Conor McGregor (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 229 Preview and Predictions

On Saturday, Oct. 6, the wait is finally over. The biggest fight in UFC history goes down inside the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Current lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov takes on former featherweight and lightweight kingpin Conor McGregor in the evening’s headliner. McGregor returns after a two-year layoff from MMA. The Irishman’s last combat-sports venture was a losing effort in an August 2017 boxing match against Floyd Mayweather Jr. In the meantime, Nurmagomedov claimed the lightweight belt that was stripped from McGregor by defeating last-minute replacement Al Iaquinta in Brooklyn, N.Y., at UFC 223.

In the co-main event, former interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson returns to action after a freak knee injury took him out of his championship contest with the Dagestani juggernaut Nurmagomedov. Ferguson’s opponent is another former titleholder, Anthony Pettis. “Showtime” hit a rocky slide after losing his title to Rafael dos Anjos, but he took out Michael Chiesa with a triangle-armbar submission to regain his momentum. The winner of this fight will be in the running for another crack at the belt soon.


The fight card kicks off on UFC Fight Pass with the early prelims at 6:15 p.m. ET. The action moves over to Fox Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET for the televised portion of the prelims. Finally, at 10 p.m. ET, the main card goes down on pay-per-view, with five bouts, culminating in the lightweight title fight between Nurmagomedov and McGregor. Combat Press writers Kyle Symes and Matt Petela preview the action is this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Conor McGregor finally returns to the UFC Octagon for a showdown with Khabib Nurmagomedov. Is this the beginning of a new chapter in the reign of McGregor, or will Nurmagomedov’s wrestling prove to be too much for the superstar?

Symes: This is the fight many people have been waiting for ever since McGregor became a fixture in the UFC’s lightweight division. There are only two ways this fight plays out: either McGregor catches Nurmagomedov with a strike on the feet or Nurmagomedov mauls the Irishman on the mat. Both men are so dominant in their strengths that neither man will provide much resistance in the area where their opponent excels. It’s difficult to envision Nurmagomedov hanging with McGregor on the feet, and it’s hard to fathom McGregor,despite the amount of grappling he has done in training, surviving the ground onslaught of Nurmagomedov.

There are a couple of x-factors in this fight — Nurmagomedov’s composure and McGregor’s cardio. Nobody is better than McGregor at getting in the mind of their opponent and throwing them off their game. Nurmagomedov has weathered the mental warfare well thus far, but we’ve seen mentally strong fighters lose their cool in the past as a result of McGregor’s trash talk. We’ve also seen McGregor’s cardio become a major detriment in his previous fights. The Irishman demonstrated his mental fortitude to get a “second wind” in his rematch with Nate Diaz, but can McGregor regroup if Nurmagomedov gets him down early and forces him to grapple rather than trade leather?

Nurmagomedov has enjoyed the most success when he’s able to push his opponent against the cage and hold them in place while working on a takedown. This won’t be an option against a fighter like McGregor, who, while he may appear unhinged at times, is among the smartest fighters in the sport today. McGregor knows his best chance is to stay away from the cage and force Nurmagomedov to shoot for takedowns in space while eating stiff shots from the Irishman.

McGregor will employ a similar game plan to his second meeting with Diaz. He’ll attempt to stay away from the outside rings of the Octagon canvas. Nurmagomedov could easily win this one, but my money is on McGregor catching him coming in for the knockout win.

Petela: If there is one thing I have learned as a fan of MMA, it is to expect the unexpected. That being said, anything other than McGregor winning by knockout or Nurmagomedov mauling the Irishman relentlessly seems like a far-fetched idea.

Neither fighter has squared off against someone with the unique skills that their current opponent brings to the cage.For that matter, it’s unlikely that they have even been able to truly emulate the caliber of opposition appropriately in training camp.

As MMA evolves so rapidly, this is a throwback clash of striker-versus-grappler, and I always lean toward the grappler being able to dictate where the fight takes place. Once it hits the ground, Nurmagomedov will make McGregor look like a fish out of water. After sustaining 10 minutes of relentless top pressure and ground-and-pound, McGregor’s devastating left hand will lose its one-punch knockout power. Nurmagomedov will force McGregor into submission midway through the third round.

