Is Conor McGregor the greatest MMA fighter of all time if he beats Khabib Nurmagomedov?

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Conor McGregor (Getty Images)

When Conor McGregor steps into the Octagon against Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229 on Oct. 6, he won’t only be staring an undefeated opponent in the eyes — he will be chasing greatness. For all intents and purposes, should McGregor regain the title that he never lost in a fight against a man who has arguably never lost a round in his 26-fight career, there is a legitimate argument regarding whether or not the Irishman is the greatest pound-for-pound fighter in the history of the UFC. 

It’s an intriguing argument that finds the prideful McGregor in the center of an MMA whirlwind of talent in a relatively new sport where the list of top fighters is constantly evolving. The metric for how greatness is measured varies depending on who you ask. Fedor Emelianenko is often billed as the greatest mixed martial artist to ever compete due to his dominance from 2001 to 2009. There’s also Anderson Silva, whose reign of terror was unlike anything ever seen from 2006 to 2012. Of course, there’s Georges St-Pierre, Daniel Cormier and Jon Jones, who have each amassed multiple accolades to enter the conversation. GSP’s welterweight run and recent claiming of the middleweight title against Michael Bisping is impressive, as is Cormier simultaneously holding both the light heavyweight and heavyweight titles. Jon Jones could indisputably be the greatest if his outside-of-competition antics didn’t get in the way.

But few are on par with what McGregor has accomplished since making his UFC debut in 2013. There are those who may be rubbed the wrong way by his antics, but it’s hard to question what he has done in such a short amount of time. 

It’s also important to note that this has little to do with his immense drawing power. He is undoubtedly the biggest PPV star in the history of mixed martial arts and that’s a byproduct of both his ability to sell a fight and what he does when the Octagon door closes. 

He’s the first UFC fighter to simultaneously hold world titles in two different weight classes. And both of those victories came in dominant fashion. It is McGregor’s constant desire to be great that has allowed him to climb the ladder of success. He has no fear of failure, as evidenced by his willingness to fight anybody in any weight class at any time. From his 13-second decimation of then-pound-for-pound fighter Jose Aldo at UFC 194 to his willingness to jump up two weight classes to face Nate Diaz on short notice at UFC 196, there has yet to be an opponent that McGregor has outright avoided. He starched Dustin Poirier in under two minutes at UFC 178 and now Poirier is on the cusp of a title shot. He’s also the last man to defeat Max Holloway, who is the current champion after McGregor was forced to vacate. 

To be clear, you’ll have to look long and hard to find a dominant pound-for-pound champion stopped in just 13 seconds in any combat sport. Aldo was once considered the most-dominant champion in MMA due to his 10-year unbeaten streak and the manner he ran roughshod over the competition on his way to the WEC featherweight title and the kung-fu grip he maintained as the UFC champion. 

For McGregor to waltz into the Octagon, call his shot and put Aldo to sleep with the first punch he threw is phenomenal. He hasn’t stopped being phenomenal since then. 

If greatness is measured by risk and multiplied by accomplishment, Conor McGregor is easily in the conversation of the greatest mixed martial artist of all time. 

But that can all go up in smoke if he’s unable to defeat Nurmagomedov at UFC 229. 

This is clearly a legacy-defining fight for McGregor and one that will silence a vast majority of his naysayers, considering that Nurmagomedov is both unbeaten and possesses the exact skill set that McGregor’s skeptics believe will serve as his kryptonite. 

What makes this all the more interesting is that McGregor is returning to the Octagon for the first time in nearly two years. He spent much of his time away from the UFC preparing to be a boxer against Floyd Mayweather Jr. and has obviously enjoyed the fruits of his labor in the interim. McGregor could have asked for a different opponent — a tune-up fight, if you will — but he has decided to attempt to reclaim the title he never lost in a fight against the man who is considered the most dangerous grappler in mixed martial arts. 

Dare to be great, indeed. 

