric Flair style and presentation made him a major draw on pay-per-view and his bouts are among the best-selling in the history of the company. More specifically, his grudge rematch with Nate Diaz at UFC 196 set a record for MMA PPV, generating over 1.5 million buys. His previously mentioned win against Alvarez was his most recent pay-per-view bout and garnered 1.3 million buys, which is also one of the highest PPV numbers in UFC history.
Conor McGregor might not be the most complete fighter in MMA, but he draws money, which is the most important factor from a business perspective.
After UFC management marketed and promoted McGregor as the biggest star in the organization, arguably at the expense of entire divisions, he took that name value to boxing for a mega payday to fight Floyd Mayweather. The brash Irishman is known for his mic skills, but the media tour for his August 2017 bout against Mayweather often resembled a sideshow, and boxing purists scoffed at the contest. The former MMA champion was stopped in the tenth round via TKO, but his goal was to get paid, not jump start a boxing career so it was basically mission accomplished.
The paycheck from boxing was exponentially more than Conor made previously in the octagon so he had much more leverage at the negotiating table for a return to the cage, prompting speculation about if he would actually fight in the UFC again.
Perhaps, the “Notorious” McGregor overestimated what he could do with his over-the-top antics, as his confrontation with Khabib’s fight team this past April made TMZ headlines just days before the UFC 223 card in Brooklyn. Nurmagomedov, who was scheduled to fight Tony Ferguson, got into an altercation with a fighter from McGregor’s team during fight week. Ferguson suffered a knee injury during training, and Max Halloway was declared unable to take his spot on the card because of weight cutting problems so Al Iaquinta was added as a late replacement for the main event. Conor flew from Dublin to New York to confront Khabib, and when a bus that transported the fighters on that weekend’s card was parked after a media event, McGregor threw a dolly through the window, injuring some of the athletes that were scheduled to fight. The event was further scrambled and a warrant was issued for McGregor’s arrest following the bus incident. Khabib defeated Iaquinta via unanimous decision, and McGregor turned himself into New York police a few days later.
Originally charged with a felon that could’ve affected him ability to fight in the United States, McGregor’s expensive legal team was able to get the charges reduced to disorderly conduct and he was ordered to perform community service. Still, there were questions about if Conor had any plans to compete again, especially after management was forced to strip him of both the featherweight and lightweight belts due to lack of title defenses.
However, it was announced just a few months ago that McGregor would challenge Nurmagomedov for the 155 LBS championship, a title that Conor held previously, but never defended. This grudge match is expected to draw major numbers on pay-per-view, with Dana White speculating that it might set a buy rate record, but I think that’s more of a hype strategy than anything. Regardless, UFC 229 will undoubtedly draw over a million PPV buys, which translates to major money for everyone involved.
So, what will happen during the actual fight?
Stylistically, this isn’t a good match-up for McGregor. Khabib is undefeated with a record of 26-0 and he has a well-rounded skill set that has garnered KO, submission, and decision wins. A two-time Sambo champion, Nurmagomedov will have the advantage in the clinch and on the ground. Conor’s solid record of 21-3 is impressive, but the three losses in his career were via submission so he will have to avoid the ground game in this contest. If the fight ends within the first time rounds, it favors Conor’s ability to land dynamic punches, but if the fight reaches the championship rounds, it’s very possible that Khabib could win with a submission.
Granted, anything can happen in mixed martial arts, but I will pick Khabib to win the fight, mostly because he has the skill set to defeat McGregor. The other major factor here is ring rust because Conor hasn’t fought in the octagon in two years so his cardio might be affected in the later rounds. McGregor shouldn’t underestimate Khabib or take this fight lightly because the mindset of each athlete could be another determining factor in this bout. McGregor is already extremely wealthy and will receive another major payday from UFC 229, but Nurmagomedov has the added motivation of the potential for major money fights in the future if he defeats the top star in the company.
What do you think? Comment below with your thoughts, opinions, feedback and anything else that was raised.
Until next week
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