Khabib Nurmagomedov is one of the most dominant fighters the UFC has ever seen. At 27-0, no one has been able to solve the Dagestani puzzle. Nurmagomedov arguably has only lost one round in his career and his relentless wrestling style consumes his opponents.
Following high profile fights in the lightweight division, the interim title fight at UFC 236, the main event of UFC Fight Night 151 and the announcement of Donald Cerrone vs Tony Ferguson at UFC 238, the MMASucka staff gave our thoughts on who, if anyone, could be the biggest threat to Nurmagomedov’s crown.
There are two main threats to Nurmagomedov in the lightweight division. The first being Tony Ferguson.
His awkward style could make it difficult for Nurmagomedov to land traditional takedowns, meaning he will have to chain wrestle. If Nurmagomedov does get Ferguson to the ground, Ferguson is extremely effective off his back. Training with Eddie Bravo at 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu, Ferguson rarely takes heavy damage off his back. He’s also effective in submitting opponents off his back. Ferguson wrapped Kevin Lee up with a triangle choke in their interim title bout at UFC 216. He also has a great D’Arce choke, meaning Nurmagomedov will have to watch his neck when he shoots in on Ferguson. This fight has been in the works four times previously yet, never come to fruition. Hopefully, if scheduled again, all these questions will be answered.
The second person who could challenge Nurmagomedov is Justin Gaethje. Former WSOF champion Gaethje is on a two-fight winning streak and showed improvements in both fights. His ‘walk forward, take one to land one’ style could make it hard to Nurmagomedov to get a read. His strong leg kicks could also hinder Nurmagomedov’s striking game, leading to his takedowns being set up less effectively. Gaethje also has a solid wrestling game. Although we haven’t seen it in his UFC career, don’t let this fool you. He stated his interest in getting the Nurmagomedov fight after his win over Edson Barboza. If he continues to win and do so in style, it will be hard to deny him a shot.
I had faith in either Dustin Poirier or Max Holloway to wear down and finish Nurmagomedov, but I felt a bit better about Holloway. After seeing how effective Holloway was in the clinch against Poirier, I am doubling down on that.
Outside of those two, I love Justin Gaethje as a pick to beat the champion. Contrary to popular belief, Gaethje has become a very smart pressure fighter. He’s certainly not going to be frozen by the threat of grappling, he’ll be reliably generating offense. I expect him to get taken down a few times, but if he can keep creating scrambles and making life difficult for Nurmagomedov, it will pay off. After failing on a pair of takedown attempts against Al Iaquinta, Nurmagomedov stopped trying altogether for several rounds. We’ve seen him gas before, but typically his opponents are more beaten down and tired than he is.
Conor McGregor has the ability to beat Khabib Nurmagomedov. His performance in the first fight was incredibly disappointing having not established his striking. With the necessary adjustments, he could be the man to give the Dagestani his first loss.
McGregor grappling was not awful in the first fight. Although being obviously outclassed in the wrestling and on the ground, he managed to avoid many powerful strikes and some submission attempts. The level of grappling on display was enough to give him a few chances to dispatch of Nurmagomedov on the feet, and this is where he let himself down.
McGregor showed none of his usual fluidity, which could be attributed to a potentially broken foot, but this isn’t necessarily a valid excuse. Comparing it to his last fight against Eddie Alvarez, McGregor showed minimal movement. He didn’t move in and out in his usual snake-like style. This was probably due to worrying about Nurmagomedov’s offense far too much, limiting his own game.
If McGregor suitably used the boxing skills he obtained in the Floyd Mayweather super fight to complement his usual striking prowess he could truly win the rematch. It all depends on if he is truly shot and if he can ever regain the hunger that led him to be the biggest superstar in MMA history. Even if the stars align, there’s no certainty that he lands the magic shot. He’s done it before so it’s hard to doubt him.
I don’t think any current lightweights could beat Nurmagomedov. But, there are a few guys that I think would have the potential to give him some trouble. One whom I consider a worthy challenge to Nurmagomedov is Justin Gaethje.
Gaethje is the only lightweight fighter that has the combination of pressure and takedown defense needed to give Nurmagomedov trouble. Gaethje is unlikely to get backed up against the cage or taken down at will. Like most of Nurmagomedov’s previous opponents.
Nurmagomedov isn’t the striker that Eddie Alvarez or Dustin Poirier are. As both of these men knocked out Gaethje out on the feet. With his inferior striking, I’m not sure Nurmagomedov could do the same. With Nurmagomedov dishing out as much damage as he does, and Gaethje being able to absorb as much damage as he does, it would make for a very interesting battle of attrition.
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