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Conor McGregor returned to the UFC Octagon Saturday night at UFC 229 in Las Vegas.
Nothing else makes sense as a starting point. McGregor is the UFC’s Tiger Woods. He’s more than a talented competitor. He’s a needle-mover. With McGregor on the ticket, MMA is destination television.
So what happened Saturday was wild. It was a sad and surreal day for a sport that didn’t need or deserve such things.
We’ll get to that, but first let’s cue up the main event.
McGregor once held the featherweight and lightweight titles but was stripped of both for inactivity. On the lightweight side, the beneficiary was Khabib Nurmagomedov, the undefeated Russian dynamo who held the 155-pound strap heading into Saturday’s event.
It’s been nearly two years since McGregor fought in an MMA cage. During that time, he famously boxed Floyd Mayweather Jr., threw a hand truck at a bus that contained Nurmagomedov and was never far from the public eye. (He eventually pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct for the bus incident.)
Come fight night, Nurmagomedov’s relentless takedowns and ultra-aggressive ground and clinch games made him a small betting favorite over McGregor and his stand-up attack, according to OddsShark.
So what happened? And what about the co-main event, a key lightweight bout between Tony Ferguson and Anthony Pettis? How about the rest of the 12-fight card?
As always, the final stat lines do not reveal all. These are the real winners and losers from UFC 229.
For the literal-minded among us, full-card results appear at the end.
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Nurmagomedov retained his lightweight title, pulling off a rear-naked choke on McGregor in the fourth round. But no one’s talking about that.
After the win, Nurmagomedov screamed some choice words at McGregor. Then he jumped over the cage fence and went into the stands to attack Dillon Danis, one of McGregor’s training partners. And it wasn’t a general confrontation. It was physical. He blindsided Danis and threw multiple shots.
Meanwhile, one of Nurmagomedov’s partners jumped in and blindsided McGregor, landing a heavy punch to a tired athlete. McGregor did not retaliate.
Security swarmed. Nurmagomedov flexed. He seemed to think he had done something good, or at least not reprehensible.
McGregor was ushered away with heavy security. UFC President Dana White refused to put the belt on Nurmagomedov, sending the champion into fits. Nurmagomedov exited under security far heavier than that of McGregor. Some spectators threw cups and their liquid contents onto his head.
The two biggest crowd reactions during the main event: when it was clear the champ wasn’t getting his belt, and when it pelted him with things.
I had words queued up about the brilliance of Nurmagomedov’s performance. About how he hit the takedowns he wanted and brutalized McGregor from the top. Only McGregor’s granite chin saved him from a TKO loss. As far as fighting goes, Nurmagomedov is who we thought.
But then he did this. The broadcasters tried to soften the blow, suggesting, as color man Dominick Cruz did, that this is just what happens with “the fight game.” Jumping into crowds to fight people and hitting people who aren’t prepared or equipped to be hit doesn’t feel like the fight game to me. Cruz knows more about the game than I do, but we’re going to disagree on this one.
There will be plenty more on this in the days and weeks to come. Nurmagomedov did not take a “heel turn” here. This isn’t a brilliant ploy to attract more eyeballs. This was just wrong. Here’s hoping the UFC and every other relevant party approaches it accordingly.
If what he did is found to be in violation of laws, here’s hoping he is held to account. At the very least, Nurmagomedov took a marquee event and a marquee star—and himself—and made a bunch of dog food out of all of it. I’m not marketing major, but I’m thinking that’s not a great outcome.
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If you don’t like the sight of blood, the co-main event between Anthony Pettis and Tony Ferguson was not for you.
At the end of the second round, play-by-play man Jon Anik announced to the viewing public that he had just been sprayed with what he believed was blood. That’s primal.
A few moments later, the fight was over, but not for the reasons one might suspect. It was an amazing, brutal, back-and-forth brawl. And between rounds, Pettis told coach Duke Roufus his hand was broken. They decided not to continue, and Ferguson won by TKO.
It was an emphatic return for Ferguson, who was a top lightweight contender but had missed a year following knee surgery. His ultra-aggressive style—backed by a bottomless gas tank that allows him to apply pressure for indefinite periods—was in evidence again by the huge cut he opened on Pettis’ scalp during one exchange.
Ferguson called out McGregor without giving it much thought. That’s understandable. But Pettis took his own big leap forward. He’s been alternating wins and losses for a while but not making a great impression on a division he used to own as champion. This changed that. He showed toughness and his old creativity, throwing unorthodox kicks that connected or at least brushed back Ferguson.
In addition, though, credit Pettis and Roufus for understanding the damage to the hand and acting accordingly. Pettis would not have been his typical self and would have risked a subpar performance—not to mention a bad beating—if he had continued for reasons that didn’t go much beyond pure pride. That action is to be commended and emulated.
