When Khabib Nurmagomedov vaulted out of the octagon to try and beat up Dillon Danis for supposedly talking wild, racist shit on Saturday, he did more than cost himself a ton of money, earn a suspension, and line himself up to get “smashed” by his father. He also saved Conor McGregor’s ass.
Had Nurmagomedov not decided to act like a complete maniac, the post-fight narrative would have centered around how McGregor had suffered an overwhelming beatdown at the hands of the guy about whom he said some truly ugly things and tried to maybe murder in his unhinged UFC 223 bus attack. Everyone would have suggested that McGregor cool it with the 9/11 jokes. McGregor getting his neck cranked in the fourth round would have seemed, to those not in the Conor McGregor enthusiast press, like the unavoidable result of stepping to a far superior fighter who had every reason to destroy him.
Instead, the actual fighting qua fighting of the evening is a footnote. McGregor looks like the good guy for, well, not initiating a chaotic brawl. He even knows it, as he wrote “We lost the match but won the battle,” on Instagram after the fight. Aside from two uneventful minutes at the start of the third round, McGregor spent the entire fight getting smothered by Nurmagomedov. Each of the other three rounds featured the two men trading shots before Nurmagomedov wrapped up McGregor and squeezed him like an anaconda. McGregor was rested and prepared—his opening-rounds standup looked as crisp as usual, and he clearly drilled his grappling defense—and the nicest thing one can write about his performance is that it’s impressive he lasted 18 minutes in the cage against such a clearly superior opponent. He didn’t seem like a fraud, exactly, but just like another one of Khabib’s other overmatched victims: in a bit over his head, and not at all some sort of transcendent star.
This would in theory be really bad news for McGregor. What happened in the cage Saturday, after all, clearly set Nurmagomedov up for a title defense against Tony Ferguson while leaving McGregor no obvious prospects for a big-money bout, aside from maybe Nate Diaz. The decisive nature of the beating left absolutely no room for a rematch, and matchmaking logic would suggest that McGregor’s next opponent would be a contender on the rise—someone against whom it would be hard to make a huge payday and who might well wax him, making further huge paydays all the harder.
Nobody cares about any of that now! Nurmagomedov-McGregor II will be by far the biggest fight in MMA history, and if there is no sports reason for it to happen, that doesn’t much matter. Due entirely to someone else’s actions, McGregor has suddenly found himself with more leverage than ever.
Past that, what Nurmagomedov did has taken the spotlight off the worst actor in this entire shitshow: Conor McGregor.
To be clear: Khabib stage-diving into a throng of frightened civilians is obviously a much bigger and more concerning story than a dumb MMA fight, and for all the valid points being made about how Danis and McGregor took it too far and how Dana White created this whole mess, Khabib really did show his ass. It was a reckless thing to do and he could have seriously injured several people. I don’t think he should lose his belt—it represents being the best fighter in his weight class, not being someone who doesn’t do stupid things—but he deserves the penalties he’s going to get.
Still, even leaving aside McGregor’s toxic fight-hyping and shit-talking and sticking to actual, physical actions, let’s remember McGregor tossing a dolly into a bus window in April. Unlike Nurmagomedov, McGregor actually caused real damage. Roy Borg got glass in his eye, Michael Chiesa’s face got lacerated, a UFC employee suffered a broken knuckle, and UFC champ Rose Namajunas was severely traumatized by the attack. Three fights were canceled. Because Khabib exploded right after a fight in the center of a crowded arena, his attack looks significantly more ugly, but what McGregor actually did was far worse. Like the sight of him slumped up against the cage, a defeated man, that’s going to somehow just fade away.
Some day, the cage dive will be used to promote the inevitable rematch, no matter how serious Dana White sounds right now about Respect And Integrity. He knows it’s good for business, especially since the UFC’s only effective promotional angle is “This Time It’s Personal!!!”, which the post-fight circus proved was actually accurate in this case. Conor McGregor getting dominated and submitted will never be the lasting legacy of UFC 229; his role in pouring gasoline all over the place will be set aside, since he’s not the one who lit the match. His limits as a fighter have never been exposed like this before, and he’s set up beautifully to make more money in the cage than he would have even had he somehow managed to win; and ironically enough, he has Khabib Nurmagomedov to thank.