Khabib Nurmagomedov wasn’t about to wait around for a tardy Conor McGregor, who arrived at what was supposed to be their final prefight press conference together to find the UFC lightweight champion already gone. No worries, they’ll meet soon enough when it really matters for both men. Nurmagomedov and McGregor ended up answering questions separately Thursday, though it seemed to do little to dampen the excitement about their 155-pound showdown. The two meet Saturday night in what is expected to be the biggest fight in UFC history _ a bout might even threaten the pay-per-view sales mark set last year by McGregor when he was stopped in a boxing match by Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Several thousand pro-McGregor fans packed a theater expecting to see a confrontation between two fighters who can’t stand each other. What they got instead were separate appearances, with Nurmagomedov leaving 10 minutes before McGregor _ who was nearly a half hour late _ arrived. “I tried to get here, I’m just a couple minutes late,” McGregor said. “He doesn’t want to be around me. He doesn’t want to be around these people. He’s petrified.”
If Nurmagomedov was, he didn’t show it. The Russian champion held court before a crowd that booed him before ending his portion of the press conference 15 minutes into it. “I have a schedule,” Nurmagomedov said. “I have to make weight. I have to worry about myself. If someone is late, it’s not my problem.”
UFC chief Dana White had to scramble to join Nurmagomedov, who stepped on the stage exactly at the appointed time for the final media event before Friday’s weigh-in. But in a promotion that has largely sold itself, White wasn’t terribly worried that the two fighters didn’t get a chance to confront each other.
Not with thoughts of the biggest UFC pay-per-view in his head.
“I’m not going to say we’re going to do Mayweather-McGregor numbers,” White said of a fight that sold 4.4 million pay-per-views. “But we possibly could do Mayweather-McGregor numbers.”
When McGregor did finally arrive, he was carrying a bottle of his new Irish whiskey along with a message to Nurmagomedov.
“I am coming to put a hole in this man’s skull,” he said.
McGregor is the challenger _ and also the underdog _ against the unbeaten Nurmagomedov, who won the vacant UFC lightweight title in April against late replacement Al Iaquinta to become the 155-pound champion.
But it is McGregor’s bombastic personality and star power that drives the hype for the fight, much like it did the last time he fought in a boxing ring last August in a knockout loss to Floyd Mayweather Jr. He’s the biggest star the UFC has left after Ronda Rousey’s retirement and is being counted on to deliver the biggest UFC card ever.
“It’s good to be back,” said McGregor, who hasn’t fought since losing to Mayweather 14 months ago in a boxing match where he was badly outclassed.
McGregor said he expected to make about $50 million in a pay-per-view event that will likely shatter the previous UFC record of 1.6 million buys and will also make Nurmagomedov his biggest payday ever.
McGregor helped sell the fight before it was even announced, getting charged by New York authorities after throwing a hand truck through a bus window in Brooklyn in April at Nurmagomedov. He has loudly proclaimed he will knock the Russian out, while at the same time promoting at every opportunity the new whiskey he is marketing from his native Ireland.
“At the end of the day when I sign up you’re going to get a fight,” McGregor said. “I am starving for this man’s head. There’s nobody hungrier than me in this game.”
Nurmagomedov, for the most part, has been relatively quiet, despite being insulted by McGregor for everything from his heritage to his friendship with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. But he made it clear he has no love for McGregor or anyone around him.
“I’m a little bit emotional,” said Nurmagomedov, who lives and trains in San Jose. “My job when I go to the cage is to control my emotions. He can say whatever he wants, nobody cares about him.”
McGregor is 2-2 in his last four fights _ including the boxing match against Mayweather _ and just how big any future paydays will be will largely depend on how he does against Nurmagomedov, the Russian who used to wrestle bears as a youth and who has not lost in 26 MMA fights.
Unlike McGregor, who prefers striking to fighting on the ground, Nurmagomedov is skilled at getting his opponents down and forcing them into submission. That was the tactic Nate Diaz used to upset McGregor in their first fight, though McGregor came back to win a close decision in their second bout.
“I have to be careful with him,” Nurmagomedov said. “He has good timing, good boxing.”