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Hot Tweets: Who can beat Khabib Nurmagomedov plus The Russian Eagle vs. El Cucuy

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Khabib Nurmagomedov, Tony Ferguson Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

At UFC 242, Khabib Nurmagomedov throttle Dustin Poirier to retain his lightweight title and started raising the question of just how good is Khabib, so let’s talk about that plus the rest of the lightweight division and yet another hypothetical battle.

Who can beat Khabib?

At this point, there is not.

Lightweight is a curious division. Though it is the best and deepest division in the sport, it lacks a true GOAT who has asserted dominance over it for a prolonged period. Now, partly this is B.J. Penn’s fault. Had Penn not been preoccupied with bouncing around and pursuing fights with Lyoto Machida at heavyweight and the like, he almost certainly would have reigned as the top 155er in the sport for nearly a decade and be considered one of the very best fighters ever and the unquestioned top lightweight of all time. But he didn’t and so instead the top of the lightweight historical rankings is a muddled mess.

So, absent one clear-cut lightweight GOAT to measure Khabib against, let’s look at all the fighters who can reasonably claim to be in that “top lightweight” conversation. It’s a long list but I think we can boil it down to: B.J. Penn, Eddie Alvarez, Frankie Edgar, Benson Henderson, Takanori Gomi, Rafael dos Anjos, Gilbert Melendez, Gray Maynard, Cowboy . Cerrone, Jens Pulver, Shinya Aoki, Sean Sherk, Dustin Poirier, and Anthony Pettis. (We’ll get to Tony Ferguson in a second).

While all of those fighters, in their prime, are excellent, I struggle seeing any of them actually beating Khabib. He’s already beaten Poirier and RDA, Melendez, Pulver, and Frankie are far too small, Gomi was not a good enough defensive wrestler nor is Cowboy, and I’m not sure there is a worse stylistic matchup for Anthony Pettis than Khabib. Khabib could actually probably outbox Sherk but even if not, he’d just GSP him and as much as I’d like to entertain the possibility that Aoki’s guard work might pose some problems for Khabib, we’ve seen how Aoki takes punches. Khabib smashes and his sambo background mitigates even the possibility of a leglock from Aoki.

So that leaves us with BJ, Eddie, Bendo, and Gray. Gray’s the best pure wrestler of the bunch but he’s striking isn’t even that good to make me think he’s got a chance. That one would just end up with prolonged fence stalls where Khabib would succeed enough eventually, or jab him to a decision.

Bendo is perhaps slightly intriguing because he’s a solid wrestler and excellent scrambler plus he kicks at range and has a knack for winning completely bogus decisions.

B.J. is the one most people will probably default to as he built a career of beating wrestlers but I don’t see how he does it against Khabib. For one, we saw how Georges St-Pierre handled B.J. in the rematch and for another, B.J.’s biggest weakness has always been his cardio. Plus, Penn’s preferred takedown defense of giving up single legs matches up poorly against Khabib’s style of chain-wrestling.

That leaves Eddie Alvarez as the most likely candidate to cause Khabib problems but I still think it’s uphill sledding for The Underground King. Eddie’s footwork and boxing is his biggest asset but at the end of the day, we’ve seen Eddie lose to a number of people and get outwrestled by worse wrestlers than Khabib. He’s scrappy as hell so you can never count him out but I don’t see how any lightweight in history realistically beating Khabib.

Which beings us to Tony Ferguson. El Cucuy is an all-time great lightweight but I’ve always thought he matches up poorly with Khabib. Ferguson is not a tremendous defensive wrestler and I don’t believe his guard will work well against Khabib. Add in the fact that Tony’s a slow starter and approaching 36 years old, and much of Khabib’s dominance seems to stem from the fact that he jumps out to early leads and has his opponents playing catchup, so I don’t like the outlook for El Cucuy. His limitless cardio will always give him a chance but in the end, he’s likely to fall like all the others.

How good is Dustin Poirier?

In the aftermath of UFC 242, many people started questioning just how good Poirier is. Obviously, Poirier is great but he was steamrolled by Nurmagomedov so what happened? Is Khabib that good? Was the style matchup that bad for Dustin? Or was Poirier’s run a bit of smoke and mirrors? Well I come firmly down on the side of “Khabib is that good” because I think Dustin Poirier is the second-best lightweight in the world and would beat both Tony Ferguson and Conor McGregor.

