MMA Fantasy: What if Islam Makhachev had fought Conor McGregor instead of Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229 in 2018?

How would Islam Makhachev (right) have fared against Conor McGregor (left) had they fought at UFC 229? [Image Courtesy: @UFC_CA via X/Twitter and @ufc via X/Twitter]

Back in 2018, Islam Makhachev was working his way up the UFC lightweight rankings. Meanwhile, his compatriot and mentor Khabib Nurmagomedov made his first successful 155-pound title defense against a returning Conor McGregor, beating him at UFC 229, the most successful pay-per-view in MMA history.

'The Eagle' authored a dominant performance, knocking McGregor down in round two, while outwrestling him for most of the bout en route to a fourth-round submission. However, what if, in an alternate timeline, it had been Makhachev who was defending his title against McGregor at UFC 229.

How would that bout have turned out? Furthermore, what would have become of Nurmagomedov in this scenario, where he is taking a backseat to his childhood friend?

Islam Makhachev vs. Conor McGregor and its implications

Much like Khabib Nurmagomedov did, there is a high likelihood that Islam Makhachev would have also beaten Conor McGregor at UFC 229 for various reasons. While the Dagestanis are only superficially similar, Makhachev poses enough strategic problems to trouble McGregor greatly.

First, he is far less reckless on the feet, often operating as a counter-striker with a kick-heavy approach. As he neither overextends nor throws strikes at a high volume, he would have deprived McGregor of ample counterpunching opportunities, as the Irishman is also a counter-striker.

Against usual opponents, not doing enough against McGregor can be a death sentence, as Eddie Alvarez found out. However, the threat of high-level takedowns and grappling would have kept McGregor hesitant to apply the same kind of forward pressure he usually does.

Moreover, Makhachev is a far more disciplined takedown artist than Nurmagomedov, who will shoot with no setups and from a considerable distance, relying on his speed and explosive to secure a low ankle-grip he then converts into a single-leg takedown.

With the exception of Makhachev getting caught, he would have likely outwrestled and submitted McGregor, who had two years of cage-rust, an injured foot, and as he often claims, suboptimal conditioning. Makhachev would have enjoyed the rub that Nurmagomedov did, becoming one of the sport's biggest stars.

Makhachev would have gone on to face the likes of Justin Gaethje and Dustin Poirier, likely beating both. However, he would not have retired following the death of Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, instead continuing under the guidance of the latter's son, who would have still transitioned into a coaching role.

Before that though, Nurmagomedov would have likely had to move to welterweight in pursuit of UFC gold, as if he would have never fought Makhachev, and being three years older, could not afford to wait for Makhachev to relinquish the belt in pursuit of other triumphs.

Whether Nurmagomedov would have become the welterweight champion is another question entirely, though it is possible that fans would have instead seen him lose for the first time, especially if he took on Kamaru Usman. Back at lightweight, the crop of title contenders would have all lost to Makhachev.

While Michael Chandler can, on paper, trouble anyone, his fight IQ and cardio are lacking, and an exhausted Chandler would be a sitting duck in front of Makhahev, whose sniping counter-shots would have found a home on Chandler's chin given how often 'Iron' overextends.

Charles Oliveira, meanwhile, has already lost to the Dagestani in decisive fashion in the real world, and there is no reason to believe the outcome would be any different against a more seasoned Makhachev with higher-level experience.

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