When Conor McGregor marks his return to the Octagon in Las Vegas on October 6th with UFC 229, he’ll be coming up against arguably his toughest opponent yet.

The undefeated lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov – an old friend of the Irishman – will test him every step of the way. Let’s examine what separates the Russian Eagle from the rest.

Whether through injury or weight issues, it’s been a long road to the top for the Russian destroyer. In beating some of the best fighters in MMA – including Al Iaquinta, Rafael dos Anjos and Michael Johnson – Khabib has solidified his reputation as one of the outright toughest participants – both physically and mentally – currently in the sport, which is perhaps why he is the favourite in Khabib vs McGregor odds at 4/7.

You only have to watch a handful of fights to clearly see Khabib’s ace, his wrestling and grappling abilities have been honed to a fine art through a lifetime of Sambo, Judo and freestyle wrestling training. Against the wall and on the ground, Khabib will dominate even the best opponents like no other.

If his opponent allows him to enact his game-plan, his sheer physicality has consistently proven too much for anyone else in the Lightweight division.

Such is his virtuosity in this area, he has a number of systems for his grappling game that can be deployed depending on who he is facing.

Against most, he is a master of tying his opponent up against the wall, timing a double leg, ducking under and forcing the hips down for a takedown slam.

Even against fighters who won’t allow him the time for a double-leg takedown – and McGregor will likely fall into that category – Khabib has consistently been able to dive for a single-leg takedown.

Once on the mat, Khabib’s sheer physical dominance comes into play. With his opponent subdued thanks to excellent use of triangling the legs, Khabib has no time for quick, light punches and instead brings hard-hitting, punishing attacks that will frequently finish off most fighters. He is a powerhouse on the ground and if/when he gets someone there, chances are their fight is reaching its finish.

In a sense, his grappling strengths are so apparent that one would suggest his opponents must be able to prepare for what he brings.

It is his mental fortitude, however, that allows Khabib to ruthlessly impose his game regardless.

Even against experienced opposition, such as Edson Barboza, Khabib patiently and diligently stuck to his game-plan without allowing any deviance. Predictably, Barboza ultimately ended up precisely where Khabib needed him, with his back against the fence and caught in the trap.

Developed through years of perseverance in the harsh environs of his homeland of Dagestan, the Russian has a mental resiliency that means he cuts through the bravado and mind-games around the sport. His opponents may know his tactics, but his ice-cold exterior means they will be followed through regardless.

This is a man who wrestled a bear as a child, after all.

There may be no greater test for this internal fortitude than against the walking controversy of McGregor.

Known to be friends only a couple of years ago, there is now a palpable animosity between the two, something pushed to extremes with McGregor’s attack on Khabib’s bus following UFC 223 in April.

With the McGregor mind games already beginning on social media, the test of that resolute mentality of the Russian will be pushed to its limits.

Inside the Octagon, too, Khabib is coming up against someone who will force him to draw upon a weaker aspect of his game: his striking and stand up.

It’s an area he’s never looked entirely comfortable with – despite a surprisingly competent showing against Iaquinta – and should the Russian allow McGregor the time to stand longer than necessary, it’s playing into his opponent’s hands. Michael Johnson showed in UFC 205 that Khabib can be fazed if he’s forced into a boxing scrap – something that McGregor is going to very much rely on.

If he plays to his strengths – his ability to force opponents onto the floor through tactical resilience – then Khabib may provide an unwelcome return for the Irishman.

It’s an immovable object up against an unstoppable force. Opposites colliding as the sport’s greatest wrestler faces up against its greatest boxer.

The question now is: who will be able to assert their own game?

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