Conor McGregor Should Fight Khabib Nurmagomedov For The UFC Lightweight Strap, Not Tony Ferguson

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Take the biggest star you have ever had and keep him out of the cage. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and dollars easier to part with on the return. In the meantime, have him fight the biggest combat sports star of modern times in a spectacle of historic proportions. During his absence from the cage, his rival rises. Twenty-six wins and zero losses, the UFC lightweight champion of the world, and the most dominant grappler the division has ever seen. Throw in an outwardly-heated rivalry, a confrontation between the rival and your star’s teammate, and then an attempted attack that leads to the arrest of your biggest star.

These, it appears, are the makings of the biggest fight in UFC history. By all rights it is a fight that should outstrip any other fight the UFC has ever promoted by a significant margin.

On August 3, the UFC made what had been rumored for weeks official: Conor McGregor will return on October 6 to challenge Khabib Nurmagomedov for the UFC lightweight championship of the world.

McGregor last appeared in a cage (not counting his guest appearance at Bellator 187) on November 12, 2016, when one of MMA’s all-time toughest lightweights couldn’t touch him. That night, McGregor became a double champion, the first UFC fighter two hold two titles at the same time. The next month, the UFC took his featherweight title. This April, one-and-a-half years after his last MMA fight, the UFC took his lightweight title.

McGregor’s excursion only fattened his wallet, made him more famous, and increased his future earnings potential. On August 26, 2017, he boxed Floyd Mayweather in a tremendously successful cash grab, generating an estimated 4.3 million pay-per-view buys in North America alone, and becoming the second-biggest money drawing combat sports event in history. The financial success of the bout was expected; the bonus was that it was generally well received, and Mayweather didn’t make McGregor look like a total fool in the ring.

In his time since, McGregor has had no issues keeping his name in the news. Last November, there were widespread rumors that he was in trouble with the Irish mob. This was shortly after jumped in the cage at Bellator 187, ending in a confrontation with referee Marc Goddard. Then in April, he flew across the Atlantic Ocean to confront Khabib Nurmagomedov, resulting in the infamous bus attack for which he was arrested.

McGregor and Nurmagomedov have been on a collision course at least since the night of McGregor’s last UFC bout. In an undercard bout the same night, Nurmagomedov brutalized Michael Johnson. He then took to the microphone to call out McGregor, who was hours away from his first lightweight bout in the UFC. It was McGregor’s crowd that night—as it will likely be on October 6—and so the crowd rained down boos on Nurmagomedov with a force that made it impossible to hear what he was saying in the building.

Nurmagomedov has only fought twice since then, and the lack of activity hasn’t allowed him to clean out the rest of the division prior to McGregor’s return. Last December, he beat Edson Barboza senseless for three rounds. In April, he was scheduled to meet interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson, but after a Ferguson injury, Nurmagomedov eventually found himself opposite journeyman Al Iaquinta. Nurmagomedov won by a wide margin, but it was an unremarkable performance. Sometimes great fighters turn in duds against overmatched opponents with little notice, and this was one of those times. If anything was impressive, it was that Nurmagomedov’s striking—the weakest part of his game—was enough to dictate the fight against Iaquinta on the feet.

When McGregor and Nurmagomedov meet, their fight will challenge the UFC’s all-time pay-per-view record and perhaps its live gate record. It will certainly challenge the live gate record for a UFC event in Las Vegas.

Ticket prices for Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor at UFC 229 are scaled higher than any event in MMA history. The top price for a non-premium level ticket is $2,500. That’s $994 higher than it was for UFC 205, which holds UFC’s all-time gate record at $17.7 million, and $1,245 higher than it was for UFC 200, which holds UFC’s Las Vegas gate record at $10.7 million.

Unless ticket demand is much lower than expected (which seems unlikely as McGregor is a tremendous live draw), the event should easily top the number set by UFC 200. The UFC 205 number may be safe since it will be hard for the UFC to fit as many people in the T-Mobile Arena as they did in Madison Square Garden. However, if the area fills to capacity with a relatively low number of comped tickets, it appears at the surface that tickets prices are scaled high enough to potentially break that record.

The UFC does not officially release pay-per-view numbers (although several have found their way out into the world) but based on estimates reported by The Wrestling Observer Newsletter, it’s believed the biggest pay-per-view in UFC history was the second Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz fight, which was estimated at 1.5 million buys. When considering this number, it should be noted that UFC 196 (the first McGregor vs. Diaz fight) was estimated at 1.6 million buys, but internal UFC documents pegged the number at 1.317 million buys.

The milestone number that some have mentioned this fight could reach is 2 million buys, which has only been reached four times in the history of pay-per-view. That number can’t be ruled out. McGregor is a big star, it’s the first huge UFC fight in a long time, and there will be a great deal of media attention (the new UFC-ESPN relationship should help that). However, it’s very hard to say it will reach that figure when we’re still seven weeks away. It’s a safe bet that McGregor vs. Nurmagomedov will break the record set by McGregor vs. Diaz II but hitting the 2 million-buy mark means beating it by a hefty 500,000 buys. The UFC hasn’t had a single show in 2018 hit 500,000 buys.

It is, however, certain that Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor will be a fight of a magnitude that MMA has not come close to seeing since McGregor’s last bout.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at >[email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.

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