Several of the remaining main-card bouts feature either fixtures among the contender mix — Tony Ferguson, Anthony Pettis, Michelle Waterson — or fighters who are on the verge of joining that group, such as Alexander Volkov and Dominick Reyes. Are any of the UFC 229 main-carders headed for a title shot with a win on Saturday night?

Petela: Regardless of who wins the main event, Ferguson will earn a title shot with a victory over Pettis. If Nurmagomedov and Ferguson both win, the fifth time could be the charm for both men to be healthy and able to make the walk to the cage for their showdown. If Pettis tops Ferguson, the next fighter to challenge for the title will be the winner of the upcoming UFC 230 bout between Dustin Poirier and Nate Diaz at Madison Square Garden.

Waterson has some more work to do if she wants to get herself in the title picture at strawweight. With the emergence of Jessica Andrade and Tatiana Suarez as top contenders after dominant victories at UFC 228, “The Karate Hottie” will need to string a few wins together before she has a viable claim at a title shot. She will have her hands full against Felice Herrig on Saturday. Herrig is coming off a split-decision loss to former title challenger Karolina Kowalkiewicz, but she is a tough out for anyone. This fight should be an entertaining scrap between two supremely talented women.

Symes: Ferguson is the obvious choice for a title shot. If it wasn’t for some production cables, he could very well still be the UFC lightweight champion. I know, we joke and criticize Ferguson for still doing his crazy workouts after his injury, but it shows his confidence in his knee. There’s always a question of whether an athlete can physically and mentally recover from a major injury. With Ferguson’s habit of still doing crazy things in training camp, I fully expect to see “El Cucuy” at 100 percent against Pettis.

As my colleague suggested, Waterson has quite a bit of work to do to get into the title picture. That’s no easy feat with Andrade and Suarez standing as likely the next two ladies in line for an UFC title shot. Pettis, too, is still at least a couple fights away from title contention.

The other four main-card fighters are victims of Daniel “DC” Cormier holding both the 205-pound and heavyweight titles. The future for “DC” is unclear, which means the title pictures of both divisions have come to a standstill.

Jalin Turner — do we need to know this name?

Symes: No. Turner won his fight on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series because his opponent suffered a broken foot. Turner hasn’t faced a lot of stiff competition through the regional scene. If he beats Vicente Luque, though, it would show that Mr. Turner really belongs among the UFC’s ranks.

Petela: There isn’t a bigger or brighter stage for Turner to put himself on the map, but Luque is no easy out. This isn’t a showcase fight for the prospect. Even if Turner is able to pull out a victory, it is likely to come by way of grinding out a decision. If Turner doesn’t put up an exciting finish, then he will get lost on this night chock-full of stars. He’ll eventually make a name for himself in the UFC, but Saturday will not serve as his coming-out party.

Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 229?

Petela: The UFC is the biggest winner, no matter the outcome of the main event. UFC President Dana White has stated that they are tracking for 2.5 million pay-per-view buys. Even if this number is a bit aggressive, this will be the biggest event in UFC history. With that many eyes on the sport on Saturday night, it gives the organization a chance to turn elite fighters into superstars through impressive performances in the cage and on the microphone. As 2018 winds down and the UFC makes the move to ESPN at the start of 2019, this card will set the company up nicely to continue to grow the sport and the brand in the years to come.

If Conor McGregor wins, then his star rises even higher into the stratosphere by coming back after two years away from MMA and taking out the undefeated wrecking machine that is Khabib Nurmagomedov. If “The Eagle” takes out “Mystic Mac,” then the UFC has a new megastar and the chance to globally market a Russian phenom who will have his name in the debate for the GOAT.

Symes: First and foremost, the UFC is the biggest winner before UFC 229 even kicks off. The organization has brought McGregor back to the world of MMA after he cashed in big beyond the Octagon.

