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Khabib Time: Nurmagomedov’s electric return injects jolt into wild UFC lightweight title picture

Khabib Nurmagomedov
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Two UFC lightweights currently walk around their respective places on earth with the right to carrying gold championship belts, but it’s possible neither is the best 155-pounder in the world. That honorific—still in dispute—may well belong to Khabib Nurmagomedov, the 29-year-old Dagestani who has never tasted defeat in a nine-year professional career.

For Nurmagomedov, it’s 25 opponents up and 25 opponents down after mauling Edson Barboza for the entire 15 minutes of their UFC 219 co-main event. It’s a remarkable achievement, made even more impressive by just how easily success seems to come to him at the highest level of the sport. Time after time, there is little struggle and minimal adversity that dies out with every tick of the clock. It’s as if he is controlling his opponents on “easy” mode of a video game, the resistance falling out of their will by the moment, on his command.

In a way, they are. Nurmagomedov’s forward pressure, takedowns and top game are relentless, claustrophobic and ferocious, respectively.

He is a 155-pound bogeyman, and his re-emergence comes at a welcome time for a division that has followed a recent arc of oddity. With lightweight champion Conor McGregor in no rush to defend the belt he won over a year ago—and why would he when he can jet-set around the world counting his cash?—the division had hit a bit of a roadblock.

With Tony Ferguson winning the interim belt in October, and the unbeaten Nurmagomedov winning last night—the interim interim belt?—there is a queue forming that can not be ignored much longer. Not by McGregor, and not by the powers that be.

If the UFC was an organization that followed a set protocol for such situations, McGregor would have been stripped of the title by now for non-activity. But instead, we get president Dana White spewing some word salad defense of his cash-cow, ending with, “So, how has he never defended the title?”

Because ... he ... hasn’t. That is literally a fact. As great as McGregor is in the MMA cage, and as much as you can understand White’s inclination to have his back, McGregor has but a single fight as a UFC lightweight. He still has much to prove within the division.

“Conor needs to deserve [a matchup with me],” Nurmagomedov said. “The real belt is 25-0. The others are all fake belts.

“Conor has one fight UFC at 155,” he continued. “He beat Eddie Alvarez. He’s a good fighter but he’s not fighting. I think a lot of people can beat him at 155. This is my opinion. He has good boxing, good timing, but he don’t have wrestling, grappling, condition. This is not about him. He comes to lightweight and fights one time, and he’s champion. This is a little bit crazy, I think.”

Nurmagomedov appears to be a nightmare matchup for McGregor, as he is for everyone.

The things the Dagestani does in the cage are absurd. In his last four UFC bouts, he has out-landed opponents 473-103, according to Fightmetric numbers. (And keep in mind that four-pack includes a lopsided defeat of former lightweight champ and current welterweight contender Rafael dos Anjos.)

In his UFC career, Nurmagomedov has out-landed foes 723-255. He’s landed almost 500 more strikes than opponents in just nine fights! That kind of dominance is exceedingly rare in major MMA, especially at this level. The best comparable is flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, who has out-landed opponents during his recent 11-fight title run 1,253-534. So at least by that metric, Nurmagomedov is on par with an all-time great.

While numbers are one way to explain the ease of his win, another is this: Nurmagomedov spoke to both White and Barboza’s coach Mark Henry during the action of the fight. He felt comfortable enough to shift his attention from smashing the world’s No. 4 lightweight to hold brief conversations with others in the area. And then, after routing Barboza—by lopsided scores of 30-25, 30-24, 30-24, by the way—Nurmagomedov said it was such a smooth night that he’d be happy to fight either McGregor or Ferguson right afterward.

“These guys talk about me when I’m injured,” he said in the event post-fight press conference. “Now, where are these guys?”

Such a buzzworthy comeback for what seemed like a lost year. His much-discussed interim title fight with Ferguson never materialized after he missed weight at UFC 209, and later, he had hernia surgery that further knocked him out of action. There were questions about how he’d return, but apparently, Dagestan does not import ring rust from the U.S.

In the three-round fight, he had career bests in strikes thrown and landed, and he seemed as though he could fight on into the night.

If he doesn’t draw McGregor next, the UFC will have to try once again to put together the snake-bitten bout with Ferguson. Three times it has been signed, and three times it has fallen through.

Whatever is next for Nurmagomedov in 2018, as long as it’s not more time away, it will be something to behold. His presence has added another fun layer to a confusing and intriguing title picture. With him and Ferguson and McGregor, the division is bottlenecked at the top, with no clear-cut No. 1. Anything can happen. Anyone can rise above the rest.

If only this thing can start moving again. If only the UFC finds a way to lure McGregor back. If only we can get the best to fight the best—and the other best after that. If only these 2017 possibilities become 2018 realities.

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