mma / Columns

The Magnitude of Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor

October 5, 2018 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Conor McGregor Khabib Nurmagomedov UFC 229

Let’s talk business.

In the dozen years since MMA exploded in North America, the sport had never been able to unseat boxing as the king of mega-events. The UFC could consistently do good numbers on pay-per-view, but the only fights large enough to be considered cultural events occurred inside a boxing ring.

It took until 2016 for MMA to produce the calendar year’s biggest combat sports event. That year, with boxers Floyd Mayweather retired, Manny Pacquiao entering his waning days, and Canelo Alvarez without the right opponent, it was really no contest. It was yet another year of unencumbered growth for Conor McGregor, who had been in a pay-per-view arms race with Ronda Rousey in 2015, but firmly took hold of the “biggest star in mixed martial arts” title in 2016.

In December of 2015, McGregor drew one of the biggest pay-per-view audiences in UFC history as he challenged for Jose Aldo’s featherweight championship. The following March, he broke the UFC’s pay-per-view record with 1.317 million buys against Nate Diaz. In August, another Diaz fight, and another pay-per-view record. Three months after that, he broke the UFC’s live gate record and recorded another million-plus buy show. Before McGregor in 2016, only Mike Tyson had ever achieved three million-buy shows in one calendar year.

The tide had shifted. MMA had finally produced a star that could capture an audience as only the biggest boxing stars had. But there was still a significant gap between the estimated 1.5 million buys McGregor drew in his second fight against Diaz, and the biggest boxing matches of all-time. It seems that to get on that level, McGregor had to find the biggest fight out there for him, which was of course in boxing.

At first, McGregor vs. Floyd Mayweather—boxing’s biggest pay-per-view attraction since Mike Tyson—seemed like a drug-induced hallucination. Then, during the build-up, it seemed like a drug-induced hallucination. But by the time of the fight—okay, it still felt like a drug-induced hallucination. Maybe that’s why it was so successful, with an estimated 4.3 million pay-per-view buys in North America (and significantly more than one million additional buys from around the world) and a $55.4 million live gate.

It appears that that fight, and McGregor not embarrassing himself in it, has pushed him to the next level.

On Saturday, McGregor competes against Khabib Nurmagomedov for the UFC lightweight championship in what is expected to be the biggest fight in mixed martial arts history. There’s a whole host of factors that will make it MMA’s biggest fight—it’s McGregor’s first MMA fight in two years, there is a well-documented feud between him and Nurmagomedov, and so on, but the most significant reason is that Conor McGregor is a huge star. He is the biggest combat sports star of the post-Mayweather era, and easily the biggest star in UFC history.

UFC President Dana White has spoken of late of Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor trending closer to three million buys than to two million buys. This is certainly hyperbole, which the UFC freely dispenses close to big events for mainstream media outlets to regurgitate, but the bigger they talk up the bout, the more important it will be perceived, which translates to more sales. When the fight was announced, it felt like it had a real chance at two million buys. Now as the hours wind down, it feels more like it should do two million buys, and perhaps many more.

That two million buy threshold is extremely exclusive. Even Mike Tyson, the biggest drawing card of the pay-per-view era, never broke it, although he came very close twice and competed in an era when far fewer homes had pay-per-view capabilities.

The first fight to break that barrier was Oscar de la Hoya vs. Floyd Mayweather in 2007, the fight that made Mayweather a super-draw for the next ten years. With a revolutionary buildup with the 24/7 series on HBO (which UFC would later copy with great initial success) and heavy media coverage, the fight achieved 2.44 million buys.

In 2013, it was again Mayweather breaking two million buys, this time against Canelo Alvarez. At 2.2 million buys, they fell short of the record, but with the pay-per-view selling at a higher price point, they broke the pay-per-view revenue record.

Two years later, after several years of hype, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao raised the ceiling higher than many could have imagined. In the biggest money-drawing fight in history, the two drew 4.6 million buys in North America.

Then came Mayweather vs. McGregor last year, which fell short of the record, but was still a tremendous success. Floyd Mayweather’s other record-breaking opponents never sniffed two million buys again. McGregor is probably going to do it in his very next fight, and he has no shortage of interesting opponents after that.

There is a rich history of big MMA bouts. Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Wanderlei Silva sold out the Tokyo Dome and raised the bar, Hidehiko Yoshida vs. Naoya Ogawa drew a major television audience in Japan, Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz and Brock Lesnar vs. Frank Mir were landmark UFC bouts, Anderson Silva vs. Vitor Belfort made the sport explode in Brazil, and Ronda Rousey vs. Holly Holm felt like a cultural event after the fact. Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor is on another level. This is a different playing field, and as long as McGregor is around, the potential for even more is there.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.