Khabib Nurmagomedov finally applied the neck crank, and almost immediately Conor McGregor’s right hand struck his left shoulder in succession, a signal of submission, and the proverbial white flag in a war of attrition.
It was the shining moment of the Russian’s career. But then, in an act of spontaneous stupidity, the moment was ruined.
Nurmagomedov apparently wasn’t satisfied to simply prove he was the superior fighter in the octagon on Saturday night at UFC 229. No, for Khabib, the fourth-round finish that should have been the culmination of months of vitriolic barbs between both camps wasn’t enough to conclude the feud.
The unbeaten lightweight champion insisted Thursday that he wouldn’t shake McGregor’s hands even after the fight. The words clearly weren’t your usual pre-fight fare meant to sell tickets. Khabib took it all to heart. The insults about his Muslim faith; the jokes about Dagestan; the trash talk aimed at his father, Abdulmanap.
In a wild, surreal scene at T-Mobile Arena, Nurmagomedov hurled himself over the top of the cage, across an officials’ table and onto the floor, all in order to exchange punches with Dillion Danis, the Irishman’s jiu-jitsu coach. Soon after, the ugly fracas spilled inside the confines of the octagon.
Three training partners of Nurmagomedov’s scaled the fence and attacked McGregor from all angles. One of them, clad in red, delivered the surprise blows from behind as McGregor attempted to fend them off.
“Put my belt on me,” Khabib, now back in the octagon, pleaded with White as Las Vegas metro police attempted to restore order.
White refused, fearing an even greater safety issue. He explained that angry fans would pelt him with anything they could get their hands on. Hot dogs. Bud Light cans. Literally anything.
“I don’t care. I’m ready for this,” Khabib replied. “If I have to be arrested, then I have to be arrested. But I want my belt put on me.”
Three Nurmagamedov team members were detained, but McGregor declined to press charges and the trio was released, according to White.
And when Bruce Buffer finally announced the official result – a submission victory for Nurgmagomedov at 3:03 of round four – neither fighter was present in the octagon; both had long since been scurried out by security.
All that remained in the aftermath were questions regarding Nurmagmedov’s future as he figures to be heavily disciplined by the Nevada commission. The state is withholding Khabib’s $2m purse, White told reporters; McGregor was handed his paycheck after footage of the incident was reviewed.
“What Khabib should have done is pick Conor up, pull him up from the ground, hug him and say ‘good fight;’ whatever,” said White, who projected record-breaking pay-per-view buys in the lead-up and revealed a UFC-record live gate of $17.2m (20,034 attendance).
“He had the opportunity to walk out of that place a champion. He looked like a stud. It should have been a very different night for him.”
It was McGregor, then, who emerged (comparatively) unscathed when the dust settled. Defeated in a championship fight one second, victim the next.
That McGregor (21-4) made it to the fourth round at all was a feat in and of itself. After a measured opening frame where neither man inflicted any shots of consequence, round two was a different tale.
A looping Khabib right hand found its mark at the onset of the frame, and McGregor wobbled backward. Nurmagomedov, 30, grappled McGregor against the cage – just like the previous round – but this time, he was able to finally inflict the punishment he so desperately sought. Vengeance for all the mean words, and perhaps chiefly, for the infamous bus attack in April where McGregor tossed a dolly at the vehicle.
Now, it was McGregor, 30, who was a sitting duck as a weapon was projected at him. He laid flat on his back while Nurmagomedov (27-0) rained punches down from the standing position.
Referee Herb Dean inched closer to the action, seemingly so he was in position to halt the 155lb matchup at any moment. McGregor, though, absorbed the pummeling from above and with 46 seconds remaining in the round, he finally made it to his feet as the partisan crowd roared its approval.
As he gingerly trudged over to his stool, McGregor let out a gasp of relief. He collected himself and fared far better in the third round. He connected on a bundle of his trademark strikes set up by his southpaw jab, and when Khabib attempted the takedown, McGregor this time was able to stave it off.
Mystic Mac was in the fight, and his fans hooted and hollered with a chorus of ‘Ole’ chants. McGregor continued to march forward, his left eye bleeding, as he popped Khabib in his bloodied mouth.
When they were both on their feet, the striker was in control, naturally. But the wrestler was able to impose his will once more in the fourth round, courtesy of a leg sweep, and that was it for McGregor, his first MMA bout in two years over after another tapout. (His only other UFC defeat was a submission against Nate Diaz in 2016.)
While McGregor gallivanted with a novelty boxing match with Floyd Mayweather Jr that netted him a reported $100m windfall, Nurmagamedov established himself as a force in the octagon.
He proved Saturday that McGregor’s time at the top is over, but that story won’t be told. Instead, we’re left to wonder when we’ll see Khabib fight again as he prepares for what is likely to be a lengthy hiatus.
“I know this is not by my best side,” said Khabib, who also apologized to the commission through a thick accent, and said Russian president Vladimir Putin called to congratulate him. “I’m human being. I don’t understand how people can talk about (how) I jump over the cage.
“He talk about my religion, he talk about my country. He talk about my mother. He come to Brooklyn and he broke bus. He almost kill a couple of people. What about this shit? Why are people talk about I jump over the cage?
“My father teach me you have to always be respectful. … You can not talk about religion. You can not talk about nation.”
He was wise to make amends with Nevada, even though it’s evident he doesn’t see the error of his ways. White observed that Nevada governor Brian Sandoval was in attendance and said he “went running out of the building, it’s not good. He’s in trouble.”
If you ask Khabib, he’s in far bigger trouble than anything the commission could ever mete down. After all, he wasn’t respectful on a night when he brought shame to the Nurmagamedov name.
“I know my father going to smash me when I go home.”