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‘The Notorious’ will challenge for the lightweight championship at UFC 229 on Saturday in Las Vegas.

Conor-Khabib: Will McGregor win his UFC return against unbeaten champ?

Conor McGregor has not competed in the UFC

Conor McGregor has not competed in the UFC since November 2016. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Isaac Brekken

Two years is a long time to be away from the octagon, but certainly nobody has forgotten Conor McGregor.

If anything, the biggest star in combat sports has seen his profile grow since he last competed for the UFC — Nov. 12, 2016, the night he became the promotion’s first simultaneous two-division champ with a knockout victory at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. A money-printing boxing match against Floyd Mayweather Jr. last August only enhanced his marketability.

And yet, the bankable star with the new clothing line and brand of whiskey will be all on his own Saturday in Las Vegas at UFC 229 when he steps into the cage against unbeaten lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, who captured McGregor’s vacated title in April with a unanimous decision at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

McGregor (21-3) and Nurmagomedov (26-0) have bad blood that traces back a ways and peaked during the infamous Barclays bus attack a few days before Nurmagomedov’s coronation. In retaliation for a hotel confrontation between Nurmagomedov and McGregor training partner Artem Lobov, the Irishman and some of his crew attempted to goad his Russian rival out of a fighters-only bus in the underbelly of the arena. The low point, captured on various viral videos, saw McGregor toss a dolly at the bus and injure two of the fighters set to compete that weekend.

McGregor eventually pleaded no contest to disorderly conduct, clearing the way for a potentially record-breaking pay-per-view showdown. The UFC hasn’t shied away from using the criminal incident as part of its hype machine, either.

Once the cage door locks, though, “The Notorious” attraction will undoubtedly face the stiffest test of his career. Known better by his more succinct first name, Khabib is a mauling wrestler who actually wrestled a bear cub as a child in the Russian republic of Dagestan. Most of McGregor’s previous top opponents were noted strikers or more balanced competitors. “The Eagle” seeks only to rag-doll his foes to the ground and “smash” — his word — with ground-and-pound.

That game plan is the perfect counter to McGregor, a gifted striker with a heavy left hand whose weakest facet is fighting off his back. Although his takedown defense has come a long way over the years, Khabib’s MMA wrestling is both rough and relentless. He has bullied several top 155-pounders, leaving them battered. He has yet to lose a round in 10 UFC contests.

That’s not to say McGregor can’t get the job done. Time and again, he has proved his doubters wrong. Nurmagomedov isn’t known for his one-punch power, but Conor’s list of KO victims — respected champions Jose Aldo and Eddie Alvarez — speaks for itself.

However, his fight-ending power may have a timer. He clearly lost steam in several previous fights, including losses to Nate Diaz and in his boxing one-off against Mayweather. Even in his decision victory over Diaz in their rematch, McGregor appeared to lose zip on his punches even as he rallied later in the fight.

Assuming Khabib makes weight — no sure thing given his history — the lifelong grappler can apply his strategy for all five 5-minute rounds. As Kyle Reese said of the T-800 in “The Terminator,” “It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

OK, nobody is going to die in the octagon — it’s never happened in the UFC. But odds are strong that McGregor won’t have a large window to stop Khabib cold before absorbing an extended beating on the mat. There’s no counting out the gregarious Irishman, but count on Nurmagomedov putting him through a world of hurt before the referee must waive it off in Rounds 3 or 4.

Scott’s prediction

Nurmagomedov by TKO

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