What makes for a great story? Memorable characters, tension, and a non-obvious ending. On Saturday, we have a story for the ages, starring Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov. Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) rightly has a bad reputation. It seems like a sport for people who wear Tapout t-shirts and look like cast members from the Jersey Shore. In the early days, I would agree—it was just cage fighting. However, in the last 25 years, the sport has evolved into real competition with top-of-the-line athletes able to master multiple martial arts disciplines. All competition has one goal: to see who the best is.
As a species, we love that. There’s a reason sports and award shows are the most watched television events in the U.S. It is because we want to see the best, and on Saturday, the two best in the fight game will go head to head. MMA presents an opportunity to see the most basic form of competition; two people enter a cage with the one goal to see who is better. It is the least restrictive form of competition; therefore, it is the most natural. What happens when a sporting event, argument, or poetry slam gets too heated? A fight breaks out, and that fight will almost certainly be replayed across the media Nicki Minaj and Cardi B’s fight, although not physical, made headlines. When Robin Ventura rushed the mound against Nolan Ryan, it became an MLB classic. Fighting is in our DNA. McGregor and Nurmagomedov have the opportunity to represent themselves through combat. The history of the fighters is what makes this event special. McGregor and Nurmagomedov hate each other; it started when Nurmagomedov slapped McGregor’s best friend, Artem Lobov, in a hotel lobby, reportedly for political reasons. In retaliation, Conor threw a dolly at a bus after a UFC event which resulted in three hospitalizations and a trial.
Nurmagomedov, a native of war-torn Dagestan, Russia, started wrestling as a child, in his father’s attempt to keep his children from trouble and joining to local rebel militia. He grew up in an intense environment with insane training and even wrestled bears. He’s deathly serious, humble, extraordinarily determined, and a world-class wrestler. Nurmagomedov also boasts an undefeated record and has never lost a round in MMA.
McGregor is the opposite: brash and unapologetically egotistical. He was the first UFC fighter to hold the belt in two different weight classes and won his first belt in 14 seconds by knockout. Also, for his first professional boxing match, he went ten rounds with arguably the greatest pound for pound boxer of all time and even won a few rounds. Conor’s unwavering belief in himself gives him unpredictably and the ability to do and learn anything.
Hardcore MMA fans have seen this basic storyline before — wrestler versus striker. Some Say the most important component of MMA is wrestling because it allows the fighter to either take his opponent down or keep himself from being taken down. And when on the ground, a superior background in wrestling gives the fighter the ability to physically control his opponent. Nurmagomedov is arguably the best wrestler in the UFC; he holds the record for most takedowns in a single fight, 21, and when he takes people down, they do not get back up. However, McGregor has the heaviest hands pound-for-pound in the UFC. He is indeed one of a kind, and if he can find a home for his magical left hand, Nurmagomedov won’t stand. McGregor has also demonstrated his ability to improve upon his weaknesses. He lost his first fight against Nate Diaz via second-round submission. McGregor explained that he didn’t conserve his energy correctly, saying in the UFC 196 post-fight interview: “I was simply inefficient with my energy and made some errors….It was a battle of energy in there and he got the better of it.” He improved his cardio and he went on to win the second fight by going all five rounds and winning by decision.
No one knows how this fight will end, but it meets the three criteria I outlined at the beginning of the article. The fighters are foils of each other — they have tension, even hatred for one another; do yourself a favor and watch at least the highlights of their last press conference. This fight a Rocky movie, where McGregor has the intangibles, but Nurmagomedov has all the stats on his side. It will certainly be brutal, and fighting is not for everyone. But for those who want to see real competition, look no further. As former MMA-er and television personality Joe Rogan said, “MMA is high-level problem-solving with dire physical consequences.” McGregor and Nurmagomedov have the conundrum of trying to impose their will and completely different competing styles on each other. If you want to see two men put it all on the line, and see the entertaining and exciting outcome of the two fighters’ “problem-solving,” tune in this Saturday to watch UFC history.