Exploring Conor McGregor's Return At UFC 229

This Saturday, Conor McGregor steps into the Octagon for the first time in nearly two years. The last time he fought, he starched Lightweight Champion Eddie Alvarez inside of two rounds, making the former champion look like a mere amateur on the feet.

On that November night in 2016, McGregor cemented his legacy in the UFC. He became the first man to simultaneously hold titles in two different weight classes. After the fight, he talked of wanting equity in the company, feeling he had surpassed the name UFC in terms of star power.

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He had.

UFC 205 did 1.3 million buys on pay-per-view. The only other show in the past two years to do over a million buys since then was Ronda Rousey's return, and final, fight against Amanda Nunes. Including Rousey-Nunes, only three shows have done more than 400,000 buys since McGregor's last fight.

There was a time when 350,000 buys would be the floor for the company's monthly pay-per-view offering. Now it feels like the ceiling if McGregor is not present.

Along with diminished pay-per-view sales and declining television ratings, the lightweight division has become muddied at the top over the last two years.

Tony Ferguson defeated Kevin Lee to win the Interim Lightweight Title one year ago. The hope was that Ferguson would eventually fight McGregor to unify the titles or defend the title against Khabib Nurmagomedov.

A fight between Ferguson and Nurmagomdeov was scheduled for April 7, but production cables got in the way. The week of the scheduled Ferguson-Nurmagomedov fight, McGregor infamously attacked the bus carrying Khabib and other UFC fighters.

The end result was McGregor and Ferguson being stripped of their respective UFC Lightweight titles and Nurmagomedov winning the strap against a slightly overweight No. 11 ranked Al Iaquinta.

The UFC's obsession with needing a title fight to headline every event -- something that came to light again with a UFC 230 main event that no one wanted -- devalued McGregor's moment two years ago and Khabib's title win in April.

The belt is on the line at UFC 229, but it's nothing more than a participatory trophy at this point.

The real draw this weekend is the fight itself: Conor McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov.

Because he hasn't fought in nearly two years, we've forgotten just how good McGregor is. This is a man who slept Jose Aldo in a matter of seconds, who willingly put his hands behind his back against a dangerous striker in a title fight, who walked down a Diaz brother, who dared to challenge himself against the greatest boxer of all-time.

On the feet, McGregor could be viewed as the second coming of Anderson Silva. His precision is....precise. He sees things that others don't. He has a supreme understanding of distance and movement.

After defeating Alvarez, McGregor stated, "You've got to have some attributes" if you hope to keep up with him. It sounded like a simplification of skill required to beat him, but it's true. Nate Diaz withstood McGregor's onslaught on the feet with an otherworldly chin and unstoppable stamina. Those that don't posses such attributes crumble at McGregor's feet.

Khabib has wrestling. Not just wrestling, but relentless wrestling and pressure combined with the most brutal ground and pound in the modern era.

For all of McGregor's great wins, he's never faced a wrestler of this caliber. Chad Mendes is the closest comparison, but Mendes took the fight on short notice and isn't nearly as strong or as brutal when on top.

Classic Striker vs. Grappler matchup is how the UFC used to sell fights. The sport evolved to where strikers became grapplers and vice versa. But if you're looking for a modern example of Striker vs. Grappler, this bout represents a throwback of sorts. There's no one like McGregor at a distance and there's no one like Khabib in close quarters.

As of this writing, Nurmagomedov is the slight betting favorite. That's not a huge surprise given the way he's dominated the competition and his activity compared to McGregor's. It also speaks to the respect McGregor is still given despite his layoff and perceived lack of wrestling and grappling.

Personally, I've gone back-and-forth on this fight since it was announced. McGregor has developed an aura around him that makes him tough to doubt. The way he carries himself, the way he talks with such conviction, and the things he's done inside the cage. Why would you think he'll lose? But then there's Khabib. A man who has never lost and never looked in real danger.

For 23 months fans have waited to feel the kind of adrenaline that comes with Conor McGregor fight. The pay-per-view is a lock to do over one million buys. Order, if only for a night, will be restored in the lightweight division. It's good to have King the back. It's even better seeing a Bear on his throne.

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