Las Vegas • The last time Conor McGregor was in a UFC cage, he was merely the biggest star in the history of mixed martial arts.
In the 23 months since, the loquacious Irishman has become exponentially richer and much more famous. With his boxing loss to Floyd Mayweather as the catalyst, McGregor has ascended to a new level of stardom and success outside MMA and outside sports.
Even UFC President Dana White wondered whether McGregor (21-3) would decide to fight on, but he did.
McGregor returns to the octagon at UFC 229 on Saturday night to fight lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov (26-0) in a Las Vegas arena full of boisterous Irish fans. The pay-per-view show could be the most-watched and most lucrative in the UFC's history, according to both White and the former two-belt champion at the center of it all.
"I came back for the love of this," McGregor said. "To come back and shut this man up."
McGregor's mere presence sells a fight these days, even when that presence has been limited. The UFC did strikingly little overt promotion of this bout, limiting McGregor's public appearances to a combative news conference in New York and a handful of outings in Vegas — all of which McGregor used to promote his new whiskey venture.
"He can say what he wants," Nurmagomedov said. "When a drunk guy talks, no one listens."
Yet the fighters' faces are everywhere this week, their artificially colored eyes glaring from the official fight posters at bars and club across the world. UFC 229 has entered the public consciousness largely because of McGregor's magnetism, and it seems likely to become the best-selling pay-per-view event in the promotion's history. White is optimistic it will challenge the world's biggest boxing events in total sales.
The fight's promotion was mostly done in April, when McGregor attacked a bus containing several fighters in his attempt to fight Nurmagomedov, who had confronted one of McGregor's teammates earlier in the week. Their mutual disdain is powerful, as evidenced at their ceremonial weigh-in Friday night in which McGregor slapped Nurmagomedov's extended fist and then threw a front kick that didn't land.
McGregor unleashed a vintage stream of insults and invective against the champion all week. Nurmagomedov was no less sharp in fewer words, particularly when he addressed the pro-Irish crowd at the weigh-in.
"Tomorrow I'm going to smash your boy, guys," Nurmagomedov said. "I'm going to smash your boy."
But beyond the bombast and spectacle that accompanies McGregor everywhere, this matchup is a fascinating chance to re-examine a classic MMA debate: Who wins in a matchup between a top striker and an elite wrestler?
McGregor's punching power is formidable and unquestionable, while Nurmagomedov might be the best grappler in the game — and neither man excels at the other's specialty. The stark contrast in strengths makes this matchup tough to predict, even if Nurmagomedov is the favorite at the Vegas sports books.
Nurmagomedov has shown a recklessness and a willingness to brawl at certain points in his previous fights — and McGregor would love that, particularly if the ferocious counterpuncher gets a chance to end it early before Nurmagomedov's famed conditioning can become a factor. If Nurmagomedov can get the fight on the ground or push it into the late rounds, McGregor's chances seem likely to wither.
Although Nurmagomedov has rarely even been tested in his career, he also has no victories over fighters of McGregor's class. His most accomplished previous opponents were former lightweight champ Rafael Dos Anjos, who lost a clear decision to Nurmagomedov on the preliminary card of a show in Orlando 4 1/2 years ago, and Edson Barboza, who got trounced by Nurmagomedov last December.
As McGregor proved by bringing his two now-outdated championship belts to almost every public appearance in recent weeks, he still considers himself the rightful holder of the lightweight title that Nurmagomedov claimed last April. McGregor never defended either of his belts, and his nearly two-year break from MMA competition could be a factor.
The opponent that McGregor accepted for his return seems almost as daunting as featherweight champion Jose Aldo did in 2015. Aldo was also a fearsome champion on a decade-long winning streak with a reputation as one of MMA's most physical, intimidating fighters.
McGregor ended his reign in 13 seconds.
UFC 229's main event is backed by a solid undercard at T-Mobile Arena, where McGregor fought Mayweather last year.
Lightweight contender Tony Ferguson (25-3), who would have loved to replace either main-event fighter if anything had gone wrong, is a favorite against former champ Anthony Pettis (21-7). Heavyweights Derrick Lewis and Alexander Volkov also meet, along with strawweights Michelle Waterson and Felice Herrig.
But there’s no doubt who is carrying this show: McGregor is getting a guaranteed $3 million purse along with untold millions in a cut of pay-per-view sales, while Nurmagomedov is guaranteed a healthy $2 million.