Las Vegas—Conor McGregor makes a long-awaited return to the mixed martial arts octagon on Saturday, facing off against unbeaten lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov in a money-spinning grudge match tipped to break pay-per-view records.
Trash-talking Irish star McGregor was one of the highest earners in the sporting world in 2017 after pocketing around $100 million from his cross-combat boxing bout against Floyd Mayweather, which ended in defeat.
Now the 30-year-old former UFC champion is set for another hefty payday when he faces Nurmagomedov at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday in what will be his first MMA bout since November 2016.
Bookmakers have installed Nurmagomedov as favorite to retain his UFC crown, pointing to the Russian’s formidable record.
Nurmagomedov has won all 26 of his fights, and so far in his career has not lost a single round.
Taking on the powerful champion from Dagestan in his comeback fight represents a colossal gamble by McGregor.
But the drumbeat for a showdown between the outspoken former plumber from Dublin and Nurmagomedov intensified earlier this year when McGregor was at the centre of a extraordinary melee in New York in April.
McGregor and his entourage reportedly sought to confront Nurmagomedov following a press conference at the Barclays Center, claiming the Russian had intimidated one of the Irish fighter’s friends, Artem Lobov.
McGregor was filmed hurling a dolly through a window of a bus carrying Nurmagomedov and other fighters as it moved through a loading dock at the venue.
The former champion was later given five days community service and ordered to undergo treatment for anger management.
With that violent encounter offering UFC chiefs a built-in marketing campaign, it was only a matter of time before a fight between McGregor and Nurmagomedov was inked.
- Lurid insults -
While it remains to be seen if McGregor’s two-year layoff has left a residue of rust on his fighting skills, the Irishman has been back to his usual brash self on the promotional trail, mixing lurid insults with threats of violence.
“It’s good to be back doing what I love to do, competing in front of my fans,” McGregor said this week. “I’m going to take his head off. Trust me.
“He’s too easily hit, too flat-footed, too predictable, I’m going to knock him clean out,” added McGregor, branding his rival a “smelly Dagestani rat.”
Nurmagomedov for his part has remained singularly unrattled, and returned McGregor’s insults with interest by questioning the Irishman’s heritage.
“This guy talks (about) fighting against English, but his grandfather, Christopher McGregor, was with the English navy,” Nurmagomedov said in remarks to Irish fans of McGregor this week.
“He killed your people. And now you guys support him. I’m gonna change this Saturday night. In three days, you’re going to like me.”
All of which has been music to the ears of the UFC’s chief Dana White, who predicts that Saturday’s fight will smash records for pay-per-view buys.
White said the bout was trending to top three million PPV sales, which would shatter the previous record for a UFC event by roughly one million buys if confirmed.
“This is going to be a monster show,” White said this week. “It’s hard to wrap my head around how big this thing has gotten.
“Conor has such a massive fan base that it’s hard to move the number that much, so the increase we’ve seen from him is incredible,” White said. “Khabib’s audience is eating it all up. He’s Muslim and he’s Russian and he’s hitting two huge audiences we haven’t really gotten a lot previously.
“He’s hit the big-time now and his fans are totally into it.”