While the UFC’s 155-pound division is bottlenecked until Anthony Pettis defends the belt against Gilbert Melendez in December, the war of "next" in that class has had plenty of plot twists.
Reigning lightweight champ Eddie Alvarez will make Octagon debut at UFC 178 on Sept. 27 against Donald Cerrone, who has won four in a row (all finishes). The winner of that fight will have to be in consideration to take on the winner of Melendez-Pettis. Then there’s Rafael dos Anjos, who just became the first man other than Pettis to finish Benson Henderson. He’s right there in contention, having gone 7-1 since 2012.
If anybody has a trump card to use against all of those names, it might be Dagestani fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov, who was booked into a fight with Cerrone for about 20 minutes before injuring his knee and withdrawing. Nurmagomedov is undefeated, and to this point through six fights in the UFC, unchallenged. He was the last man to defeat Dos Anjos.
That’s why Nurmagomedov feels he’s next in line for a title shot. "The Eagle" appeared on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour and made his case.
"I think I am the No. 1 contender, after Gilbert Melendez," Nurmagomedov told Ariel Helwani. "I know Melendez is a very good guy, he was the Strikeforce champion, the UFC gave him a shot. After he beat Diego Sanchez, and Diego Sanchez is not top 15...I think it’s no good, I think I’m the No. 1 contender. I am undefeated, 6-0 [in the UFC], 22-0 [overall]. I want after the next fight to have a title shot."
It turns out the injury to the knee was an ACL. Nurmagomedov explained how it went down, right after the UFC finally found him a willing opponent.
"The UFC called me and said, you need to fight Donald Cerrone, and I said I’m very happy," he said. "I go training and after ten minutes [or so] I have the injury. And after that I called my manager and said, my knee’s very bad. And I said I very much wanted the fight with Cowboy Cerrone, but I’m injured."
Nurmagomedov said that he might have tweaked his knee in the dos Anjos fight, but it was in training that he truly injured it. He flew to Moscow from Dagestan to have the knee looked at, and the doctor revealed to him it was an ACL. He underwent surgery to repair it, and is currently in the process of recovering.
He said when his manager, Ali Abdel-Aziz, informed UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta that he was in need of surgery, that the UFC picked up his medical costs, something he was very thankful for.
"Everyday I’m working my knee, I want to make it stronger," he said. "My first problem now is my knee. After that, I go and get my belt."
Nurmagomedov’s English has improved leaps and bounds over the last year (which he jokingly says he paid Daniel Cormier $500 an hour to learn), and he’s using it to communicate his case for a title bid. And the current titleholder, Pettis, is in his crosshairs.
Though he doesn’t think that Pettis wants to fight him. And he also feels a little bit disrespected by the current lightweight champion, which he made clear on social media when he bemoaned the fact that Pettis couldn’t pronounce his name,
"I think he [doesn’t] want this fight," he said of Pettis. "I am no good for his style. My pressure, my wrestling, my top control, it’s no good for him. He said he wants to fight Nate Diaz. Nate Diaz lose many times in the UFC, and I am undefeated. I am the next contender. But he’s not saying ‘Khabib is good, Khabib is undefeated, Khabib is 6-0,’ he’s not saying nothing. I think he [doesn’t] want this fight."
When you’re undefeated, it’s hard to find criticism – but if there’s been any towards the wrestler Nurmagomedov, it’s that he grinds out victories and doesn’t finish opponents (like Cerrone).
Asked if that might be a hindrance to him getting the next title shot, Nurmagomedov invited people to revisit his list of casualties.
"When I’m fighting Dos Anjos, he’s a very good guy -- finishing him is very hard, everybody knows," he said. "Gleison Tibau, he’s a beast. I finished Thiago Tavares -- Thiago Tavares is very good, too. Abel Trujillo, he’s a beast. Before his fight with me, he killed one guy. After his fight with me, he killed three guys. He’s a very good guy, Abel Trujillo is. [Nobody] has ever finished Pat Healy in the UFC. I think my opponents are very good and strong guys. I know I [haven’t] finished, but I’ve smashed everybody in striking, ground and pound, wrestling, everywhere."
Nurmagomedov, who is no longer with the Red Fury Fight Team, said that he thinks that Cerrone will prevail against Alvarez at UFC 178, but that the historical match-up comparison falls to his side. Cerrone lost to dos Anjos and Henderson, dos Anjos beat Henderson, and he beat dos Anjos. He says the Brazilian dos Anjos is the gauge in the scenario.
As for having a preference as to who wins between Melendez and Pettis at UFC 181 on Dec. 6, he said he doesn’t really have any druthers. He just has promises.
"For me it’s no problem," he said. "If Pettis wins, I think for me it’s very good. I want a fight with him, but Gilbert Melendez is very good guy too, very good fighter. Maybe he wins, too. I think 50/50. But I will fight versus Anthony Pettis.
"I think he knows my name, but I think he [doesn’t] respect for me, and next year he’ll know my name, 100 percent."