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Despite its blemishes, UFC 229 unmistakably marked the beginning of 'Khabib time'

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333   //    09 Oct 2018, 21:38 IST

UFC 229 Khabib v McGregor: Press Conference

Khabib Nurmagomedov strode out to the post fight press conference with the traditional papakha resting crown-like on his head, a symbol of identity, pride and valour of his people, and the UFC Lightweight Title belt in hand.

He set both down on the table for all to see. The Dagestani would only make a brief statement. He would only field a question or two from the media assembled.

But it was important, in that time, that everyone registered what had just transpired in the main event of UFC 229. Khabib hadn't just completely outclassed the sport's poster boy and the best fighter he'd fought in his career; he'd made a statement on behalf of all his people in the process. People belonging to the Caucasus, an embattled mountainous belt found in the Asia-Europe border that had, at one time, resisted Russian occupation for 45 long years.

And the papakha at the forefront of the imagery made sure everyone understood that. Of the beliefs, togetherness and brotherhood that they shared in the region in order to thrive in - no, just to survive - the chastening realities of life.

"He talked about my religion, he talked about my country, he talked about my father. He came to Brooklyn and broke a bus, almost killing a couple of people", Khabib counted off, listing Conor McGregor's indiscretions one by one.

"What about this? What about (all) this sh*t?", he asked.

The answer to that shone through in the form of the other object that Khabib had placed on the table for all to see - the UFC Lightweight belt. It had been defended successfully and emphatically. Conor McGregor had been thoroughly dominated, beaten down and eventually submitted in the fourth round of the fight.

Khabib's victory, and the manner of it, spoke so much louder than words. Still, he felt the need to ask the question, if only to listen to the resounding silence in reply. This was Khabib's time to talk.

McGregor had done more than his fair share of mouthing off before the fight.

UFC 229: Khabib v McGregor Press Conference

The Irishman had racheted up the mind games to a foreboding crescendo. He played on the inter-regional rivalry between the different ethnicities that populated the Caucasus. He unearthed politically fragile relationships best left in the dark and bared them to the world to scrutinize.

He accused Khabib's father - the Dagestani fighter's coach and bedrock - of treachery and cowardice. His vocal disdain towards Khabib - a devout Muslim - often bore an undercurrent of religious discrimination.

Conor had stooped to depths rarely encountered in MMA before, in an attempt to conquer. Winning the fight before the fight, sometimes at all costs, has always been a priority in his repertoire.

On the other hand Khabib, unwilling to cross tongues but unable to let the highly personal nature of the Irishman's attacks slide, determinedly clung on to his peace until the Octagon door closed behind them. And then, he stomped Conor McGregor into the ground.

If the night had ended on that note, everyone would have slept easy, cozied up against the notion that poetic justice does exist even in an unforgiving sport like MMA.

Only, fairytale endings are often times just that - fairytales.

The war had been won, and to the victor went the spoils. It was Khabib's moment to choose to do with it as he pleased - with millions watching on worldwide. A post fight lecture perhaps, about how ripping into a man's tradition, his family, his religion..his own damn father..were just too many chips to stack against the outcome of a fight, however big it may be.

A reminder perhaps, of the heightened importance of maintaining respect and humility in a sport that involves placing oneself in direct risk of having his mind, body and will broken by another man.

In a sport as brutal as MMA, those intangibles matter even more.

The stakes were already high as they were. Conor McGregor didn't need to crank them up another notch. But he did. And Khabib Nurmagomedov had to batten down the hatches and - in the eternal words of Morgan Freeman - 'crawl through a river of sh*t and come out clean on the other side'.

The victory at UFC 229 could have been a moment of vindication for him, a confirmation of the values and ideals that the sport of MMA espoused. It could have been a win for the good guys.

Instead, in a single moment that should have otherwise been the crowning glory of Khabib's reign, all the frustration that had been forcefully stowed away before the fight burst forth in a flash of untethered rage.

Khabib Nurmagomedov hurled himself at Conor McGregor's coaches in a frenzy and incited an all-out brawl.

By the time the police and security personnel present had come to grips with the situation and contained it - in the process arresting three of Khabib's teammates for their involvement in the brawl - Conor McGregor wasn't the only one left with a black eye.

It felt very much like the sport of MMA had suffered one too.

A fight that was billed throughout the promotional phase as the biggest in the UFC's history had somehow managed the impossible task of returning the fastest growing sport in the world to its dingy underground roots of anything-goes rules, in a mere matter of seconds.

It had taken the best part of 2 decades to legitimize MMA in the public's eye. Once branded as nothing more than 'human cockfighting' by politician John McCain, MMA often had to overcome political prejudice and boxing's vice grip over the combat sport space to continue to exist, often having to go to great lengths to assuage concerns in decision making circles that the sport can exist in a controlled environment.

Why, it was as recent as 2016 when the UFC was finally allowed to host its first event in New York after years of being banned in the state, and this was well into the glitzy $4-odd billion valuation era of the company.

After all of the strides that had been made and the dues that had been paid to advance its standing, the last thing that the sport needed was for an elected government official to flee the arena fearing for his safety. But that happened at UFC 229 too.

"The Governor [of Nevada] was here tonight. The Governor went running out of the building” said Dana White, after the event. “The Governor running out of the building isn’t good.", he repeated after a brief pause, almost like the full weight of his own statement took him a second to register.

"That’s not good. He’s [Khabib] in trouble."

When Khabib Nurmagomedov walked out to the post fight press conference, he was not a happy man despite putting on a performance of a lifetime. He wasn't happy with how much media attention his actions after the fight were receiving, with the Irishman's antics in the lead up to the fight conveniently brushed to the backseat. He certainly wasn't happy with how Conor McGregor had pushed him past the edge.

But most of all, he wasn't happy with his own momentary lapse of control.

Unlike McGregor - for whom the means always justify the ends - Khabib Nurmagomedov has always been a man of principle. A man who believes in the true spirit of MMA, who believes that a Champion should embody everything that is good about the sport.

Conor McGregor may have raised the profile of MMA well and truly into the global sphere, but Khabib Nurmagomedov is a man who believes that it should be coloured with the right tint, once there.

For him to then vault the Octagon cage and go berserk the way he did was highly uncharacteristic where the only feasible explanation lies in the realm of extreme human emotion - something that is not easy to handle when an out of control Irishman dishes out a vicious tongue lashing to everyone and everything you hold dear.

But even then, despite briefly attempting to defend his actions by comparing them to McGregor's far more heinous dolly-gate, Khabib essentially cut an apologetic figure.

'I want to say sorry to the Athletic Commission. Sorry to Vegas. Sorry to Nevada', he said in his matter of fact tone. 'I know this is not my best side. I'm a human being.'

The fact that Khabib Nurmagomedov knew that he'd slipped up - even after being dragged through a dark, twisted chasm by McGregor's mind games - spoke volumes about the man and his mettle.

In the entire lead up to UFC 229, he had one statement that he kept repeating like a broken record to every camera that popped up before his face - "On October 6th, I'm going to change this game".

It took him 4 rounds of dishing out a chastening beating, cranking his opponent's jaw till he had the will to continue squeezed out of him, a blazing moment of madness and a few words of contrite reflection.

But eventually, it got there.

And after all the dust had settled, as even the most ardent Conor McGregor fan would concede, a night that begun as the date of the Irishman's grand return to MMA had ended squarely on the stroke of Khabib time.

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