However, if we’re picking someone competing on the card as the biggest winner, then it’s Alexander Volkov, if he can get a win against Derrick Lewis. Volkov has been on a roll, and it’ll be hard for the UFC not to include him in any future heavyweight title plans, even if the ghost of Brock Lesnar is still lurking.

Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 229?

Symes: Tony Ferguson. Anthony Pettis isn’t the same fighter he once was, but he’s still dangerous. Even if Ferguson gets a win, there’s no guarantee he gets a title shot if Nurmagomedov takes the victory in the evening’s main event. The UFC has tried countless times to put together a Ferguson/Nurmagomedov title fight, and you can’t blame the company for being uneasy about trying again.

On another note, if Derrick Lewis loses, his hopes of ever fighting for a title will be washed away. Fans and the UFC brass still have a sour taste in their mouths from the Francis Ngannou fight. A loss to Alexander Volkov would remove “The Black Beast” from title contention.

Petela: Ferguson is certainly in a difficult place. If Nurmagomedov retains the title, we may end up seeing Ferguson lose out on his chance over the organization’s fear of the fight falling through yet again. Also, he may be so overshadowed by the main event and the upcoming contest between Dustin Poirier and Nate Diaz that he is yet again on the outside, looking in, of a showdown for the undisputed lightweight crown.

Volkov is a tall task for Lewis, but his most difficult opponent has often seemed to be his own back.

However, the biggest loser on Oct. 6 will be Daniel Cormier. The UFC will announce a rematch between Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson for DC’s light heavyweight belt. With Cormier slated to retire by March 2019 and his anticipated clash with Brock Lesnar on the horizon, “DC” won’t just lose his title of “champ champ,” but likely his chance for a third clash with Jones to try to redeem himself from his only two — though only one official — professional losses.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Petela: The showdown between Sergio Pettis and Jussier “Formiga” da Silva is a match-up of top-five flyweights that is receiving almost no buzz.

Pettis is coming off a victory over perennial top contender Joseph Benavidez. He bounced back after getting out-wrestled by current champion Henry Cejudo in his introduction to the upper echelon of the division.

Formiga has back-to-back submission victories over Ben Nguyen and Ulka Sasaki. He earned a “Performance of the Night” bonus for the rear-naked choke victory over Nguyen.

The flyweights are often overlooked by casual fans. On the biggest fight card in UFC history, this fight’s placement way down in the preliminary card is no surprise. Regardless, I expect fireworks and a potential title shot for the winner, assuming Cejudo doesn’t end up taking on bantamweight king T.J. Dillashaw instead.

Symes: Ovince Saint Preux and Dominick Reyes.

This battle of light heavyweights has the chance to produce an epic “Oh shit!” moment. Both fighters seem to hate the idea of going to the scorecards, which could lead to a lot of offense and a big finish.

Pair this card with…

Symes: Proper Twelve. Duuuuhhhh!

Petela: I’ll leave the Proper Twelve to my colleague. Instead, I’ll go with a Stoli on the rocks in support of the Russian, Khabib Nurmagomedov. I know he doesn’t drink, so I’ll drink his share too, as my nerves will be at an all-time high while waiting for the main event to begin.

Fight Picks

Fight Symes’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
LW Championship: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor McGregor Nurmagomedov
LW: Tony Ferguson vs. Anthony Pettis Ferguson Ferguson
LHW: Ovince Saint Preux vs. Dominick Reyes Reyes Saint Preux
HW: Derrick Lewis vs. Alexander Volkov Volkov Volkov
Women’s StrawW: Michelle Waterson vs. Felice Herrig Waterson Herrig
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
FlyW: Sergio Pettis vs. Jussier “Formiga” da Silva Pettis Pettis
WW: Vicente Luque vs. Jalin Turner Luque Turner
Women’s BW: Tonya Evinger vs. Aspen Ladd Ladd Evinger
LW: Alan Patrick vs. Scott Holtzman Patrick Holtzman
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 p.m. ET)
Women’s BW: Yana Kunitskaya vs. Lina Länsberg Kunitskaya Kunitskaya
LW: Gray Maynard vs. Nik Lentz Lentz Lentz
WW: Ryan LaFlare vs. Tony Martin LaFlare LaFlare