For six straight days now, Khabib Nurmagomedov has strode up and down the Strip like the only man in Las Vegas with a working watch.
The timekeepers of the desert would prefer you had no idea where you were in your day. A booming city of 2.2 million, Sin City gets where it needs to be going by fixing the hands of time behind its back.
In the sprawling mega-casinos you stroll on through and have no credible clue whether it’s five in the day or five in the night. It might e five in the morning. That’s by design. There are five cards to be dealt and the hands are there for you no matter where the hands of time are.
But the UFC’s lightweight champion, a man who goes by The Eagle but seems sharper still, has looked to bring order to the chaos of Las Vegas this week. He’s not the first one. Tonight those efforts will finally come to a head in a the main event of UFC 229, a fight card that threatens to surpass all that went before.
‘The world is watching’ has been the UFC’s chosen tagline for the coming together of a Dagestani and a Dubliner that is trending towards a gargantuan pay-per-view tally, $200 million and beyond. Nurmagomedov has been watching alright. Mostly his wrist. The 30-year-old spoiled the UFC’s plans for Thursday’s pre-fight press conference…by being on time.
“I’m a professional, I’m here,” he said after he came to the stage alone, the promotion’s figurehead Dana White hurrying behind him.
Yesterday morning, bleary eyes had mostly yet to open when Nurmagomedov was the first fighter up to the scales at the Park MGM, weighing in on the dot of 155 pounds having so often had issues with that number.
There are 24 fighters on the card of UFC 229 but Nurmagomedov has made it his business to be the first in line of all of them. Yet his rush to be in a hurry must not extend to the Saturday night lights of the T-Mobile Arena.
Conor McGregor has waited two years to re-emerge under the burning tungsten. Between times, he’s likely spent a few of his millions on accessories for his wrist.
But more than even those, the Dubliner treasures a fighter in a hurry. When Jose Aldo Jr eventually entered a cage opposite him — boasting a decade-long streak of invincibility, just like tonight’s champion — McGregor did for him with one flick of the left wrist, just the 13 seconds enough to send the Irish fighter on to a new plane of profitability.
While he fought thrice more in the UFC in the next ten months, that night in December 2015 marks a significant stagepost in the Notorious one’s journey. He moved from challenger to champion and from mostly rich to mega-rich. Much has been made of his two-year sabbatical from the Octagon but the near three years that have passed since that night and this strike you as more significant.
Yesterday morning, when he eventually made his way to the scales too he again struck you as a man who remembered what got him here in the first place.
“I’m here for the love of this game, love for competition,” McGregor had said earlier in the week.
“I fell out of love with the game for a bit. I went off and did my own thing, had many things going on, now I’m back. I’m hungry.”
There are many versions of Conor McGregor. Too many. A lot test the palate. On Thursday afternoon, the time-keeping Nurmagomedov having left before McGregor arrived, the Dubliner tapered off without anyone opposite him to goad. Instead he offered up another version of himself — the fighter, the hungry, even humble, fighter.
Just how deep that hunger goes — now that he’s hit the age of 30 and the wealth of a $100 million man — might be discovered tonight. On the opposite side of the octagon is a champion who has forced two dozen and more men to question just how ravenous they actually were.
Of the 26 rivals Nurmagomedov has faced in his professional life, eight decided they just weren’t hungry enough and submitted; another eight were stripped of the chance to decide and instead were knocked out; the remainder went unsated as they lost by decision — every one of them unanimous.
The Dagestani is a fighter who specializes in drainage, sapping every last drop from an opponent with his supreme wrestling skills. He gets on top. Then he stays there. On his feet, however, he doesn’t boast the same level of supremacy. That’s where McGregor is at his best, all three of the defeats in his career coming on the floor.
This is where we would eventually talk about styles making fights. But with McGregor, there is always the potential for the fight to be no fight at all. Ten of his 21 victories in the cage have come within two minutes of the opening bell. The night with Aldo, when no one had a chance to glance at their watches, was the most memorable.
Much water has passed under many bridges since. But Nurmagomedov has promised that he wouldn’t fall prey to the mistakes of those who went before, insisting that this, more than any other, is his time. Yet in a fevered build-up, McGregor’s barbs have ever so slightly scrambled the wrestler’s system. If it’s enough to spur the champion into rash actions, McGregor will capitalise.
It got personal early — with the Dubliner’s criminal attack on a UFC fighters’ bus in Brooklyn in April — and it was personal often. As mouth-watering as tonight is, it’s unlikely to settle things. Nurmagomedov insisted there was no way he would shake hands when their time together is up. McGregor put it another way.
“Fuck peace. There will be no peace,” he offered on Thursday.
“I always say you should aim for peace, but if you can’t get peace, you should aim between the eyes. This will never be over.”
Perhaps not. But, even in the time-twisting surrounds of Las Vegas, it will at least begin tonight. Set your watches.
Notorious: I’ll be billionaire in five years
On the eve of the biggest payday of his UFC career, Conor McGregor has said he is five years away from being a billionaire.
Tonight’s UFC 229 card is reportedly on its way to breaking all records in the organisation’s history, Dana White suggesting in recent days that it may even threaten the 4.4m pay-per-view buys that McGregor’s cartoon boxing cameo with Floyd Mayweather accrued last year.
“We’re estimating around 3m to 3.5m [PPV buys], I’d say I’ll close in around the $50m mark,” McGregor said when asked what his takeaway from tonight would be.
“To make $50m from a mixed martial arts bout, it’s quite breathtaking. To think where we have come from… when I fought Nate Diaz he was on $20,000 to show and $20,000 to win — the game has gone to so many new heights, so quickly and we’re just trying to keep up. I’m 30 now, say by about 35 I’ll be a billionaire.”