At 27-0, the most impressive record in the game is in his hands but with a massive target now on his back, who exactly has the best shot at defeating Khabib Nurmagomedov?
If you weren’t a believer before, surely his dominant win over Conor McGregor last weekend was enough to make this guy’s talent undeniable.
Khabib is more-than-deserving of his status as the world’s pound-for-pound number two but with UFC 229 behind him, he now has the game’s biggest target on his back and from here on out, the tests will come thick and fast.
With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at each of his potential rivals and how likely they could be to finally be the one to steal away the ‘0’ in his record.
Where he could win it? Pace, pressure and cardio are, of course, Tony’s best friends in this matchup but I think that his incredibly creative work off of his back could be the difference. If the fight goes deep into the championship rounds, I wouldn’t be surprised if El Cucuy can tire the Eagle sufficiently to turn the tide of the bout in his favour. This isn’t to say that I would back him to submit his opponent or anything but his ability to confidently fight from his back could be crucial.
Where he may lose it? We’ve seen Tony controlled on the ground by a fresh Kevin Lee (before his staph-infection endurance issues kicked in) and we’ve also seen him dropped on numerous occasions. The pressure he would no doubt opt to put on the Russian may leave him open for a lightning-quick overhand – something that, of course, is open for Khabib because of the threat of the takedown.
Likelihood: The creativity and endurance of Ferguson make him a better shot than most on this list. His ability to weather a storm may see him score a late stoppage against a tired Nurmagomedov, who isn’t exactly known for his ability to finish early. 7.5/10
Where he could win it? On the feet, he has a great chance of connecting and even on the ground his guard can be dangerous. He has shown a phenomenal chin in the past and while he wouldn’t be the most convincing pick on this list, he certainly has an x-factor that most would kill for.
Where he may lose it? It’s well-known that the blueprint to beating Pettis involves pressure and wrestling. Well, Khabib does both of those things better than anyone else and to be honest, I don’t see Anthony tapping his man with any of his slick submissions – especially if he is losing the fight.
Likelihood: Pettis has that one-shot KO ability, don’t get me wrong. But unless he pulls something magical out of the bag, I see this one looking a lot like Khabib’s victory over Edson Barboza. 3/10
Georges St-Pierre (at 170lbs)
Where he could win it? Perhaps the most complete fighter Khabib could face, GSP would certainly bring a striking and size advantage into this one, but not by as great a margin as many would assume. The takedown defence could be the difference between these two and St-Pierre tremendous fight IQ and experience could make him a nightmare.
Where he may lose it? It’s hard to know. Georges doesn’t exactly have any weak spots and we don’t know how well Khabib’s takedowns will work on a man who has outwrestled some of the greatest grapplers the welterweight division has ever known.
Likelihood: St-Pierre is a very likely pick against Nurmagomedov. On the feet, he would offer the more technical output and he’s just so talented on the mat that it’d be hard to see him on the receiving end of a patented Khabib-beatdown. 8.5/10
Where he could win it? Another whose pace, volume and cardio could prove crucial in the later rounds. Holloway is an incredibly intelligent fighter who we have watched blossom before our eyes over the years. He always seems to rise to the level of his opponents so a super-fight with the 155lb champion would no doubt be a fantastic spectacle.
Where he may lose it? I think his size would be huge problem and with a fighter like Khabib, his lack of one-punch power may see him become the pressured fighter early. I just haven’t seen Holloway display skills off of his back necessary to make me believe that he is the type of fighter who could ward off a mauling.
Likelihood: Styles make fights and size should never be underestimated, especially with a powerhouse like Nurmagomedov. I could Holloway getting beaten badly in this one. 3.5/10
Where he could win it? I realise we literally just watched this one take place but make no mistake, Conor can beat Khabib. If he were to take a fight or two to slip back into his rhythm it would certainly help his accuracy and timing. Overall, he has a better shot than most on this list because of one simple tool, that left-hand.
Where he may lose it? Well, we know exactly where he can and did lose it. Anyone could have told you that McGregor’s cardio and skills off of his back would be an issue against Nurmagomedov but the very real and present danger of the takedown seemed to blunt Conor’s striking so much that Khabib was able to tag him hard in the second.
