LAS VEGAS — He was plopped down on the mat and motionless, back pressed against the corner cushion, an elbow resting over his knee, entirely alert yet utterly stunned. For two, five, ten full seconds Conor McGregor sat there while Khabib Nurmagomedov celebrated, either deep in thought or without them altogether. At the start of their fight—the fight before the fight—McGregor had swaggered into the middle of the ring with his tongue wagging like Michael Jordan. Now it was hanging out again as his breath labored to return.
Thirteen months in progress, dating to his $100 million boxing match against Floyd Mayweather inside this same building, the first chapter of McGregor’s UFC comeback ended in the fourth round at T-Mobile Arena, submission via neck crank. The plan had always been for McGregor to strike faster than Nurmagomedov could wrestle him down. He wound up prone four times, not including when the undefeated lightweight champion mounted him from behind and squeezed a forearm against his windpipe until he tapped.
On the spectrum of fighting styles, McGregor and Nurmagomedov were perfect foils—to say nothing of their personal differences that erupted Saturday night. It is true McGregor was slated to reappear in the octagon against another opponent, Rafael dos Anjos, but that was until he went ballistic and attacked a bus on which Nurmagomedov was riding. Draw what conclusions you will about his ultimate motivation for putting on such a spectacle, but McGregor’s one-man demolition derby in Brooklyn all but anointed his next foe. Aside from, perhaps, trying out for the Irish national rugby team, it was hard to imagine him choosing a tougher next assignment.
“Then you had a lot of distractions, a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety.” That’s Audie Attar, agent and manager of McGregor.
They’ve been together more than five years now, long before McGregor became the first fighter to hold multiple title belts (featherweight, lightweight) and started building a business empire (his whiskey brand was an official sponsor of UFC 229). He was there on July 26 when McGregor pled guilty to disorderly conduct for the bus incident, receiving only restitution, community service and anger management. “We had a good time too,” Attar said Friday, watching the official weigh-ins at nearby Park MGM. “Celebrated his freedom.” Twelve days later, the matchup with Nurmagomedov was announced.
McGregor conducted most of his training in Dublin, jetting stateside only for court or press appearances. It was a remarkably private process, at once tacit acknowledgment of the unique challenge that Nurmagomedov presented and a mountain of self-imposed adversity.
“People think that’s just a walk in the park, but it’s not,” Attar said. “It weighs on all of us. Some people are better than others at handling it. He’s one of them. Some people are fueled by it. He’s one of them. Could it cripple someone else? Absolutely. Not him.”
Still, the sight of McGregor sitting on the canvas, shoulders heaving and eyes half-shut, was enough to wonder: What next?
McGregor reportedly never showed for his after-party at the Encore Beach Club, where he decamped after losing to Mayweather last August and nonetheless raged till sunup. But McGregor also has five more fights remaining on the UFC contract extension that he signed earlier this year. Clearly he intends to honor at least one of them. “Good knock,” tweeted @TheNotoriousMMA. “Looking forward to the rematch.”
The post-fight fracas, not to mention several dozen unprintable phrases previously put forth by McGregor in the name of psychological warfare, will forever obscure the 18 minutes and three seconds that they actually spent competing.
(McGregor was interviewed by Nevada State Athletic Commission officials, as well as local police, and declined to press charges.)
“This is so much bigger,” UFC president Dana White said. “This is some street s--- that’s going on here. This isn’t sport. This is completely different."
If he wills it, though, they will come. The UFC was doing fine enough for nearly two years without its biggest star, but when White opened his press conference by announcing $17,188,894.67 in gate receipts, it was no secret why so many shelled out top dollar to attend. Or, for that matter, why White called Saturday “the biggest night ever” for MMA. “We believe it was a manufactured belt that Khabib holds,” said Attar, referring to how McGregor was stripped of the lightweight title for inactivity. As such, it’s hard to imagine UFC declining to oblige if he wants another crack at getting it back. (McGregor did not speak to reporters following the fight; Attar did not answer a call and text from SI.)
Of course, no one could fault him for taking another breather. Unlike Nurmagomedov, whose prize purse was withheld by the Nevada State Athletic Commission, McGregor will receive $3 million for simply showing up, plus tens of millions more in eventual pay-per-view guarantee and whatever sponsorship dough came with that whiskey agreement. He and partner Dee Devlin have a son now, Conor Jr., and another child on the way. He has also lost two of his past four MMA fights on chokeholds, plus the 10th-round knockout against Mayweather.
Then again there was Tony Ferguson, winner of the co-main event over Anthony Pettis and previous interim lightweight belt-holder, calling out McGregor during his press conference: “Conor does not want to fight me. He looked like a deer in the headlights.”
And there was Nurmagomedov, sneaking in a few jabs after apologizing to “Athletic Commission Nevada” and the city of Las Vegas: “I told you, not only him, his whole team and him, they tap machines.” Raised in the hardscrabble Dublin suburbs, McGregor has never backed down from an underdog role, whether peacocking around Mayweather or slinging mud at Nurmagomedov. Why the hell would he be crippled by whatever comes next?