UFC 229 primer: How Conor McGregor-Khabib Nurmagomedov superfight finally came together

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist

LAS VEGAS – Less than five months ago, UFC president Dana White sat in a conference room in the bowels of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, uncertain of what the future held for his brightest star.

Two days before UFC 223, a bus carrying UFC fighters and staff from a media appearance was attacked by former featherweight and lightweight champion Conor McGregor. McGregor and his associates had flown from Ireland to New York to confront Khabib Nurmagomedov, who was to fight that weekend for the lightweight title.

Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov faces off with Conor McGregor during the UFC 229 news conference at Radio City Music Hall on Sept. 20, 2018, in New York. (Getty Images)
Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov faces off with Conor McGregor during the UFC 229 news conference at Radio City Music Hall on Sept. 20, 2018, in New York. (Getty Images)

Nurmagomedov had gotten into a confrontation with fellow UFC fighter Artem Lobov, a McGregor teammate, at the fighter hotel earlier in the week. That led to McGregor, in the most ill-advised act of what has been mostly a brilliant career, attacking the bus.

The enduring images from that incident are of McGregor hurling a dolly at the bus and shattering its window, and of McGregor in handcuffs being taken into police custody.

Conor McGregor is led by an official to an unmarked vehicle while leaving the 78th Precinct of the New York Police Department on April 6, 2018, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo)
Conor McGregor is led by an official to an unmarked vehicle while leaving the 78th Precinct of the New York Police Department on April 6, 2018, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo)

An ashen-faced White was asked if he wanted to do business with McGregor.

“Would you want to be in business with him right now?” White asked rhetorically.

Less than five months later, they’re in business together and, as Antonio Brown says, business is booming. T-Mobile Arena is sold out for UFC 229, and even celebrities and UFC fighters were required to purchase tickets. The paid gate of $17 million is going to be second-highest in UFC history, behind only the $17.7 million gate for UFC 205 at Madison Square Garden.

“S–t, even [UFC owner] Ari [Emanuel] and I bought tickets,” White said, laughing.

The numbers are astounding. McGregor will get the largest guarantee in UFC history, which has yet to be released, and could earn up to $50 million depending upon how the pay-per-view performs. Nurmagomedov’s manager said he stands to make $10 million.

Pay-per-view sales are expected to shatter the existing UFC record of 1.65 million, set at UFC 202 in 2016 when McGregor defeated Nate Diaz at T-Mobile Arena. It seems a slam dunk to exceed two million, which would make it only the fifth fight in history to reach that plateau. Only boxing matches involving Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao (4.6 million) in 2015; Mayweather and McGregor (4.4 million) in 2017; Mayweather and Oscar De La Hoya (2.48 million) in 2007, and Mayweather and Canelo Alvarez (2.2 million) in 2013 broke the two million barrier.

Mike Tyson’s fights against Evander Holyfield (1.95 million) in 1997 and Lennox Lewis (1.99 million) in 2002 came close.

Sponsorship dollars are the highest they’ve ever been for a UFC bout.

Khabib Nurmagomedov holds up his lightweight championship belt during Thursday’s news conference for UFC 229. (AP Photo)
Khabib Nurmagomedov holds up his lightweight championship belt during Thursday’s news conference for UFC 229. (AP Photo)

At Thursday’s news conference, White intimated the fight could challenge the number that Mayweather and McGregor hit last year.

“I don’t want to come out and say, ‘It’s going to hit May-Mac numbers,’” White said. “But it’s possible it could hit May-Mac numbers.”

Nurmagomedov, though, doesn’t believe the focus belongs on the money. Though he acknowledged he’ll make a career-high payday, he insisted he’ll do everything he can to not allow it to change him. More than that, though, he said the point is being missed when the discussion centers on the business aspects.

“People want to see me fight this guy,” said Nurmagomedov, who has been grappling his entire life and once wrestled a small bear when he was a child in Russia. “Believe me, I’m going to maul him.”

Oddsmakers slightly favor Nurmagomedov. He’s been bet up to a minus-170 favorite at the Westgate Las Vegas sportsbook, while McGregor is at plus-140.

[Related: Yahoo Sports’ Kevin Iole picks the winner of Conor-Khabib title fight]

None of that seems to bother McGregor, who said, “I look forward to driving his nose up into his brain,” a line that evoked memories of a young Mike Tyson.

McGregor’s Irish fans have descended upon Las Vegas and were being serenaded by Irish music in The Park outside of T-Mobile Arena on Friday. Hotel rooms are at or near capacity, and the fight is expected to have a massive economic impact on the city.

All of this happened despite the bus incident and despite neither fighter being available frequently to the media.

“It just shows you that when it comes down to it, people love a great fight,” White said. “When you have a great fight like this, people get excited and they want to see it and be part of it. The great part of it is that they have a beef with each other, and they’ll get to settle it in the Octagon.”

More UFC 229 coverage from Yahoo Sports:

McGregor’s trash-talk game is on point
Kevin Iole: Who will win McGregor-Nurmagomedov fight?
UFC 229 could set a major record on Saturday
Dan Wetzel: This time McGregor isn’t faking the hate