The Bottom Line: MMA’s Most Difficult Task

By Todd Martin Sep 3, 2019


The ordering process for Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-views has changed: UFC 242 is only available on ESPN+ in the U.S.

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Dustin Poirier in many ways faces a formidable challenge in the UFC 242 main event on Saturday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. In Khabib Nurmagomedov, he is fighting an undefeated champion with unshakable confidence. With Jon Jones not always looking his best in recent fights, many have come to view the Dagestani lightweight champion as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport. No one has been able to solve the riddle yet, and Poirier will have to conquer the master grappler after a series of bouts in which he prepared for opponents more inclined to strike.

Adding to the challenge, this is far and away the most important bout of Poirier’s career. He is used to competing against world-class fighters, but he is not used to doing so where the difference between winning and losing is so much money. There has to be a great deal of pressure that comes with flying halfway around the world for a fight that could make such a monumental difference for your future and the future of your family. Win or lose, this will be a defining moment in Poirier’s career. He can try to block out that reality, but he has to know it in his heart.

The challenges Poirier faces are real, but more challenging still is the career moment that Nurmagomedov now faces. Nurmagomedov captured the Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight title, the prize he chased for pretty much the entirety of his adult life. He then decisively defeated Conor McGregor in what was the highest-grossing fight in the history of the sport. Nurmagomedov has earned his riches and his glory. Now is the time where he has to defend his perch against hungry challengers who have so much more to gain and so much less to lose.

It’s no accident that UFC champions rarely reign for long. In the long history of the promotion with all the weight classes and all the champions, only 21 times has a champion successfully defended his or her title more than twice. Short title reigns are the norm, and yet time and again, those champions are heavy favorites going into bouts they ultimately lose. The world becomes mesmerized by the seeming invincibility of even champions who were only recently crowned.

Even with his undefeated record, it’s not as if we haven’t seen vulnerabilities in Nurmagomedov’s game to this point. He has done well against strikers late in fights after tiring them with takedowns, but early in fights, he can be hit. His short, stocky frame is well-suited for grappling but can be a disadvantage against longer opponents. Poirier is a dangerous pressure striker who makes opponents uncomfortable. Recent wins over Max Holloway, Eddie Alvarez, Justin Gaethje and Anthony Pettis suggest his striking could pose significant problems for Nurmagomedov. He also has good footwork that prevents him from getting into too many undesired clinch battles. This isn’t a bad matchup for Poirier stylistically.

While the odds are against Nurmagomedov more than it might seem for a fighter with such prodigious skill, he has some attributes that will serve him well in his efforts to dominate the lightweight division. To begin with, he has an innate mettle and toughness of spirit that’s readily apparent. Not many children wrestle bears. It’s quite hard to imagine Nurmagomedov getting lazy and complacent having reached the top.

Nurmagomedov’s press availability has also offered promising signs about where the champion’s head is at. It would be natural for Nurmagomedov to express his interest in another fight with Conor McGregor. It would mean the most money for him by far, and it’s an opponent he handled the first time. Not only has Nurmagomedov not lobbied for that fight, but he has been openly hostile to the idea of it. His preference for Tony Ferguson suggests his focus is on proving himself the best, not padding his bank account. There’s nothing wrong with the latter goal for a professional athlete, but the former motivation is more likely to produce the hardest driven training.

There are going to be strong external tests for Nurmagomedov moving forward in the deepest division in the sport. If he manages to retain his title for an extended period of time, the rest of the division will focus on him and his game more and more. However, the strongest test is going to be internal: How driven is he to keep pushing, even after accomplishing his biggest goals? He seems more naturally predisposed to succeed in that than his rival McGregor, who has struggled mightily since capturing the title Nurmagomedov now holds. Even so, it’s challenge for anyone.

The last time the UFC held a pay-per-view event in Abu Dhabi, B.J. Penn entered the cage holding the lightweight title. He was an 11-to-1 favorite and defeat seemed unthinkable. Penn, of course, lost to Frankie Edgar and has only won one fight since. Regardless of how this bout goes, it’s difficult to imagine Nurmagomedov having a fall as precipitous as Penn’s. Still, that result is a reminder of just how abruptly dominance can end. Staying on top is MMA’s most difficult task.

Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people. Advertisement

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