By Philip O’Connor
LASVEGAS (Reuters) – Conor McGregor will come up against one of the toughest opponents he has ever faced in Khabib Nurmagomedov when he returns to the UFC octagon on Saturday in a bid to win back the lightweight title after an absence of almost two years.
There is no love lost between the two fighters and the bout is one of the most eagerly-anticipated in the UFC after confrontations between the two camps and a violent incident in Brooklyn in April.
The two 30-year-old fighters made the weight limit of 155 pounds on Friday at the Park Hotel in Las Vegas, setting the scene for an epic clash of styles before what is expected to be a huge pay-per-view audience.
The brash Irishman has not fought in the UFC since winning the lightweight belt to go with his featherweight title in November 2016, becoming the first fighter to hold two UFC belts simultaneously.
Since then he has limited himself to a lucrative boxing match against Floyd Mayweather, which he lost. He was also stripped of his UFC belts.
In a sport that changes rapidly, his comeback in mixed martial arts is fraught with danger.
His opponent, current champion Nurmagomedov, is a fearsome Russian wrestler with an unbeaten record, known for taking down his opponents and inflicting maximum damage on the ground.
McGregor’s forte is his striking and his cat-like movement. His counter-punch after 13 seconds to knock out Jose Aldo and become the featherweight champion perfectly encapsulated his precision and power.
The UFC is touting Saturday’s showdown as the biggest fight in the organisation’s 25-year history, and the battle is likely to be won and lost in the space between the two protagonists.
For Nurmagomedov to win, he will have to close the distance between the two fighters and latch on to one of McGregor’s limbs to bring him to the ground.
Yet in doing so he will put himself within range of the Irishman’s devastating left hand.
McGregor will want to stay in the middle of the octagon and away from the fence, keeping the Russian at the end of his jab until he is ready to strike.
Though the Irish fighter possesses an under-rated ground game, it is not his natural habitat and he would much prefer to keep the fight standing for as long as possible.
Irish fans have flocked to the desert to support their man, but Russia’s Nurmagomedov has plenty of support as well, with wrestling aficionados appreciating his superb grappling skills.
The rest of the card may have some interesting fights, not least the co-main event featuring two other top lightweight contenders, Tony Ferguson and Anthony Pettis.
(Editing by Toby Davis)