Conor McGregor’s 693-day exile from the UFC will come to an end when he steps into the octagon on Saturday night exclusively live on BT Sport.
From retirement and Floyd Mayweather to bus attacks and whiskey endorsements, McGregor’s absence has typified the erratic nature of the revered Irishman.
The former two-weight UFC champion has vowed to "show who the king is" on his return – but he must usurp unbeaten Russian Khabib Nurmagomedov to reclaim the lightweight throne.
Hailing from the disputed Russian region of Dagestan, Nurmagomedov – joint-holder of the longest undefeated streak in MMA – possesses the style to turn McGregor’s comeback into his worst nightmare.
UFC analyst Dan Hardy broke down ‘The Eagle’s’ approach on BT Sport’s Inside the Octagon.
“[Khabib] gets the takedown, he drags the opponent down and sits them on the floor," said Hardy.
“Then he binds the legs, like we saw against [Edson] Barboza. It’s horrendously uncomfortable to be caught in this position because you’ve got two options.
“You can escape the position and get your knees free or you can protect your face. You can’t do both. You can’t have your cake and eat it. Do you want your face or do you want your position? That’s really what the situation is.
“He puts people in this difficult position where they have to make the decision, he starts to land the shots, and as soon as they start to focus on escaping, he goes back to striking.
“[The opponents] arms are taken up, so he goes back to hitting you in the face. So then they start defending and he progresses his position.
“It’s that constant creeping. It’s like a shield wall. It’s like the Greek Hoplites. He’s just going to march you down and trample over you.
“And that’s everything that he does – taking chunks out of your game.”
The clash, which has been dubbed the ‘biggest in history’ by UFC supremo Dana White, pits two contrasting styles against each other – the striker against the grappler.
The acknowledged school of thought suggests that for McGregor to emerge victorious, he must catch Khabib with his left hand – the lethal punch which has secured his greatest victories.
Conventional wisdom says that for Khabib to win, he must avoid McGregor’s devastating left in the early stages and grind the ‘Notorious’ down by looking for the takedown and forcing the submission or stoppage on the floor.
McGregor must rely on sharp reflexes to slip and counter Khabib’s takedowns, but his last UFC fight was in November 2016 against Eddie Alvarez.
Octagon inactivity could play a pivotal role against a style as oppressive as Khabib’s.
Nurmagomedov has landed 49 takedowns over his ten career UFC fights, including a record 21 in a single bout against Abel Trujillo at UFC 160 in 2013. Remarkably, he is yet to even lose a round.
The Dagestani’s front-foot approach could prove too unrelenting for McGregor given his tendency to fatigue – most notably in the first bout against Nate Diaz, when he was submitted.
He also tired in the championship rounds against Mayweather in the boxing ring, succumbing to a tenth-round TKO after a promising start.
Khabib has won by judges’ decision on six occasions in the UFC and will be in his comfort zone if he takes McGregor into deep waters.
His amateur schooling, which included sambo, grappling and army hand-to-hand combat training, laid the foundation for his professional success.
He is a two-time Combat Sambo world champion, a freestyle wrestler and a judo black belt.
For McGregor, he must utilise his superior boxing ability and footwork to trouble Khabib, as Hardy explained.
“With the amount of years I’ve been watching this sport, I can’t think of another fighter in mixed martial arts that has an understanding of range like Conor McGregor," he said.
“[Conor] tests the guard. You can see his intentions immediately. He tests the guard then he keeps dropping back on to his back foot. That is the preparation for that forward momentum [from his opponent].
“He did the same thing against Alvarez, he did the same thing against Dennis Siver. I feel like he’s going to do the same thing against Khabib because it makes sense when someone is moving forward.
“If you’ve got someone as aggressive and reckless as Khabib, you’ve got to think Conor is seeing that window of opportunity.”
For McGregor to overcome Khabib, he’ll have to land a Hollywood left hand – but a redemption story that sweet may be better suited to the silver screen.
What is for certain is that the Dagestani grappling master possesses the capability to ensure McGregor’s long-awaited return to the octagon becomes his worst nightmare.