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UFC 223 Aftermath: How high are we setting the bar for Khabib Nurmagomedov?

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Khabib Nurmavomedov celebrates his UFC lightweight title win over Al Iaquinta at UFC 223 on Saturday in Brooklyn, N.Y,
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The scoreline on Khabib Nurmagomedov’s victory over Al Iaquinta in Saturday night’s UFC 223 main event read 50-44, 50-43, and 50-43.

And some people weren’t impressed.

The victory improved the Dagestani standout’s record to 26-0, 10-0 inside the Octagon, and made him the UFC lightweight champion.

And some were underwhelmed.

He also put up one of the most lopsided scores in a title fight in UFC history after being hit with an unprecedented wave of potential distractions. Iaquinta was Nurmagomedov’s fifth potential opponent in six days, and he was in the van for Conor McGregor and company’s attack which turned fight week in Brooklyn into Bizarro World and put McGregor behind bars.

None of this fazed Nurmagomedov, who went 25 minutes for the first time in his career. And still, some shrugged.

Exactly how high of a bar are we setting for this guy?

Part of this is down to color commentator Joe Rogan, who went off the deep end in his criticism of Nurmagomedov in the late rounds. You would have thought the standup of Glass Joe from Punch-Out!! was being critiqued, not a fighter who has never been knocked down in his UFC career. The segment of the audience that takes Rogan’s word as gospel helped amplify the criticism.

Not that Rogan’s commentary was entirely without merit. Nurmagomedov did hold his chin high and lacked movement in those third and fourth rounds. But this also presupposes a fighter as intelligent as Nurmagomedov can’t correct this. It also assumes that he’ll someday be facing the hungry McGregor of 2015, not the parody who has taken a powder on his MMA career and hasn’t competed in 18 months, while behaving like a lunatic every time he’s in public.

Even at his peak, McGregor was a fighter who faded sometime in the second round, which is when Nurmagomedov is usually at his strongest. You really think Nurmagomedov doesn’t take a rusty McGregor to the ground and maul him?

And here’s another thing: Maybe that Iaquinta guy is better than he’s getting credit for. He comes from Serra-Longo’s championship pedigree and he won five straight and eight of nine heading into this fight. This wasn’t exactly a remake of T.J. Dillashaw vs. Joe Soto.

Of course, the idea Nurmagomedov is vulnerable is going to help sell a ton of pay-per-views, whether it’s a McGregor showdown or whether we actually get the Tony Ferguson fight one of these days. But it’s just as plain that expectations for the new lightweight champ are so high that anything short of grinding his opponent through the canvas to the arena floor is going to leave some people underwhelmed. And that’s a testament to just how good “The Eagle” has become.

UFC 223 quotes

“This was just another level of that and a new challenge and a new development in my growth, so, I welcome that. I just wanted to, I don’t know, just prove to myself that I can once again face my fears and it will pay off.” -- Rose Namajunas, confirming she considered dropping out of UFC 223 after being in the van during McGregor’s attack on Thursday.

Rose Namajunas once again got her hand raised against Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

“When I heard Bruce Buffer saying the numbers, how the judges scored the card, I was like okay, I expected that I was going to win by split decision. But when I heard the difference, I was like, okay, I got the win easy, even with my coaches.” -- Joanna Jedrzejczyk disagreed with the judges’ decision.

“Inside the cage, come. Outside the cage, let me know without camera, without all this media. Like men. He come when a lot of security here, outside the bus, inside the bus, security here, don’t let me go out. Like, he try to, ‘Hey, come out,’ like this. Why you need this show up? Let me know and that’s it, any time.” -- Khabib Nurmagomedov, still willing to throw down with McGregor.

“I feel UFC and Khabib got unfinished business before I try to make a step in here to go for the 155 title.” -- Georges St-Pierre, not feeling Nurmagomedov’s postfight callout.

Stock report

Up: Rose Namajunas. Sometimes, you’ll hear champs tell you that they didn’t really feel like the champion until they successfully made their first defense. And while Namajunas didn’t come out and say that on Saturday night, her rematch victory over Joanna Jedrzejczyk sure felt like confirmation that her first win back in November wasn’t a fluke. When Jedrzejczyk started to surge in the third round, it looked like a flashback to her title defense against Claudia Gadelha in 2016, when JJ dropped the first two rounds and then rallied back to win. But Namajunas dug down and showed championship mettle in making adjustments and going for broke in the final round. It’s amazing to think Namajunas is just 25 and we’re still watching her develop as a fighter.

