Saturday, July 20, 2024

UFC in 2018: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor tops list of most memorable moments and biggest events

It was only five years ago, yet the sport of mixed martial arts changes so rapidly that 2018 in the UFC feels like a full generation ago.

Of the 28 fighters who fought for interim or undisputed titles that year, only half are still active in the Octagon. And only one of those fighters — heavyweight champion Jon Jones — is still in possession of UFC gold (and Jones sat out for three of those five years before capturing a belt in a new division). 

The calendar year of 2018 was a big one for UFC as the promotion celebrated its 25th anniversary and produced the biggest pay-per-view event in the sport’s history. It was also a major bounce back following the hangover of 2017 when stars like Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey and Brock Lesnar exited the spotlight in the first full calendar year under new ownership following Endeavor’s purchase for just over $4 billion from Zuffa in July 2016.

Let’s take a closer look back at the five biggest events and most memorable moments from 2018 for the UFC and why they still resonate today. 

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1. UFC 229: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor 

Date: Oct. 6 | Location: Las Vegas

At 2.4 million PPV buys and a Las Vegas record live gate of $17.2 million, this grudge match — which spilled over into a post-fight brawl both inside and out of the cage — produced the biggest night in the sport’s 30-year history. McGregor, who had sat out all of 2017 to pursue a life-changing boxing event against Floyd Mayweather, had never lost his UFC lightweight title inside the cage. Nurmagomedov, the champion who succeeded him, had never lost in 26 pro fights (and would retire unbeaten in 2020). The build to the fight even surpassed the Jones-Daniel Cormier rivalry as the nastiest in UFC title history, which helped explain the melee between both teams immediately after Nurmagomedov submitted McGregor via neck crank in Round 4. The two fighters will forever be linked to one another and the entire card, as a whole, delivered big thanks to a dramatic comeback knockout in the closing seconds from Derrick Lewis against Alexander Volkov and a bloody war between Tony Ferguson and Anthony Pettis.

2. UFC 226: Daniel Cormier vs. Stipe Miocic I 

Date: July 7 | Location: Las Vegas

The first meeting of this epic heavyweight title trilogy produced the lone victory from Cormier, but boy was it a memorable moment. Cormier, the reigning 205-pound champion, joined McGregor as the only simultaneous two-division champions (Amanda Nunes and Henry Cejudo would follow) and did so in stunning fashion with a first-round knockout thanks to a single right hand. Cormier may have come up empty in two fights against Jones but beating him to champ-champ status was seen as DC’s only shot at achieving MMA immortality without actually defeating his career rival. Sure, Cormier benefitted from an early eye poke that bothered Miocic, but the knockout was perfectly set up by some keen tape analysis as Cormier’s team picked up on his opponents tendency to back up out of clinches with his hands down. This International Fight Week event even survived a disastrous co-main event between Derrick Lewis and Francis Ngannou as Cormier sent fans home happy in the biggest moment of his Hall of Fame career. 

3. UFC 223: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Al Iaquinta

Date: April 7 | Location: Brooklyn, New York

It might feel odd to separate this event from the above entry for UFC 229, considering this infamous week at the Barclays Center would fuel the Nurmagomedov-McGregor rivalry in such an inflammatory way. But the card felt cursed from the beginning and became a week-long reality show in ways that went beyond McGregor’s surprise arrival from Europe to avenge teammate Artem Lobov being slapped by Nurmagomedov on camera earlier in the week. But let’s be honest: you can’t say UFC 223 without immediately thinking of McGregor attacking a bus, which included Nurmagomedov, by slamming a dolly against the windows in the bowels of the arena. McGregor was arrested for his actions, which pulled two fighters from the card (and led to three fights being canceled altogether) and nearly cost the promotion the co-main event due to the stress it caused women’s strawweight champion Rose Namajunas. But let’s not forget all of the non-McGregor drama that nearly stole the headlines all week. 

Nurmagomedov was scheduled to face Tony Ferguson for the vacant 155-pound title stripped from McGregor in a fight that would ultimately fall apart five separate times and never take place. Ferguson pulled out six days prior when he tripped on a cord inside a television studio and suffered a serious knee injury. Max Holloway signed on to replace him during fight week and new posters were printed until the reigning featherweight king was mysteriously pulled from the fight when he was deemed medically unfit. A mad scramble took place over the final 48 hours as multiple new opponents were considered, including Pettis, until Iaquinta stepped up. He would go on to lose a wide unanimous decision despite rallying in the final rounds as Nurmagomedov looked uncharacteristically fatigued. But the card still came off despite the many obstacles and the co-main ultimately delivered big as Namajunas edged rival Joanna Jedrzejczyk in their title rematch.

4. UFC Fight Night: Yair Rodriguez vs. Chan Sung Jung 

Date: Nov. 10 | Location: Denver

Nearly 25 years to the day of the first UFC event, the promotion returned to Denver for an anniversary show that aired on cable TV and didn’t quite live up to the expectations, at least on paper, of such a historic anniversary. Luckily for fans, the main event was one few will ever forget as the pair of featherweight contenders and action stars put on a memorable duel for nearly 25 minutes which ended in, quite possibly, the most dramatic way possible. With 10 seconds to go, the two fighters raised their arms in the center of the Octagon and touched gloves out of respect before each committed to a final flurry of action. Rodriguez, who was trailing on the scorecards, ducked a left hand from “The Korean Zombie” by bending forward at the waist. Then, as he began to rise upright, Rodriguez unleashed a desperation reverse elbow that caught Jung flush and knocked him out cold with just one second remaining in the five-round fight. The unfathomable finish was the perfect reminder of just how unpredictable and chaotic the sport truly still is, regardless of how much it has evolved over a quarter-century.

5. UFC on Fox: Dustin Poirier vs. Justin Gaethje I

Date: April 14 | Location: Glendale, Arizona

The lightweight division has produced so many incredible action fights over the past decade featuring some of the most exciting fighters in the sport’s history. But if forced to pick a favorite from so many interchangeable firefights between common opponents, this nationally televised headliner might be the best of them all. Gaethje, who had made his UFC debut the previous year after a title run in World Series of Fighting, had already produced a pair of all-time great brawls against Michael Johnson and Eddie Alvarez. The fact that he was knocked out by Alvarez via third-round knee five months earlier, didn’t slow down the expectations that he and Poirier could produce more of the same. And boy did they. Poirier walked through hell to stay upright against Gaethje, who just wouldn’t quit despite eating more damage than he was delivering. But Poirier simply wouldn’t be denied on this night as overcame repeated eye pokes to stop “The Highlight” in Round 4 of an instant classic. The fact that Poirier would deliver once again just three months later, besting Alvarez via second-round TKO in their rematch — in a fight that headlined a second Fox card — only speaks to how crazy this division was at the time and how memorable 2018 truly was. 

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