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One of the most discussed prospective fights in the sport for years was a potential lightweight clash between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson. There’s a temptation to call it a dream matchup, which speaks to what a struggle it was to get the fighters in the cage, given that MMA dream fights are not usually between fighters in the same weight class in the same promotion. It only felt that way because of how illusive it proved to be. Nurmagomedov and Ferguson strung together impressive winning streaks simultaneously, beating many of the same opponents with very different stylistic approaches.
Nurmagomedov’s supporters felt that he would take down Ferguson and dominate him on the ground, like he has done against pretty much every opponent. Believers in Ferguson questioned the level of competition Nurmagomedov was running through and felt “El Cucuy” was particularly adept at dealing out punishment on fighters trying to take him down. Nurmagomedov was consistently the betting favorite at the different points where the fight was close to happening, but Ferguson was usually a close underdog, reflecting the public doubt as to the result.
After Ferguson suffered another lackluster defeat at UFC 262, there’s no question that the ship has sailed on a big-time fight between Nurmagomedov and Ferguson. That leaves it as another fight where fans are left to wonder for themselves what would have happened, like Frank Shamrock-Wanderlei Silva, Fedor Emelianenko-Brock Lesnar or Anderson Silva-Georges St. Pierre.
Sometimes, the trajectory of two careers leaves doubt as to who would have won if the two fighters collided at their best. Emelianenko-Randy Couture is an example of this. Both fighters had long primes, largely fighting in different spheres. Couture retired around the same time Emelianenko suffered his career decline. That makes the outcome of a fight between the two feel unknowable. On the other hand, Ronda Rousey-Cristiane Justino was a dream fight for years. However, the way Rousey was blown out against Holly Holm and Amanda Nunes makes her chances against the powerful striker in “Cyborg” feel weak, rightly or wrongly.
Ferguson’s three most recent losses, particularly the way he was controlled on the ground by Beneil Dariush and Charles Oliveira, surely make it tempting for many to dismiss his chances against Nurmagomedov had they fought in 2017 or 2018. That’s particularly going to be the case for those who always favored Nurmagomedov’s chances, given he put together the best wins of his career as Ferguson was on the decline.
For those of us who were undecided about what to expect from Ferguson and Nurmagomedov, it’s worth retaining some doubt about how that matchup would have gone. Fighters decline at different ages, and sometimes the falls are precipitous. Late-career Jens Pulver, Don Frye or B.J. Penn doesn’t tell us that much about them when they were in their primes. The eye test on Ferguson in recent fights doesn’t suggest a similar fighter who lost in the same way he would have lost to the same opponent five years ago.
There are also reasons to expect a decline from Ferguson in particular beyond his age: his aggressive training regimen and a serious knee injury in 2018 from which he returned in an abnormally short period of time. That can catch up with a fighter in a hurry, particularly an aging fighter taking on elite opponents in their early 30s. His recent performances are a strong indication of where he stands now but not necessarily a good reflection of where he stood at age 32.
The simplest argument to doubt Ferguson against Nurmagomedov is that he couldn’t handle himself with Nurmagomedov on the ground. That may well be true. However, one’s ability to defend on the ground can be affected by age and injury just like in the striking game. We saw that on the same show when Ronaldo Souza, one of the premier grapplers in the history of the sport, had his arm snapped by an opponent with nothing resembling his credentials. “Jacare” was 41 and followed the same path of other master grapplers like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Kazushi Sakuraba, both of whom were submitted late in their careers after dominating at younger ages.
We’ll never know how a fight that never took place would have gone. That’s much of the appeal in speculating. Nurmagomedov-Ferguson may feel something of a closed case at this point, more Jon Jones-Dan Henderson in 2012 than Jones-Francis Ngannou in 2021. I’m not so convinced. Sometimes a fighter’s fall is so quick and pronounced that it’s hard to place his later fights in the context of his earlier ones. Ferguson looks like one of those cases, and at his best, he may well have presented much more of a threat to Nurmagomedov’s 0 than one would think watching him at UFC 262.
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