mma / Columns

Khabib vs. Ferguson – A Lightweight Clash for the Ages

February 27, 2017 | Posted by Dan Plunkett

There have been more supposed truths upended at the top of the lightweight division than perhaps any other in recent years.

BJ Penn was the unquestioned and unchallenged king, but in two fights a surprising contender surged past him (with shocking ease the second time).

The usurper, Frankie Edgar, was too small for the division and figured to have a short reign, but rallied twice against Gray Maynard to keep his crown, only to fall in successive close fights to Benson Henderson.

When Anthony Pettis stopped Henderson and Gilbert Melendez in consecutive fights, it appeared the division had found its dominant champion. The dynamic Pettis had the speed and precision to make a finish just a blink away.

Then 4-to-1 underdog Rafael dos Anjos beat Pettis from pillar to post, crushing the Pettis era before it began. After a devastating title defense against Donald Cerrone, it appeared dos Anjos had one peer: Khabib Nurmagomedov, the unbeaten fighter that had soundly defeated the Brazilian the year before he took the title. Naturally, dos Anjos fell in his next fight to big underdog Eddie Alvarez. Then in his next fight, Tony Ferguson beat dos Anjos decisively and sent the once fearsome lightweight champion up to welterweight.

Of course, Alvarez went down in his first defense. Featherweight champion Conor McGregor took the title in one of the most dominant performances in UFC championship history, repeatedly knocking down the game champion before stopping him in round two.

Now three fighters sit atop the rest at lightweight, all with a legitimate claim at being the world’s best, and each posing interesting threats to the other.

On Saturday, two of them will meet in a five-round bout for the interim featherweight title as McGregor watches from the sidelines. Although the belt isn’t quite the real thing, there’s nothing phony about the fight; Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson is one of the finest title match-ups the UFC has ever promoted.

Khabib Nurmagomedov carries a perfect 24-0 record into Saturday’s bout, the longest winning streak ever put to the test in a UFC championship match. He entered the promotion in 2012 at 16-0, and decisively topped tough fighters Kamal Shalorus and Gleison Tibau in his first two fights in the promotion. His third fight in the promotion, a first round shellacking of Thiago Tavares, forced everyone to take notice of the rising lightweight. Then he dominated Abel Trujillo and Pat Healy before routing Rafael dos Anjos.

After two years away due to injuries, Nurmagomedov returned to dominate overmatched late replacement Darrell Horcher and then submit Michael Johnson in 2016.

The stats of Nurmagomedov’s dominance are reminiscent of some of the very best fighters of all-time. He isn’t just unbeaten, he has never lost a single round on any single judge’s scorecard in UFC competition. Nurmagomedov has unanimously won all 17 rounds he has completed in UFC competition. Welterweight great Georges St-Pierre famously won 33 consecutive rounds on all judges’ scorecards from 2007-2011, largely due to a wrestling and top game that stifled opponents. Nurmagomedov also relies on his wrestling, but his takedown game is superior to even St-Pierre’s, and his top game of late has been markedly more dangerous than St-Pierre’s during his best run.

Nurmagomedov is a scary fighter, but Tony Ferguson has shown continued evolution as a fighter, from another gritty ex-collegiate wrestler to out-striking dos Anjos. Although he doesn’t do any one thing as exceptionally well as Nurmagomedov does grapple, Ferguson is the more well-rounded fighter.

Ferguson’s ascent to the elite was noticeably quiet. He won The Ultimate Fighter at a new low for the show’s relevance and defeated reputed veterans Aaron Riley and Yves Edwards in his earliest UFC bouts. A decision loss to fellow Ultimate Fighter alum Michael Johnson in 2012 set the two veering on different paths. Johnson headed into fights with the bigger names in the division, while Ferguson took a step back. He stopped Mike Rio and Katsunori Kikuno before narrowly escaping with a split decision against Danny Castillo in August 2014. Then he went on a tear.

Ferguson stopped Abel Trujillo and Gleison Tibau before routing perennial top lightweight Josh Thomson. He submitted Edson Barboza with a D’Arce choke, and then weathered a groovy storm to stop Lando Vannata with the same technique. His next fight, the win over dos Anjos, proved he is among the division’s elite.

There has never been a better time for Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson, which makes it somewhat fortunate that fate kept them apart when they had been matched in the past. The first time UFC tried to make the fight was in December 2015, but Nurmagomedov withdrew two months before the fight. Their rivalry heated, and UFC rescheduled the fight for a main event on Fox the following April. That time, Ferguson withdrew shortly before the fight due to injury.

After 33 consecutive wins and two false starts, Nurmagomedov and Ferguson meet with high stakes on Saturday. The winner will get a gold belt and a #2 ranking, but their claim to the top spot in the division will be at least as strong as McGregor’s. Fortunately, that claim isn’t likely to go unchallenged.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.