Likelihood: No matter what, an x-factor of some sort is essential in beating Khabib and where the likes of Max Holloway might not have the right one, Conor absolutely does. 5.5/10
Where he could win it? Lee could well be the dark horse on this list. As one of the most athletic specimens in the 155lb division, he’d certainly be able to match the size Nurmagomedov would bring to the table. His 77-inch reach and genuine speed and power could certainly see him cause problems and with his background in wrestling, who knows how things would play out.
Where he may lose it? Do I see Lee stopping Khabib’s takedowns? No. As much as he was able to match the champ’s brutal beatdown of Edson Barboza with his own showing, it’s one thing being the hammer and another thing being the nail and I could see Kevin’s cardio being a factor as the fight goes deeper. He carries a lot of muscle for the division and that brings its own drawbacks.
Likelihood: Lee could certainly get the job done, but I can’t imagine that Nurmagomedov will be in there with him for 25 minutes without testing either his cardio or his chin and only one needs to break for this to get ugly. 6/10
Where he could win it? Another dark horse in this race, Ortega’s submissions are the x-factor to end all x-factors. He has shown incredible heart and endurance and while he plies his trade at 145lbs, he carries a thick enough frame to make him a decently sized lightweight.
Where he may lose it? The huge problem with ‘T-City’ is the exact thing that makes him such an outlier. He almost always manages to pull a victory out of the bag when he is behind in the fight. Even against the likes of Frankie Edgar and Cub Swanson, it didn’t exactly look as though he was about to do what he did when he eventually did it. His killer instinct is among the best in the game but if Nurmagomedov can tie him up, he’s not one to offer much in the way of openings to capitalize on.
Likelihood: Brian Ortega has that special something, that necessary ingredient that has seen him maintain his own unbeaten record against all odds and in the face of some serious adversity. He has one helluva hail-mary in his locker and to be honest, it’s probably the only thing he can trouble Khabib with. 5/10
Tyron Woodley (at 170lbs)
Where he could win it? Power, speed, defensive-wrestling and some insane fight-IQ, if anyone is going to do it, in my book it’s Tyron Woodley. The welterweight champion of the world is one of the very best in the game – a man who is able to gauge his opponents and adapt mid-fight to meet even the toughest of matchups. We saw the former middleweight Demian Maia fail on every single takedown attempt at UFC 214 and I think his power could be a real difference against Khabib.
Where he may lose it? If Khabib gets him down and can somehow control him, his gas-tank may become an issue in the later rounds. Apart from that, I really don’t see a clearcut route to victory for the lightweight champion against Woodley.
Likelihood: Woodley’s athleticism translates perfectly into his fantastic takedown defense and lightning-quick right hand and to be honest, even if Nurmagomedov can get him down, it’s hard to imagine the huge welterweight being held against his will. 9/10
Where he could win it? Poirier has a solid, well-rounded skill-set and has looked better and better each and every time we’ve seen him in action. He puts a pace on his opponents that could prove to be decisive if the fight goes into those championship rounds. He holds underrated power in his slick hands and on the feet, he could certainly impose his will on Nurmagomedov if he can avoid his takedowns.
Where he may lose it? It’s not that there are a number of concrete reasons why Dustin can’t win this fight – although there are a few – but instead, I just think Khabib’s skillset is on a different level to his. His ability to bring it all together is the reason he has lost just one round in the UFC and with an opponent like Poirier, I feel like he will be able to make the difference in quality quite apparent.
Likelihood: Poirier is a great fighter, don’t get me wrong, but I just don’t see him as the guy who can hand the mighty Russian his first professional loss. 3/10
Where he could win it? Like Ferguson, Diaz’s cardio, endurance, and ability to fight off of his back could be huge for him. We’ve seen him turn the pace up noticeably when he feels as though his opponent is slowing so if Khabib shows even the slightest signs of fatigue, Nate could capitalise and go to work.
Where he may lose it? In the past, he has been controlled and beaten by powerful wrestlers on so many occasions. His stubborn approach to fighting is what makes him such a treat but with very little in the way of defensive wrestling, Khabib would be a huge favourite to get this one done. His submissions more-than-likely won’t be an issue for ‘The Eagle’ and like Holloway, he lacks the punching power to trouble him on the feet.
Likelihood: Khabib is a stylistic nightmare for Nate Diaz and while anything can happen with twenty-five minutes on the clock, history will tell us that this should be an easy night for the champion. 3/10
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena