Ruddy UFC czar Dana White did not need to formally announce that he’d never book another fight between Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov again for MMA fans to come to terms with the idea of never seeing the UFC lightweight division’s two best and most interesting fighters ever actually meet in the octagon. The UFC has booked the fight four times, and it has been derailed by increasingly nonsensical acts of God each time.
A December 2015 scrap was scuttled when Nurmagomedov picked up a rib injury in training. The fight was booked again for April 2016, but Ferguson was forced out a week before it was set to take place after doctors found fluid in his lungs. The two were then scheduled to fight for the interim lightweight belt last March, and for once, both fighters made it to fight week without hurting themselves, only for Nurmagomedov to disappear and end up in the hospital after his body shut down following a nasty weight cut. This coming weekend marked the fourth time the two were supposed to meet, this time for Conor McGregor’s somewhat vacant lightweight title belt. However, Ferguson tripped and tore his knee, so the fight’s off. Somehow it was not an April Fool’s joke. God must not want you to see the UFC’s most ruthless pressure fighter step to a crafty jiu-jitsu weirdo.
The UFC, which obviously had to have anticipated divine intervention, had a backup plan, and it’s nearly as compelling as the original main event, if much stranger. Featherweight king Max Holloway will fight Khabib this weekend for the lightweight title, and if he wins, he’ll become the UFC’s fifth two-division champion and second simultaneous double belt holder (and, incidentally, a far more legitimate double champ than a certain Irishman).
Holloway has never fought at 155 pounds—though he’s a big featherweight who’s talked recently about how he’ll probably need to move up at some point in his career—and of all his possible opponents in the lightweight division, the undefeated Nurmagomedov is almost certainly the most fearsome one for Holloway to make his debut against. Not only is he one of the bulkier lightweights in the division, he’s arguably also its best wrestler. Simply put, Nurmagomedov breaks people. Consider his December fight against Edson Barboza, where he spent 15 minutes picking apart the feared Brazilian striker with ease. Like Holloway, Barboza can do cool kicks and keep opponents at range with his long arms, but Nurmagomedov was not bothered as he ran at Barboza’s face and ground him into hamburger meat when he got him down.
That pressure you see above is what defines Nurmagomedov’s approach and it’s what makes him so difficult to tag. Unlike many fighters, Nurmagomedov doesn’t score most of his takedowns by switching levels and taking out his opponent’s legs. He gets right in your face and prevents you from striking him, before beginning the process of slowly extinguishing your chances to recover. Nobody in the UFC wrestles as fluidly as Nurmagomedov does. He is as comfortable going for submissions as he is with the ground-and-pound approach. He will grab a single wrist and leverage that control point into a full-blown takedown. He is strong and savvy enough to work out of different mount positions and generate unforeseen force. It’s less sexy and easily visible than a striker throwing perfect precision combinations, but Khabib’s wrestling is versatile and devastating in a similar way.
Holloway is a fantastic 145-pound champion who hasn’t lost since dropping an August 2013 decision to Conor McGregor, but Nurmagomedov’s got to be feeling pretty confident since he’s fighting a lighter opponent who didn’t have a fight camp instead of an unorthodox grappling star like Ferguson. Chael Sonnen’s breakdown of Nurmagomedov’s win against Barboza gets at what sets the Dagestani apart, and also lays out how to beat him (smash his chin and keep him off your chest). Holloway is a fantastic striker who works from a wide variety of angles and approaches, but to beat Khabib, he’ll need to be near-flawless while also somehow keeping him from ever getting in his face. Even if he were perfectly prepared, that would be tough sledding.
The flipside of the calculation, though, is that Holloway has much more to gain than he has to lose. If he gets annihilated by Nurmagomedov, as many expect he will be, that’s fine: He still has the featherweight title belt and no one would think less of him for taking a loss against a genuine force of nature on zero notice. He will remain one of the UFC’s most charismatic and likable champions, whatever happens. But if Holloway beats the UFC’s most feared man, he can become a legend. Holding the featherweight and lightweight championships would also likely guarantee Holloway the hefty payday that comes with being the opponent when former professional boxer Conor McGregor eventually makes his return to the UFC. As he told a reporter from Honolulu, “How do you turn down an opportunity like this? Opportunities like this come once in a lifetime and there was really only one guy was able to do it. I’m glad to be the second guy and I’m going to go out there and make history.”
What’s clear is that Nate Diaz is correct, as usual:
Update (6:05 p.m. ET): Here’s Ferguson’s account of the fateful trip.