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Fortunes changed for five at UFC 242

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

After Khabib Nurmagomedov largely dominated and submitted Dustin Poirier, giving him a 28-0 record in a sport where records like that at the top level simply don’t exist, it was natural there would be talk about the mythical greatest-of-all-time debate.

The usual candidates in this discussion are Jon Jones, Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva, Demetrious Johnson and Fedor Emelianenko. If nothing else, Nurmagomedov should at least enter into the discussion based on record and domination of opponents.

He’s not only won every fight, but there has never been a close fight. Either he’s stopped people, or won decisions that were clear, obvious, and in most cases, one-sided. You find few close rounds and no close fights.

Jon Jones has never lost, aside from a DQ call early in his career, but he had close wins with Thiago Santos and Alexander Gustafsson. St-Pierre was fortunate to get a decision in his fight with Johny Hendricks, and lost twice, although avenged both decisively. Silva lost multiple times both when he was younger and older, was dominant in his prime, but came two minutes from what would have been a one-sided decision loss to Chael Sonnen. Johnson had a lengthy run of division dominance, but did lose, and for his legacy, by leaving UFC, will likely never get to avenge that loss. Plus, the competition Johnson faced wasn’t at the level of the competition the others ran into.

What makes Nurmagomedov’s record even more impressive is that it can be argued the lightweight division has the most depth of any in UFC. While he’s shown momentary vulnerability in his fights, he was never on the verge of losing.

Yet, in comparison with the other all-time greats in their primes, Nurmagomedov, as shown by his moments of vulnerability, there is an easy battle plan to beat him. He is not a great striker, so if you block his takedowns, he can be hurt. McGregor gave him trouble when the fight was standing. Poirier on Saturday did well early in the second round. But in both cases, once they ended up on their back, all offense was shut down. Even Michael Johnson gave him momentary trouble in their fight that Nurmagomedov otherwise dominated on the ground.

What can be said is there has probably never been a fighter better at the combination of takedowns, ground control, and making the opponent miserable while in that position.

With Jones and St-Pierre, you had fighters who could beat you in every position. They could wrestle and take you down, but if that didn’t work, they could hang with people standing as well.

Of course, the strategy on paper to beat Nurmagomedov may be easy, the reality is not. Nobody has been able to make it work past very short bursts of offense, that in each case has been shut down with a takedown.

Still, greatest of all-time is about longevity. While Nurmagomedov’s 28-0 number is the most impressive record of any top fighter in history, he doesn’t have nearly the time at the top, or number of top-tier wins as those being compared with.

Jones has been generally considered the top light heavyweight since 2011, a run of eight-plus years. He hasn’t always been champion, but nobody has beaten him in that period.

Silva had almost seven years as champion and 10 title defenses.

Many will point to St-Pierre as the greatest, because he, like Nurmagomedov, has no fishy drug test failures as part of his legacy. He also had seven years from his first title win over Matt Hughes until he vacated the title after a razor-thin win over Hendricks, with one loss, that he decisively avenged during that period. And he faced a steady stream of No. 1 contenders in a division with strong depth.

Johnson had six years as champion before losing a close decision, and set a record with 11 title defenses.

Emelianenko was generally regarded as the No. 1 heavyweight in the world for seven years, during which period he never lost a fight.

Nurmagomedov has been champion for 17 months, and his title win was in a replacement fight, when Al Iaquinta stepped in for an injured Tony Ferguson. He did beat McGregor, the former two-division champion who never had lost the belt in the cage, last October. And he’s had two title defenses since beating Iaquinta.

For win-loss record and dominance in fights, yes. But greatest of all-time is about standing the test of time, and compared to the usual candidates, he is a long way from doing that.

Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five Stars of Saturday’s show.

KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV - There are more big money fight options for Nurmagomedov than anyone in the sport. His obvious next title defense should be with Ferguson (25-3). Ferguson has gone unbeaten for nearly six years, and his 12 UFC wins in a row are by far the longest of anyone in history who has never held a championship, let alone a shot at the big belt.

UFC has attempted to put this bout together multiple times, and it’s always fallen apart due to injuries at times to each man. It’s frustrating because it’s arguably the most interesting high-profile fight the company could make. Ferguson’s out of this world cardio and understanding of how to use it as a weapon is something that Nurmagomedov has never had to face. He’s also a good wrestler, so the takedowns, particularly in a five-round fight, won’t be as automatic as usual. Ferguson would have the edge standing and when it comes to pacing. But he still has to stop the ground game, which nobody has done to date.

Still, as big as that fight is, there are others much larger from a business standpoint. Nurmagomedov himself brought up St-Pierre (26-2). St-Pierre wanted the fight, but has said he’s retired and believes the window for that fight has closed. The UFC has very clearly not wanted to make that fight. Yet, from a sport history standpoint, it could go down as one of the all-time biggest. While he’s said he could do it, it’s hard to conceive of St-Pierre being able to make 155. It’s not like he had any body fat at 185, and he’s ripped at 170. If St-Pierre would win, it hardly benefits the UFC. St-Pierre would likely never fight again, and Nurmagomedov would be damaged.

McGregor (21-4) is always the big money fight. While Nurmagomedov beat him decisively last October, McGregor has talked about going into the fight injured. He can talk up any fight. And with his striking, he does pose a threat. In the end, people would buy that fight. For a number of reasons, if Nate Diaz (20-11) can beat Jorge Masvidal on Nov. 2 in Madison Square Garden, that’s another huge money proposition.

But as enticing as the dollar figures could be for others, this is a situation where Ferguson has to be first in line.

DUSTIN POIRIER - Even in losing, Poirier (25-6, 1 no contest) seemed to make a lot of fans Saturday who could empathize with the level of disappointment he had.

Because of his style where he constantly has great fights, he is likely to be a headliner for some time to come. He should probably next face the winner of Saturday’s Donald Cerrone (36-12) vs. Justin Gaethje (20-2) fight from Vancouver, B.C. He could also face Paul Felder (17-4), who scored his biggest career win over Edson Barboza on Saturday.

PAUL FELDER - Felder won a close decision with some unique scoring. It appeared Barboza clearly won the first round, Felder the third, and the second could have gone either way. So Felder winning was not a terrible decision, but his 30-27 winning score by judge Maria Makhmutova is impossible to justify. His 30-27 losing score by judge Howie Booth is similar.

Media scores went 81 percent for Barboza, so Felder does have to be described as lucky, particularly in a deep lightweight division where winning of this fight was paramount to stay near the top. To show how outlandish 30-27 either way was, every single media score was 29-28.

Felder could face Poirier, or the loser of Cerrone vs. Gaethje.

EDSON BARBOZA - This was bad timing for a loss by Barboza (20-8), who is trying to protest the decision. It’s a longer climb based on Saturday’s decision, but he should get a featured fight next. Good opponents would be Al Iaquinta (15-5-1) or Charles Oliveira (27-5).

CURTIS BLAYDES - Blaydes (12-2-1) came in as the No. 4 contender at heavyweight. He completely dominated Shamil Abdurakhimov (20-5), getting a second-round stoppage via ground and pound. His next fight should be with the winner of the Madison Square Garden fight on Nov. 2 with Derrick Lewis (21-7) vs. Blagoy Ivanov (18-2).