Conor Mcgregor vowed to return as king of the octagon but this was a catastrophe for the Irishman rather than a coronation.
The biggest fight in UFC history ended in astonishing circumstances as Khabib Nurmagomedov submitted the ‘Notorious’ before leaping over the cage in T-Mobile Arena, sparking a mass brawl.
His target was McGregor’s team-mate Dillon Danis and security piled in just as one of Khabib’s entourage jumped the cage to punch McGregor in the back of the head. To call it chaos would be a gross understatement.
Both fighters were escorted from the stage without a belt presentation or interviews before Khabib was eventually declared by Bruce Buffer as the victor. Many believed the champion could have been disqualified. He wasn’t, but no doubt there will be severe sanctions to follow.
The Nevada State Athletic commission have withheld Khabib’s $2million pay-check after reviewing footage of the ugly scenes but decided to award McGregor’s $3million.
Before the carnage, the undefeated Russian, now a staggering 27-0, dominated a sensational fight, showcasing his wrestling skills and even skittling the supposedly superior striker with a huge right hand in the second.
There may not have been any fear but there was plenty of loathing in Las Vegas as a frenzied 18,000 fans inside T-Mobile Arena were transfixed by the climax to this ferocious rivalry. You sense this one is far from over and the bad blood runs incredibly deep between the Dagestani and Irish cohorts.
McGregor’s loyal army of fans, as notorious as the fighter they so fervently worship, made this state-of-the-art Las Vegas venue feel more like Dublin’s Croke Park.
The thousands who made their 5,000-mile pilgrimage to Sin City formed a sea of green and belted out ‘Ole, Ole Ole Ole’, roaring in approval every time their talisman landed a strike.
And yet this freakishly talented Russian was unshaken by both their hostility and McGregor’s attacks. He was a picture of stoicism in the face of all the provocation thrown his way in the build-up and that steely mentality forged in the Northern Caucasus was on show again here.
The carnival of colour and noise providing the soundtrack to McGregor’s comeback was extinguished by Khabib’s utterly suffocating grappling ability. As a nine-year-old he wrestled with bears but it was McGregor on the receiving end of an animalistic mauling here.
In the opening salvo McGregor flashed a left hand dangerously close but Khabib lunged at the Irishman’s feet, latching on with a vice-like grip and forcing a take down. The Russian toiled on top, trying to advance position and eventually doing just but time expired before he could inflict any serious damage.
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It could have all been over in the second but for McGregor’s hugely admirable resistance. He clung on by the skin of his teeth. Regarded as one of the finest strikers in UFC history, it was the Dubliner on the receiving end of a knockdown. He was sent tumbling backwards by a thudding overhand right.
This is a city where sleight of hand pays dividends but there was nothing subtle about the beating that followed. It would have had David Copperfield wincing. Time after time Khabib found a home for his fists. In the build-up McGregor said: ‘If you can’t aim for peace, aim between the eyes,’ but it was his opponent doing just that.
Referee Herb Dean watched closely, ready to stop the onslaught at any moment but McGregor survived to see the third. This was a much more evenly matched round, both men exchanged on their feet and the challenger may have shaded it.
Khabib secured the decisive take down early in the fourth. He worked his way onto McGregor’s back and slid his hand just over the chin before cranking for all he was worth and forcing his opponent to tap out, exhausted, broken and comprehensively beaten.
If there was any doubt whether the ill-feeling between McGregor and Khabib was genuine or simply a promotional tool, there isn’t now. McGregor called the Russian’s manager a ‘terrorist’ and ‘rat’ in the build-up, he even offered the devout Sunni Muslim a drink of his whiskey at a press conference in New York. Those wounds will not heal and the outpouring of pent up emotion and rage was jaw-dropping in the wake of his triumph.
Dagestan explodes with delight after Khabib defeats McGregor
It was always going to be a huge challenge for the Dubliner to reclaim his throne after such a prolonged absence from elite level UFC competition.
During his self-imposed two-year exile from the sport, he banked $100million for losing to Floyd Mayweather in a boxing match, schmoozed Vladimir Putin, was charged with assault for throwing a metal dolly at Khabib through a bus window and launched his own whiskey.
But don’t let the extra-curricular activities fool you, the 30-year-old has been working ferociously hard in the gym too.
His best simply wasn’t enough against a phenomenal champion and the shine on MMA’s superstar has been dulled significantly. Where he goes from here is anyone’s guess.
This was an extraordinary night. UFC 229 will go down in the history books as the mauling that ended in mayhem.