Khabib Nurmagomedov

In October 2018, there was no question that Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor was one of the biggest fights in UFC history.
McGregor, of course, was already well-established as the biggest star in the history of the sport, but Nurmagomedov was now a UFC champion, and his ties to Russia and the Middle East made him a global phenomenon, as well. Add in a very public war of words between the two in the lead-up to this fight, and we all knew it was going to be a killer at the box office.

Now, if I’m being completely honest, I was pretty exhausted of the whole thing by fight night. While I certainly understand the importance of pre-fight promotion for athletes looking to capitalize on their window of financial opportunity, this one had been very hateful, very contentious, and honestly just plain ugly. Nevertheless, it was a clearly going to be a blockbuster.

The night of UFC 229, I remember laughing about the media setup at T-Mobile Arena, because rather than our normal arrangements, which have unobstructed access to the octagon, we had security barriers placed in front of our section. Little did I realize how valuable those would prove to be just hours later.

The pre-fight buzz was electric, as you’d expect. The in-cage action honestly played out pretty much exactly as I expected.
Nurmagomedov was always going to be a stylistic nightmare for McGregor. But add in a two-year layoff from MMA competition and a focus on boxing during the interim – in preparation for the infamous Floyd Mayweather superfight – and McGregor was just facing a very tall order. Ultimately, he succumbed to a fourth-round submission, and I briefly imagined this rivalry was done.

And then all hell broke loose, when Nurmagomedov incited a wild scene by leaping out of the octagon to confront McGregor’s team. The ensuing scene played out both in and out of the octagon in what can only be described as ridiculously unnecessary melee.

I wish I had started filming earlier, honestly. I’m sure my bosses do, too. But I was just trying to figure out exactly what was going on, myself.

Had Nurmagomedov stayed under control and refrained from leaping out of the cage to attack – of all people – Dillon Danis, “The Eagle” never would have had to mention McGregor’s name again. The fight was over. The result was in the books. Nurmagomedov would move on to more pleasant challenges.

UFC president Dana White was visibly upset when he spoke to us after the fight. It was clear he was truly appalled and embarrassed by what had transpired. That stance would later change when he realized the lasting repercussions weren’t all that bad, but at the moment, I can assure you he was dreading the potential long-term implications.

Nurmagomedov spoke with the media only briefly, and it was clear he was a bit disappointed himself, saying, “This is not my best side,” but he also lashed out at McGregor and made it known that the brash Irishman and his team needed to accept some responsibility, as well.

Nurmagomedov answered my first question at the post-fight press conference, and only that one, before leaving the press tent. He reminded people that the media had become so focused on selling trash talk that the respect side of MMA had become largely pushed aside, and I had to agree with him. Yes, marketing feuds has always been a part of fight sport, but the respect that usually comes with a cage fight always appealed to me, as well – the post-fight hugs and acknowledgment.

When the night was over, it was clear our post-fight coverage of UFC 229 was just beginning. The pending disciplinary complaints for both fighters would generate headlines for months to come. But the one thing that stood out to me that night, and honestly stays with me to this day, is that Nurmagomedov had (and still has) a real chance of retiring from the sport undefeated, but UFC 229 would always stand as the one night he wasn’t perfect.

Of course, none of us are, and it shouldn’t be viewed as his character as a whole, but perhaps simply a reminder that the pre-fight battles we as the media love to use to help generate interest can have some very real and very long-lasting repercussions.