A.J. HOFFMAN

UFC 229 preview: McGregor-Khabib fight highlights stacked card

Connor McGregor is back. Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

Well, fight fans, we finally made it. October 6th is the day we have all been waiting for. UFC 229 has arrived, and marks the long awaited return of The Notorious Conor McGregor after a lengthy layoff, facing maybe his toughest opponent to date. Without further ado, let’s preview the card. 

The main event is for the lightweight title, a belt once held by (and still carried by) Conor McGregor (21-3). Khabib Nurmagomedov (26-0), however, is the rightful champion and intends on remaining on top of the 155 lb. world. The matchup is fascinating, as these two fighters are about as different as can be in every way. McGregor, of course, is a dynamic striker with serious knockout power. He moves incredibly well, and is difficult to hit. Nurmagomedov is a world class grappler, both in his ability to chain together takedowns and his ability to control on the ground once he has top position. Khabib has never lost a round in his MMA career. He has never been knocked down in his MMA career. The pressure, however, falls squarely on Khabib. A loss here would drop him down the ladder, and would likely exclude him from ever having a matchup of this caliber again. A win, however, launches him to superstardom, and forces the UFC to treat him (and pay him) as an A-side fighter. The odds of McGregor winning a decision are incredibly slim. If he is going to beat Nurmagomedov, he will need to land a big punch that stumbles or starches Khabib. Khabib will want to get the fight to the ground, and he has not failed to do so yet in his MMA career. Neither fighter has ever faced an opponent who presents such danger, which makes this fight a must watch. 

The co-main event features Tony Ferguson (23-3) taking on Anthony Pettis (21-7). Ferguson, who is on a 10-fight winning streak, feels he was the odd man out with the return of McGregor to the division. Ferguson was supposed to get his shot at Khabib at UFC 223, but a knee injury sidelined him until now. Pettis is a former champion who had lost his mojo, but may have rediscovered it in his submission win over Michael Chiesa. Ferguson, a rightful favorite, can not afford to take Pettis lightly. Pettis at his best is extremely dangerous, and Ferguson is likely next in line for a title shot if he survives here. 

A light heavyweight battle between Ovince St. Preux (23-11) and Dominick Reyes (9-0) is particularly intriguing. St. Preux lost “top prospect” status when he lost 4 out of 5 between August 2015 and February 2017. He has been on a tear since, winning 4 of his last 5. Reyes is a wrecking machine. Of his 9 fights, only one has been out of the first round. That said, what he can do when put into deep waters with a higher-level opponent. This fight should let us know what kind of a contender Reyes is, and will tell us if OSP is back in the 205 lb. mix.

Houston’s Derrick Lewis (20-5) will face Alexander Volkov (30-6) in a battle of top heavyweight contenders. Volkov, a former Bellator champion, has quickly worked his way up the UFC ladder. A finish of former champion Fabricio Werdum solidified him as a title contender. Lewis, who at one point had retired from the sport, came back to score a win over Francis Ngannou in a confusing and ugly fight. Lewis claimed that he hurt his back early in the fight, and has now flared up in multiple fights. It remains a concern going forward. Volkov is unlikely to try to wrestle Lewis to avoid a standup battle, so this fight should make for some legit fireworks. 

The prelims feature Sergio Pettis, Jussier da Silva, Vicente Luque, Scott Holtzman, and a battle of veterans between Gray Maynard and Nik Lentz. 

Enjoy the fights! 

PREDICTIONS:

Nurmagomedov by TKO

Ferguson by DEC

Saint Preux by TKO

Lewis by TKO

Waterson by DEC

Da Silva by DEC

Luque by KO

Evinger by DEC

Alves by DEC

Kunitskaya by DEC

Lentz by DEC

LaFlare by DEC

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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