Khabib vs McGregor: The Art of the Deal meets A-Level Psychology
A man turns up 30 minutes late to a press conference dressed in a flat cap, joggers, sandals and a vest, armed with nothing but a bottle of Irish whiskey and declares the OTHER guy a "mad backwards c**t". If aliens landed tomorrow, they perhaps couldn't get a more accurate depiction of a Conor McGregor fight week.
If the 'hype' so often associated with a McGregor event had been relatively absent in the build-up to his fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov, the Irishman has certainly seemed keen to make up for lost time in the final countdown that fight week represents. As has become customary, the eyes of the world have become as fixated on the UFC 229 press conferences as they will be on the octagon on Saturday night, all keen to see what outrageous soundbite can be enticed from McGregor next and equally - how his opponent will react. For each strike Conor throws, will there be a counter? Will a man already on thin ice following a small incident involving a bus (you may have heard) over-extend his reach one too many times? A press conference acts as the perfect metaphor for a fight in many respects; a dress rehearsal that can offer a hint at how the final performance will look.
At this junction we reach the key word - can. McGregor is a trash talker for the ages. In this domain he rules supreme, that is undisputed. But how far does this go to determining the outcome of a fight? Some will argue each stunt, every throw-away line, every metaphorical metal dolly launched merely represents an extra Pay-Per-View sale and another digit on the bottom line; a salesman giving the most effective pitch the MMA world has known. For others, these represent a calculated prod of the Russian bear, a goading that has trapped numerous preys before and an accumulation of blows that will ultimately prove fatal for Khabib's psyche.
There's certainly evidence for those looking to make the case for the latter. Khabib has seemed increasingly antagonised as fight week has unfolded. Most will reduce this to a tough, tormenting weight cut, but there is no doubt McGregor's antics have helped to rattle the Russian. His routinely tardy timekeeping for this week's press conference clearly were not in sync with Khabib's own timetable, leading to the man from Dagestan storming out of the press conference before McGregor had even arrived. Apart from Khabib clearly feeling disrespected, many took this as a sign he had no appetite to spend any time around Conor McGregor and needed no excuse to escape from the nearest exit - as the Irishman himself alluded to when he did finally appear. On 6 October 2018 - so the logic goes - they will be as up close and personal as possible, and no such escape will be afforded.
Frequently used in support of this evidence is the New York press conference last month, where McGregor held court in a manner only he can, labelling Khabib a 'rat' (amongst other things) and launching a scathing attack on his team and even Khabib's father. Though his English is limited, Khabib had certainly been vocal in calling out McGregor during his hiatus from the MMA world. Here however he was rendered seemingly speechless, with even a hint of any attempt at a comeback barked down by McGregor to the point where the Russian was forced to just give up and let the Notorious motor mouth have centre stage. Childish point-scoring to some, but to many this represented an early victory for McGregor, who had been able to prove he'll do as he pleases with Khabib, just like countless opponents before him. Fighters themselves have testified to the confidence boost these out-of-octagon victories can have, as well as the mental torture it can provide the victim of such encounters. Jose Aldo of course offers the clearest historical example of the effect McGregor's mind games can have on an opponent; a hall of fame, pound-for-pound fighter literally shaking with rage and ready to burst with emotion whenever they met - with the consequences playing out for all to see in the octagon. Beyond this, even Eddie Alvarez seemed effected by McGregor's antics in their encounter - a renowned tough guy, with a strong skillset, who was made to look a level below the Irishman, seemingly nervously second-guessing himself and his game-plan as long as the fight lasted. If Aldo could be deemed as unlucky by some and merely caught cold by a heavy-handed striker, the Alvarez victory added further evidence that McGregor could get under the skin of world-class fighters and create a class disparity that perhaps hadn't been so evident when just analysing the two fighters' skillsets. In a meeting between elite level fighters, small margins can prove crucial - and few fights have been deemed as impossible to split as Khabib vs McGregor.