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It was all going Alexander Volkov’s way.
Until. That word means a lot in MMA sometimes. Especially when you’re dealing with a fighter with power such as Derrick Lewis. It’s not only possible, but it’s also probable Lewis is the hardest hitter in the UFC, and he used that skill to spark a spectacular come-from-behind win in the first bout of Saturday’s main card.
Volkov was the newest name to enter the UFC’s heavyweight title picture. He held the belt in both Bellator and M-1, and in a thin division, he seemed to have a clear path.
Lewis’ power is no secret, but the perception is he doesn’t have the complete game or gas tank to hang at the highest level. His recent titanic snoozefest against Francis Ngannou didn’t help him, even though he won.
Volkov seemed to damage Lewis’ orbital area early in the bout. A serious body shot found the mark. Then Volkov went on to punish Lewis for most of the fight. Still, Volkov couldn’t put him away. When Lewis did silly things such as botch a takedown shot so that he wound up underneath—or grapple in any way—the Russian couldn’t capitalize.
Lewis was gassing, and gassing badly, but it’s still probably a good idea to put the guy out if you can. Volkov didn’t, and it cost him. As the sand fell through the hourglass in the third and final round, Lewis landed a right-hand bomb that felled the 6’7″ Volkov. Ground strikes followed—each one appearing the way one might imagine it’d look to stand on the roof of a house and drop a bowling ball on somebody. Referee Herb Dean stopped the fight.
If you want a data point on the comeback’s magnitude, UFC stat keeper Michael Carroll tweeted that the strike differential between the fighters (82) was larger than that of any other comeback in UFC history, which speaks to how unbalanced the bout was until the comeback occurred.
Afterward, Lewis pulled off his shorts and stood in his underwear to do his interview. He said funny things that aren’t printable in a family publication. Lewis is a national treasure. It was one of the year’s best comebacks. Here’s hoping he doesn’t have to keep doing it the hard way.
Volkov, meanwhile, is left to wonder where he’d be in that title picture if he had finished Lewis when he had the chance.
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The preliminary slate showed that UFC 229 was more than its main event.
Five of the seven undercard bouts ended in knockout, and none was more meaningful—or vicious—than Vicente Luque’s first-round finish of Jalin Turner.
Turner was the rangier man and used his reach to try to keep Luque at a distance. It didn’t work. Luque’s counters found the mark repeatedly. A monstrous Luque counter right off a Turner spinning elbow left the latter on the mat. A few follow-up strikes later, Turner was staring blankly at the ceiling.
The 26-year-old Brazilian-American welterweight is 7-2 in the UFC. He’s won three straight—all of them stoppages. Luque has earned a higher level of competition for his next engagement.
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People have been calling for Gray Maynard’s retirement for three years now.
A couple of recent wins and this return to 155 pounds seemed to slow the talk, even if the 39-year-old appears to have lost a step or three—not to mention a good deal of his chin—over these past few injury-ravaged years.
It likely picked up steam again after this one, in which an equally grizzled Nik Lentz battered him from bell to bell. The 34-year-old Lentz nearly finished Maynard with ground strikes in the first; Maynard survived by the grace of the referee and the timekeeper, only to absorb even more punishment in the second.
In the next round, after taking a significant eye poke, Maynard found himself on the bad end of an extended slugfest before he ate a beautiful head kick that planted him head-first on the canvas.
Maynard is a solid UFC competitor, and it’s tough to watch him take all of this punishment, over and over, with no apparent payoff. He’s lost six of eight since May 2013.
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Khabib Nurmagomedov def. Conor McGregor by submission (neck crank), 3:03, Rd. 4
Tony Ferguson def. Anthony Pettis by TKO (corner stoppage), 5:00, Rd. 2
Dominick Reyes def. Ovince Saint Preux by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
Derrick Lewis def. Alexander Volkov by KO, 4:49, Rd. 3
Michelle Waterson def. Felice Herrig by unanimous decision (30-26, 29-28, 30-27)
Jussier Formiga def. Sergio Pettis by unanimous decision (30-26, 29-28, 29-28)
Vicente Luque def. Jalin Turner KO, 3:52, Rd. 1
Aspen Ladd def. Tonya Evinger by TKO, 3:26, Rd. 1
Scott Holtzman def. Alan Patrick by KO, 3:42, Rd. 3
Yana Kunitskaya def. Lina Lansberg by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
Nik Lentz def. Gray Maynard by TKO, 1:19, Rd. 2
Tony Martin def. Ryan LaFlare by KO, 1:00, Rd. 3
Scott Harris writes about MMA and other things for Bleacher Report. He is available on Twitter.