UFC 209’s co-main event has finally been set in stone. Khabib Nurmagomedov will face off against Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight championship but out of the two, who exactly poses the greatest threat to the undisputed champ, Conor McGregor?
At UFC 205 late last year, the featherweight champion Conor McGregor made history when he dismantled top-tier lightweight veteran and then-champ Eddie Alvarez with relative ease, earning himself the promotion’s lightweight belt and his own unique place among the very best the sport has ever seen.
His reign as a multi-divisional champion was doomed to be a short one, however, and within days of him making his dream a reality, he was stripped of the title he earned by defeating José Aldo in 2015 and relegated once more to the realm of us mere mortals, with just one sole UFC belt around his waist. It can be argued that the decision to strip him was motivated by UFC 206’s need for a ‘sell-able’ main event (the presence of an interim-title in the featherweight contest between Max Holloway and Anthony Pettis) but this article will not be one that delves any further into that.
The one interim-title matchup that does hold some merit right now, however, is the highly-interesting and impactful showdown set to take place at UFC 209 between the unbeaten sambo-master Khabib Nurmagomedov and the crafty and relentless Ultimate Fighter winner that is Tony Ferguson. The stakes in this matchup are clear. The winner shall earn themselves their first taste of UFC gold and with that, a (pretty much) guaranteed shot at the lightweight champ, McGregor.
These guys each pose very different and very realistic threats to the Irishman but out of the two, based on what we know, who exactly is the most likely to walk away with the undisputed title wrapped around their waist? Well, if we break down each fighter’s skillsets into the ‘knowns’ and the ‘unknowns’ first, it’s easier to establish a clearer picture showcasing how these guys match up on paper well before anything is said or done inside the octagon.
What’s interesting here is that despite the considerable (and well-deserved) hype that surrounds the Dagestan-native Khabib Nurmagomedov, I do feel like the unknowns in his skillset mirror the same questions that surround the champion McGregor, and that the uncertainties that dwarf both men’s ‘supposed’ Achille’s heels make this the most interesting stylistic matchup of the two potential clashes.
Nurmagomedov’s UFC 205 performance against Michael Johnson raised a lot of questions about his standup game, just like McGregor’s submission loss to Nate Diaz at UFC 196 did about his defensive BJJ. I feel like there’s a lot of emotion on both sides that does serve to warp opinions somewhat but the way I see it, both guys will not be so quick to make the same mistake twice.
Khabib’s matchup with Michael Johnson began with the Russian finding himself in a spot of trouble. For the opening minutes of round one, he rushed at the Menace and struggled to engage in the clinch due to the speed of his hands, finding himself getting tagged on the feet more than we had ever seen him get hit before. Of course, he managed to weather the storm, get the takedown and control the fight, but even with 24 pro-fights under his belt, you can be certain that this was a wakeup call for the undefeated Eagle.
In contrast to this, McGregor’s problems with Diaz, stemmed from his own unshakeable confidence in his left-hand and the unquestionable drain the durability of his opponent’s chin had on his own self-belief towards the end of the 2nd round. After throwing everything he had at the tough and stubborn Stockton-native, McGregor – in the words of the mighty Firas Zahabi – found himself at the foot of a mountain he perhaps did not expect to have to climb. I’ll simply quote the Tristar coach word-for-word as he does a much better job of explaining McGregor’s loss than I ever could.
“The worst thing that can happen to you in a fight is to be surprised. The element of surprise is the most powerful thing in a war. If you go to war and you can surprise your opponent, you confuse them, you stun them, he’s dead in the water. There is no other advantage greater than the element of surprise.”
“[Diaz] didn’t fall like those featherweights, he didn’t give up, he didn’t fold, he’s got that dog in him. Conor McGregor got surprised by Nate and that’s why he was confused and that confusion led to fatigue, and that led to the beginning of the end.”