Hold: Joanna Jedrzejczyk. In this case, it’s not so much that Jedrzejczyk has regressed as Namajunas has surpassed her. And with two losses to the champ in five months, it’s going to be difficult to get another title shot again any time soon. Jedrzejczyk believes she won, and used what amounts to the PRIDE argument — where bouts we judged by the entirety of the fight — as evidence. But the Unified Rules go by rounds and Namajunas indisputably won more rounds. Perhaps a move up to 125 pounds, especially considering the difficulty she’s had at times in getting down to 115, is the smartest move for the former champ.

Up: Al Iaquinta. This is very likely the first time a fighter who was on the wrong end of 50-44, 50-43, 50-43 scores earns an “up” in the six years I’ve been doing Aftermath, but how can you criticize Iaquinta? Iaquinta had trained for a three-round fight, then found himself taking on an undefeated killer in a five-rounder on 24 hours’ notice. Not only was Iaquinta not broken by Nurmagomedov’s onslaught over the first two rounds, but he got back into the fight and went the distance. Who knows how the fight might have turned had he worked more combos instead of landing single shots? Iaquinta won eight of nine going into this and proved tremendously resilient in tough circumstances. If the UFC would get over their issues with Iaquinta, they could make a lot of money with this guy.

Up: Zabit Magomedsharipov . First, a shout to the Z-man’s foe, Kyle Bochniak, who was overmatched in skills but made the perfect Fight of the Night dance partner by putting in an all-heart performance. But Saturday night, Magomedsharipov proved he deserves all the hype heaped upon him. From his wide variety of flashy strikes, to his superb sense of when to turn up the heat and when to take his foot off the gas pedal, to his flawless movement, to a ground game that shined even though it was used in limited capacity last night, the Dagestani featherweight is destined to give the top guys in the division headaches sooner rather than later.

Down: Joe Lauzon. I never enjoy writing these ones, the ones that come the morning after it becomes obvious a well-liked fighter who’s a good dude, who has given his heart and soul to the sport for years, should probably get out of the cage. But that’s the case here for Lauzon, the all-action fighter who has thrilled fans since his 48-second upset of Jens Pulver back at UFC 63. Lauzon’s loss to Chris Gruetzemacher was tough to watch. Lauzon is a smart guy with a thriving gym and a computer science degree whose 15 career post-fight bonuses will forever stand as a testament to the action he gave the fans for so many years. Lauzon’s corner mercifully waved things off at the end of the second round, which gives hope that they’re the clear-headed sorts who will have a big picture conversation about his future.

Interesting stuff

I mean, you saw the past week, right? I’m not going to rehash every little thing that went down starting with Tony Ferguson tripping over a cable at the Fox lot all the way up to Iaquinta getting the nod. But suffice to say, this was the week all the UFC’s chickens came home to roost: Playing fast and loose with interim titles. Playing coy about stripping fighters of titles. Allowing Conor McGregor to get away with doing whatever he damn well pleases. Weight-cutting issues in the sport. Throw in the endless wellspring of incompetence that is the New York State Athletic Commission, and we had all the ingredients for exactly the the sort of nightmare week that unfolded.

And yet, the fact the UFC still managed to pull through this, and end up with a pretty good card in the end, is a testament to the strength of the machine the company has built. Many a promoter would have simply pulled the plug on the show after last week’s issues. The UFC didn’t. The ship is clearly in overdue for a major tuneup. But let’s stop acting like it’s about to sink.

Fight I’d like to see next: Yup, that one.

I know I’m not supposed to want to see Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor at this point. I know we shouldn’t be rewarding McGregor after his media day van incident nearly derailed the show. I know McGregor has legal issues. I know it would be best for all concerned if McGregor spent maybe a year in seclusion on an island somewhere and cooled off. And yet, all apologies to Ferguson, none of this erases the fact that Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor is the biggest fight the UFC can make.

If they can make it.

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