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As the old saying goes: Man plans, the MMA gods laugh.
In theory, a bout between Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov is arguably the best fight that can be put together on the Ultimate Fighting Championship roster in any division. Ferguson is a flow chart of offensive dynamism, an unorthodox and multi-faceted striker with a venomous submission game. Nurmagomedov is as unpredictable as a wrecking ball -- no real surprises when it comes to what he does and how he does it -- and so far, he has been about as stoppable as one, too. Together they brought a total of 19 consecutive Octagon wins into the main event at UFC 223, an unprecedented number on its own but even more absurd considering all 19 of those wins took place in the most talent-rich division in the sport. The Ferguson-Nurmagomedov matchup is the best versus the best in the best weight-class. That’s rare.
Yet for all the stylistic and statistical intrigue, the fight is bewitched, cursed to remain indefinitely in the purgatory of “on paper.” In four years it has been booked four times, and four times it has been cancelled. They were supposed to fight for the first time at “The Ultimate Fighter 22” Finale in 2015, but Nurmagomedov suffered a rib injury. It was booked for UFC on Fox 19 the following year, but Ferguson had blood in his lungs. It was booked again for UFC 209 in 2017, but Nurmagomedov was hospitalized after a botched weight cut. This time, the injury bug rebounded against Ferguson again, reportedly because he simply tripped while walking around. If I were Nurmagomedov, I’d avoid re-booking this fight; fate will certainly deem the next one his turn to get injured.
That “anything can happen” in MMA is a truism with a wide scope. It covers everything from upsets and come-from-behind wins to bad decisions, unwatchable fights and bout cancellations. Even though Ferguson-Nurmagomedov is slowly becoming the “he-who-must-not-be-named” of MMA, its cursed nature is only half of the story here. The other half is the best short-notice replacement fight in recent memory, if not ever.
Featherweight champion Max Holloway will be the new set of back-tatted wings in the cage against the undefeated Dagestani. What this matchup lacks in history and buildup, it more than makes up for in stylistic deliciousness. Holloway is one of the most intuitively cerebral fighters in the sport. He probes opponents for weaknesses and then proceeds to execute based on his findings with courageous fidelity. He is a marksman on the feet, a master at managing distance, and one of the best mid-fight tacticians in the game. Against a fighter as predictable as Nurmagomedov, these are real threats. As dominant as Nurmagomedov has been, his standup is a liability. He gets hit a lot en route to securing a takedown, and while he only needs one takedown to win a round and possibly end the fight, Holloway hasn’t been taken down since 2014; opponents have gone 0-for-27 in takedown attempts in his last nine fights.
I will go so far as to say that Holloway is a tougher matchup for Nurmagomedov than Ferguson was on paper. Holloway is a much more defensively savvy fighter, especially against the fence, where Nurmagomedov’s pressure and dynamic grappling are most potent. Holloway doesn’t have the submission game that Ferguson does, but that might be a good thing; it can be easy to delude yourself of your ability to survive beneath the fury of “The Eagle’s” ground-and-pound when you are a credible submission threat from your back. While Holloway’s guard game is no joke, it’s likely that he’ll stay on his toes to keep Nurmagomedov at the end of his jab.
That’s not to say Nurmagomedov doesn’t have his own advantages. Not only is he a dynamic takedown artist with an array of throws and trips in his arsenal, but everyone who has trained with him makes the same remarks about his freakish physical strength. Holloway has fought at lightweight before, but not since beating Eddie Rincon, then with a 3-5-1 record, at a regional event in 2011. Holloway definitely has the size to compete at lightweight, but this is a ridiculous re-entry into the division after a seven-year stint against smaller opponents. On top of that, Holloway is coming off a leg injury and fighting on less than a week’s notice.
There are tremendous stakes involved, as well. If Nurmagomedov wins, he will be on the very short list of fighters who were undefeated when they won a UFC title and the first to do so at lightweight. If Holloway wins, he will become the second fighter to hold two titles simultaneously and the fifth two-division champ ever. If Nurmagomedov loses, it will have been to a career featherweight on short notice in his first title shot; if Holloway loses, it will end the fifth-longest winning streak in UFC history. The UFC deserves applause for putting together a sensational fight in difficult circumstances, and both fighters deserve utmost respect for agreeing to it.
Of course, no matter who is the winner, he will almost certainly be the man to welcome Conor McGregor back to the Octagon. In a year that has been as devoid of newsworthy fights as this one, that will be the ultimate boon, for the UFC and its fans alike.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.