From what I can see, the McGregor fans have been quick to point at the supposed stand-up shortcomings of Nurmagomedov in his last fight as a surefire reason that he will meet a brutal end at the hands of the Irishman, whereas the Nurmagomedov fans (and McGregor detractors) will be quick to point towards his submission loss against Nate Diaz as evidence that he will be no match for the unbeaten grappler.
Personally, both of these arguments are far too black and white for my liking. I would say both the standup of Nurmagomedov and the defensive BJJ of McGregor are two areas that lie moreso the grey area of the unknown than inside of what is certain. Of course, if they do meet, it could be a brutal ground-and-pound showcase for the Russian that confirms the suspicisions of the masses and ends the title-reign of McGregor but conversely, those who speak about Khabib’s shortcomings on the feet could be just as correct and Conor could knock him out and end his unbeaten run in an instant.
But I do think more credit needs to be given to the adaptability of both of these guys. Khabib, if he faces off with the Notorious One for the undisputed title, will definitely be more cautious on the feet having come close to his first taste of defeat in his last matchup and McGregor, having succumbed to a loss on the biggest stage possible, has made every effort to sure up his cardio and mental discipline going forward into his future matchups.
To say ‘Nurmagomedov has no stand-up’ or ‘McGregor has no ground game’ are two points of view that are just too simplistic for a sport as complex and multi-faceted as mixed martial arts. The areas that are pointed to as weakpoints in each of their respective games are still ones that reside in the aforementioned ‘grey-area’ of the unknown and regardless of the truth behind either of these claims, I think the very fact that Nurmagomedov’s skillset is one with anything resembling a question-mark, is the reason why – for me – Tony Ferguson represents the much scarier proposition for the Notorious One.
In this game of unknowns and unpredictable outcomes, he who defies expectations is king, and with Tony Ferguson, the only ‘unknowns’ that surround him going into this hypothetical matchup, are the ones concerning what exactly he will do when the octagon doors close.
“El Cucuy” is as creative a fighter as you can get. His core skills are as well-rounded as any in the lightweight division, but his x-factor is most definitely the sheer uncertainty over how he will use those skills to achieve victory. He’ll throw spinning attacks, shoot for imanari rolls into leg-locks and utilise his background in salsa dancing to employ unorthodox angles and connect with his vicious hands when you least expect it.
McGregor and his camp always put forth the idea that there is no opponent and that they prepare for specific body-types and skill sets. Of course, Nurmagomedov is elite among the elite as far as the traditional grappler goes but as far as body-type, height and reach go, he isn’t anything Conor hasn’t seen before. He stands at 5’10, has a relatively short reach at 70″ and as far as the SBG team are concerned, will most definitely look to initiate the clinch and get the fight to the ground.
Now, I’m not saying the Eagle will not be successful in his mission to do just that, but in Tony Ferguson, at least from a game-planning perspective, you have an opponent who poses more problems. McGregor famously remarked ahead of his UFC 205 tussle with Eddie Alvarez that in order to give him a war you had to have height, or reach or some attributes to give him some trouble.
Tony Ferguson stands two inches taller than Conor at 5″11, holds a 2-inch reach advantage over him, is notoriously tough, incredibly durable and that’s all before you take into account the fact that he – like Conor – is an innovator in movement and versatility on the feet. If you look back on the Nate Diaz fights – specifically in the first bout – it was his toughness, reach and stamina that proved to cause McGregor the most trouble and I would argue that Tony is a better fighter than Nate in most areas.
Again, I’m not saying that Conor is doomed to lose against El Cucuy, or even Khabib for that matter, but I just feel as though in recent times the very real and tangible threat that Ferguson poses to the Irishman has been underplayed somewhat due to the technical excellence of his UFC 209 opponent.
We have the three best lightweights that MMA has to offer in a very tense and intriguing love-triangle right now and despite all of the emotion and undeniable skill that each man brings to the table, only one will finish the year as the UFC’s 155lb champion and for the life of me, I have no idea which one it will be.
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena
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