In the other corner, it must however be noted that a sudden rise in qualified psychologists amongst onlookers appears to be another hallmark of a McGregor event. Each face-off is subject to extensive, almost forensic, analysis. A flinch here, a deep exhale there, all seemingly innocuous to most of us but can apparently offer detailed insight to those more trained in the science of body language. While a fascinating feature of the art of war, the psychology surrounding a fight can be prone to over-analysis and leave one resembling an amateur Hannibal Lecter, (minus the body count and questionable dietary habits). Maybe Aldo was always going to over-extend and get countered by McGregor, regardless of the pre-fight hype. Would more credit have been given to the work done by McGregor and his team in the gym than the psychological job done on Aldo if that same knockout blow had landed deep in the later rounds of the fight, rather than the first thirteen seconds? Eddie Alvarez had been in big fights before but never on such a grand stage as this, so was he just overawed by the whole occasion, rather than anything McGregor had said or done in the build-up? Khabib is facing a tough weight cut and in any promotional commitments is being yelled at in a tongue that is not native to him - it is very arguable that his reaction to any of these antics is a natural response, rather than displaying any cracks in his psyche.
Perspective certainly seems to lie at the heart of this and social media has proven to be a forum for extremely polarising interpretations of whether McGregor is a genius in psychology or a master car salesman. Despite admitting this fight has become personal, many believe Khabib's stoic approach to the face-off at the New York press conference and relatively quiet display in Las Vegas this week in fact reflect the cold, hard thoughts of a Russian killer ready to devour his next victim - rather than a man overwhelmed by what's in front of him. The last man to be able to blank out the chaos McGregor brings was a guy called Nate Diaz - and he caused quite an upset you may remember. McGregor had approached their first fight with his usual rhetoric and any spectators asked to score the pre-fight build up would undoubtedly have given Conor a unanimous verdict. Yet how much did this count for in the fight? Diaz was riled by McGregor, disliked him and had been drawn into a verbal feud with him - yet still won. Emotionless Khabib is not, but it seems hard to argue he has been drawn in more than Diaz was. Was Mystic Mac's crystal ball just a bit clouded for the Diaz fight? In which case, could it be again? Or in both instances had he successfully achieved his real aim and just sold another dollar-spinning mega fight?
The numbers certainly point to the bigger picture, with McGregor's name involved in four of the top five UFC PPV buys ever. Dana White also quickly softened his hard-line approach towards McGregor's involvement on the infamous bus incident to the point where footage from it was used as a promotional tool. Dana isn't getting McGregor up on stage to excitedly watch him psychologically out-manoeuvre an opponent - he's utilising the most effective weapon he has in his arsenal at putting bums on seats and PPV buys in homes. For what it’s worth, McGregor gives us a little clue at his own perspective on the issue in his approach to crunch-time fights. Much like the second Diaz fight he has refused to do all but the necessary media obligations for the Khabib fight, acknowledging the (wise) need to focus on his training at this time. Both fights have been described in their own times as the toughest challenges of his career, so if the psychological ventures of 'Mystic Mac' were so crucial to the outcome of a fight, surely these extra media commitments could have been key battlegrounds and another opportunity to put a nail in the opponent's coffin? It is telling that both fights were considered events that 'sell themselves' thus loosening McGregor from the shackles of promotion and offering us a clear, albeit cynical, picture of McGregor and everyone else in the fight game's motives when given a chance to speak on the mic.
So, McGregor might ice Khabib. It could be early. It might even be the first meaningful left-hand that lands. But let’s not just reduce this to pre-fight prophecy, as alluring as it may be. Let’s look behind the psychological facade and recognise McGregor has the power, speed, accuracy, footwork and movement to do that to almost anyone in and around his weight division. These are skills honed in the gym, not the result of name-calling at a press conference table and praise belongs to this part of McGregor's make up as a fighter above all else. Khabib could get caught coming in, an inevitable risk when searching for a takedown. He could get caught with his chin hanging out when moving forwards or backwards - an unfortunate trait he has shown in some fights but ultimately been able to get away with so far. But these are style match-ups, not the result of anyone being spooked - remember that if Saturday night ends with Khabib laid out on the floor. And if (as is equally possible) it ends with McGregor being wrestled into submission...he'll be the first to tell you where you can shove your A-Level Psychology. Be warned, you may have to wait for him to cash that cheque first though.