Conor McGregor Vs. Khabib Just Might Be The Biggest Fight In UFC History

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NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 12:  Conor McGregor of Ireland enters the Octagon before facing Eddie Alvarez in their UFC lightweight championship fight during the UFC 205 event at Madison Square Garden on November 12, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

The two fighters weren't present onstage in Los Angeles on Friday as UFC President Dana White announced the biggest fight of the year between lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov (26-0) and the sport's biggest star, Conor McGregor (21-3). And perhaps that was a good thing, if not for the two athletes, for everyone else on the dais and the first couple of rows of media waiting not so patiently for the announcement.

After all, McGregor and Nurmagomedov haven't always managed to maintain even the minimal manners required of a professional cage fighter in the buildup to a major fight. It's a rivalry that has moved from trash talk to hotel-lobby confrontations to felony charges in record time—and one that will finally be settled in the cage October 6 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

McGregor's recent plea deal freed him up to fight.McGregor's recent plea deal freed him up to fight.Kevin Hagen/Associated Press

And, when looked at as a total package, it just might be the greatest fight in the sport's history.

In the earliest days of mixed martial arts, bouts were more than mere contests between individual athletes. Instead, the reputations of two martial arts systems were at stake, each battle in the UFC's Octagon as much skill set versus skill set as man against man.

Nearly 25 years later, the sport has changed dramatically. Today, MMA is its own art, one everybody who steps into a cage knows intimately. The techniques, strategies and battle rhythms are homogenous. Each athlete possesses access to the same general knowledge and training. Differences exist between fighters more than between systems, with athleticism, zen and fast-twitch reflexes separating the champions from the also-rans.

But McGregor against Nurmagomedov is different, harkening back to those ancient days when knuckles were bare and the martial arts still distinctive. In an age in which everyone is competent in all areas but rarely excellent in any, the two lightweight stars stand apart from their peers as specialists in a generalist's game.

McGregor is a devastating striker, a master of angles and range with the most famous left hand since Joe Frazier. Legs spread wide, he meticulously baits his opponents into chasing him, moving from predator to prey with the hypnotic rhythm of a physical genius, his power making it possible to punish a single mistake with a fight-ending blow.

Nurmagomedov, like McGregor, puts opponents on the mat with startling ease. But his path to the ground lies in the body lock, with a whirling dervish of haymakers opening up opportunities to grab hold of a foe. From there, he refuses to let go, dragging the other man down into a hell of his own devising. Nurmagomedov is the ultimate wet blanket—assuming a wet blanket was likely to whisper evil tidings in your ear while bludgeoning you without a single hint of remorse.

Each fighter brings a distinct talent to this contest, both remarkably gifted in their own way. It's an explosive mixture that promises to be a dangerous dance for both men. On the ground, McGregor is vulnerable. But, until he manages to toss him there, Nurmagomedov is a single precision left hand from disaster. 

Their styles make the two men natural enemies, both athletically and philosophically, with McGregor's loud, self-belief standing in stark contrast to Nurmagomedov's understated belief in something bigger than any mortal man. From all angles, this is a fight destined to work fans into a fervor bordering on the obsessive. Already tomes have been written on social media making the case for both fighters. 

And, for once, it's a fight worthy of the hype.

#UFC227 @ufc

THE FIGHT IS ON! @TeamKhabib vs @TheNotoriousMMA Oct. 6 in Las Vegas at #UFC229!

In this bout, nerves will be tested for both fighters as well as their fanbases as they wait desperately for their man to move the bout into his realm. On the mat, Nurmagomedov will have the significant edge. He's doggedly persistent in pursuit of the takedown and, once on the mat, both a powerhouse ground-and-pound artist and a sophisticated submission specialist. There may be no more dangerous man in the entire sport.

But, so long as a single second remains on the clock, McGregor presents a clear and present danger. While we haven't seen him in the cage since he won lightweight gold from Eddie Alvarez in November 2016, McGregor is no doubt still preternaturally competent. So long as his opponent has a chin, McGregor is in the fight. Even if Nurmagomedov controls the bout for 24 minutes and 30 seconds on the ground, those remaining 30 seconds are enough for the pride of Ireland to land one of his lightning, life-changing left hands. 

McGregor finished featherweight champion Jose Aldo with a single left hand.McGregor finished featherweight champion Jose Aldo with a single left hand.John Locher/Associated Press

While the fight would be an easy sell on athletic merits alone, there have been scores of great sporting contests inside the UFC's Octagon. The most recent "greatest fight ever" saw light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier step in to upset heavyweight kingpin Stipe Miocic in a classic bout that solidified Cormier's place among the all-time giants of the fight game. 

Mere athletic excellence doesn't guarantee a box-office bonanza, something Miocic and Cormier found out the hard way. To attract fans in an increasingly busy entertainment space requires more than just two great fighters going at it. To really cash in, you need a secret weapon—something McGregor and Nurmagomedov found in a most unexpected form. 

Weighing approximately 24 pounds, the average dolly doesn't seem like a multimillion-dollar implement. Even fashioned from pure gold, a hand truck would barely be worth half a million bucks. But for the two fighters, it will end up adding millions to the tally. 

By now, you've likely seen the video that lit the MMA world on fire earlier this year, with a blaze burning so bright that even the mainstream took notice. In it, McGregor attacked a bus full of UFC stars days before Nurmagomedov would fight for the lightweight title, with yelling quickly turning to window banging turning to pandemonium.

It's almost impossible to believe even now, even knowing what is going to come. McGregor, among the world's most famous athletes, dashing over to a dolly, lifting it up and tossing it at the bus, with his friend Artem Lobov a proxy for us all as he looked on with a dumbfounded, shocked expression.

Inside the bus, glass exploded. Two fighters were hit with the shrapnel, and their injuries forced them to withdraw from that weekend's event. 

Through it all, Khabib sat stoically, as if to say, "Is that all you've got?"

Before the bus, the two fighters had been hurtling toward a potential collision. It made sense as an athletic contest, but without a series of signature wins, Nurmagomedov was just one of many possible opponents for the most sought-after name in the game. 

Post-bus, it's another story. Once the glass shattered, there was no turning back.  This is the biggest fight in combat sports. Much will be said in the next two months. Some of it will make us laugh, some, knowing MMA, will make us cringe. But on October 6, words won't mean a thing. That's when the cage door will slam shut, leaving entourages, media and the burdens of being a famous fighter behind when it does. 

Who is the best lightweight in the world? Less than a half-hour later we'll know. And that, friends, is why we watch.


Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.  

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