Should McGregor come out victorious, there will be those naysayers who will begin to question his credentials as the greatest mixed martial artist of all time. Here are a few things that detractors bring up when looking to take down McGregor and arguments against their criticism:

He lost to Nate Diaz, who isn’t in the P4P conversation 

He did. But he lost to a Nate Diaz, who was much bigger than him and on short notice. Many other fighters would not have accepted that fight on short notice, albeit in another weight class, entirely. McGregor accepted the risk. Jon Jones wouldn’t fight Chael Sonnen on short notice, so there’s that. Also, the greatest fighters of all time somehow manage to have that one opponent who gives them hell. Muhammad Ali had Ken Norton, Jon Jones had Alexander Gustafsson, Sugar Ray Robinson had Gene Fullmer, Joe Louis had Max Schmeling, Anderson Silva had Chael Sonnen, GSP had Matt Serra and the list goes on and on. It happens to the best of them. 

He hasn’t faced the best fighters

This is a funny argument because the same can be said for most fighters. There will always be somebody that McGregor didn’t face. In this case, Frankie Edgar was the name that everyone thought would give McGregor the toughest test on the road to becoming featherweight champion. But you’ll be hard pressed to name another fighter who knocked out arguably the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter (Jose Aldo) in 13 seconds. It just doesn’t happen. Call it a lucky punch, but McGregor called his shot well before the fight. Eddie Alvarez was also recognized as the top lightweight in the world and McGregor dispatched of him easily. Anderson Silva and Fedor didn’t beat anybody they weren’t supposed to beat. Daniel Cormier is arguably the only fighter that truly comes close when he upset Stipe Miocic to become the heavyweight champion, but he was also stopped by Jon Jones. 

He hasn’t defended his title

Well, why should he? He could have hung around at featherweight, even though his body was clearly telling him otherwise. However, the opportunity to become a two-division champion was too great to pass up. He originally sought to do it against Rafael dos Anjos, who many people thought would murder McGregor. He eventually beat Eddie Alvarez, who knocked out RDA, to claim the title. As for the lightweight title, you can’t blame him for wanting to box Floyd Mayweather Jr. for nearly $100 million rather than defend his lightweight title for roughly 1/5 of that. Once again, the challenge was greater, and the risk was well worth the reward. Now, he’s back and looking to reclaim what he believes is his against an unbeaten fighter. 

Khabib is untested

There are going to be those who try to suggest that Nurmagomedov’s record was blown up because he hasn’t fought an opponent who was ranked in the top 3 at the time when the Octagon door shut. This is actually true. The highest-ranked opponent he faced was Edson Barboza, who was ranked No. 4 when they met at UFC 219. What did Nurmagomedov do? Destroy him for five rounds. It would be one thing if the Dagestan fighter struggled, but he’s dominating everyone he’s put in the Octagon against. A man who has arguably never lost a round in his entire MMA career is nothing to overlook.

The fact of the matter is that every fight for the rest of his MMA career will have McGregor teetering between greatness and overhyped. But each victory further cements the fact that McGregor is no flash in the pan. Should he get past Nurmagomedov, there are other tests ahead. Does he defend his title against Tony Ferguson, who currently holds the longest winning streak in the lightweight division and was the interim champion while McGregor was away? Maybe it’s a rematch with Max Holloway, who has won 12 fights in a row since losing to McGregor and is the reigning featherweight champion. There’s always the trilogy fight with Nate Diaz lingering. Maybe he squares off with Georges St-Pierre in a superfight for the ages? Or, he jumps up another weight class and challenges Tyron Woodley for the welterweight crown.

The challenges are plentiful for McGregor. One misstep, and it’s over. He was able to get away with losing to Diaz because of the weight and the fact that the fight was on short notice. He managed to avenge that loss. This is different. There are no excuses if he loses to Nurmagomedov. He’ll be granted no justification against any opponent moving forward.

It’s Conor McGregor chasing greatness. There will be those who will immediately crown him as the G.O.A.T. should he beat Nurmagomedov and there will be others who won’t be willing to give him entry. But one thing is for sure — he’s certainly in the conversation.