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With a plea bargain entered in a New York courtroom, the planets have aligned and finally have us heading towards a collision long written in the stars. A clash of the titans beckons at UFC 229 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, the result of which not even an oracle could predict. Khabib Nurmagomedov, like Cronus, sits atop his mountain, having devoured all adversaries put before him; Conor McGregor, like Atlas, carries the weight of the Ultimate Fighting Championship upon his lonely shoulders. Following a series of disappointing pay-per-view returns, it will be hard for UFC President Dana White and Company to remain stoic regarding his return.
Both men are fearsome competitors, displaying Olympic athleticism and Spartan ferocity. McGregor is an artist in hand-to-hand combat, but unlike Theseus, he carries neither shield nor sword, armed instead with his lightning bolt of a left hand. Across the Octagon will stand a Minotaur of a man, bestial in his relentless pursuit and mauling of opponents. Each adversary to date has been lost in a labyrinth of panic and uncertainty once Nurmagomedov has locked his inescapable hands upon them.
Let us not be coy here. McGregor has a Herculean task before him. Nurmagomedov’s chain wrestling is a riddle that would make the Sphinx proud. His dogged attempts suck the energy and soul from his opponents, and once they hit the mat, they enter a domain where his dominance is colossal. McGregor’s strategy will no doubt be to use his length to maintain distance and to attack at angles, slicing into Nurmagomedov’s flank while piercing his rudimentary defenses. McGregor’s resume is equally impressive, with his acolytes believing he is Ares incarnate, smiting opponents with his hammer of the gods.
Some may argue that McGregor is walking bravely into a battle he knows he is destined to lose, as Hector once did eons ago. It could be a long night, with the ignominy of having his body dragged around the cage by a dominant Nurmagomedov. In his ego lies an iron belief that he is a pugilist demigod who will vanquish his foe. I have no doubt that he will ignore the sirens and sail into a sea of tranquility once the bell rings. McGregor is a legendary tactician, and it is inevitable he will commence his ploys of mental warfare. Nurmagomedov must beware of this Trojan Horse. If he internalizes the slights, insults and provocations directed at him, the likelihood of a cerebral performance will diminish. All of McGregor’s victims have fought emotively, and all were passionately vexed until rendered unconscious.
Likewise, McGregor must be aware of his own Achilles’ heel. He is a grappling novice in comparison to Nurmagomedov, and either by luck or by design, he has mainly avoided elite grapplers along his path to glory. One wonders what might have been had Chad Mendes had more gas in the tank for their short-notice fight, but he still highlighted McGregor’s vulnerability to takedowns. However, his subsequent performances against Eddie Alvarez and Nate Diaz displayed an educated takedown defense. Should Nurmagomedov pursue a takedown recklessly, he will be walking into range of McGregor’s fabled left hand.
Like Icarus, McGregor has fallen far of late, having flown too close to the sun. His run to simultaneous titles in two weight classes and a $100-million bout with Floyd Mayweather Jr. was punctuated by a larger-than-life persona and a string of opponents falling to his patented left-hand lead. It made for box office entertainment. With that said, the bus attack in New York showed a side to McGregor that went beyond the narcissism to which we have become accustomed. The scenes from inside the bus were so ugly that they turned fans’ hearts to stone and made us question what was beneath the entertainer’s mask.
Meanwhile, Nurmagomedov has endured his own Odyssey. From his tough upbringing in Makhachkala, Dagestan, he endured the hardships of the post-Soviet era Caucasus, rising through Russian promotions until he was afforded his opportunity on the big stage. Further setbacks, including serious knee injuries and near organ failure from weight cutting, could not deny Nurmagomedov his destiny. A devout Sunni Muslim, he has resolutely respected Ramadan despite the scheduling difficulties this creates. He is the UFC’s first Muslim world champion which, along with his unblemished 26-0 record, makes him a poster boy for both new and existing markets. However, his entourage’s intimidation towards an isolated Artem Lobov indicates that he himself is no choir boy.
As the promotion builds towards its crescendo, we must remember that there are neither great heroes nor villains in this theatre. As Socrates once said, we must look beyond the shadows of the cave to see the light beyond. Forget the noise, the production or the predictions. It is the result that counts. Two warriors will collide on Oct. 6. The victor will grow his own legend and join the pantheon of UFC greats. For the loser, tragedy, as he is forced to watch the torch pass to another while his Empire fades to ruins.