“What?!” You say. “Conor already got Dustin out of there in under two minutes! What a joke you are.” Yes, Conor walloped Dustin once already but that was a very different Poirier. Prior to the McGregor fight, Poirier was mostly a blood and guts fighter with big power. After the McGregor loss, he moved up to lightweight and really started refining his technique and has since become an incredible defensive fighter and a much better striker. The reason he won the interim title and went on such an incredible run was largely on the back of marrying his old aggressive-power style with a tactical defensive game plan.

Think about this, Jose Aldo is the best defensive fighter in MMA history. That is not debatable, it is just fact. Twice Jose Aldo fought Max Holloway and was knocked out both times. But when Max and Poirier rematched, Max returned to his corner looking flummoxed and telling them he couldn’t hit Poirier because he was “blocking funny”. Conor is one of the most capable offensive fighters in MMA, and an excellent tactician, but in the rematch he would struggle to have the same success he had with Poirier early, and in the later rounds, Poirier’s superior cardio would give McGregor hell. Poirier is now calling for the rematch so maybe we’ll get to see it though.

As for Tony - which you didn’t ask about but tough cookies - Poirier runs him. Ferguson is the deserved number two in the division but he’s getting older and even in his prime Poirier’s blend of defense, power, and cardio seems to line up incredibly well against El Cucuy.

Speaking of Conor

None? Really, with Conor there are no bad fights. It goes overlooked because of all the other things surrounding a Conor McGregor fight but he’s one of the most exciting in-cage products in the history of the sport. He’s fought 11 times in the UFC and scored Fight of the Night or a Performance of the Night honors in 9 of those bouts. The only two fights he hasn’t made extra scratch on is the Holloway bout where he tore his knee up and then the thrashing by Khabib. That’s an incredible run.

Look, McGregor became a global superstar because of all the extras - the trash talk, the persona, the big wins, etc . . . - but the straw that stirs the drink for him as always been that when it gets down to it, Conor can fight his ass off and does so in the most fan-friendly way possible. That’s why I’m still holding out hope for Gaethje next, because it’s the most exciting fight in MMA history. But even if that doesn’t happen, there’s no wrong way to eat this Reese’s.

But, for the sake of argument, the worst three options are as follows:

  1. Khabib rematch. He doesn’t deserve it, the same thing would happen, and Tony-Khabib needs to happen.
  2. Frankie Edgar. Frankie doesn’t have much tread on the tires and this fight doesn’t really get the juices flowing for anyone other than Frankie’s accountant.
  3. I dunno, like Leon Edwards? I mean, no one really wants to see Leon fight so . . .

But seriously, aside from those fights, anyone else is pretty great. Anthony Pettis? Sign me up. Donald Cerrone? They should’ve fought ages ago. Dustin rematch? All in. Max rematch? Gangbusters. Nate Diaz vs. Jorge Masvidal winner? Divine. Just put Conor in the cage with any live body and it will almost certainly be entertaining.

Islam Makhachev

First off, loved you in Tokyo Drift, the best of the Fast & Furious movies.

Secondly, despite Khabib anointing Islam as “the next champion” at UFC 242, Islam is a good but not great fighter who I can’t see making it to the top-5 of the division. He’s basically a less athletic version of Khabib and unless you really start to think about it, you don’t realize just how great of an athlete Khabib is and how much that athleticism matters to his overall game.

Yes, Khabib is a skilled grappling technician with nearly perfect control and pressure, but that’s once he’s in the spots he wants to be in. Before he gets into his preferred positions, he’s pretty rudimentary. Go back and watch some of his other fights. The amount of times he shoots low singles is astonishing for an elite fighter. Like, the only other time I recall seeing a low single in the past decade is when Randy did it to James Tony. That’s because it shouldn’t work against a real opponent but Khabib makes it work because he’s super fast and otherworldly strong. Or consider his striking. Khabib does nothing on the feet that would be considered pretty but he’s actually a pretty effective boxer because he has a great chin and stupidly fast hands. He dropped McGregor off a very basic head feint and then a right hand that flashed like lightning.

The point is, Islam has much of Khabib’s same skillset, but he doesn’t have the elite athleticism that separates Nurmagomedov from everyone else and without that, it makes Islam the kind of guy people are really talking about when they say things like “well, Khabib is a one-trick pony, you just have to stop the takedowns”. Stopping the takedowns is a legitimate strategy against Islam and so that does ultimately cap how far he can rise in the division.

Jon Jones’ next fight

Honestly, I have no damn clue. When Jones tweeted that he had big news coming, I assumed it was a Jan Blachowicz fight. But since that’s now off the table I got nothing. It’s weird too because Jon said he was trying to have a very active 2019 to make it up to his fans but there hasn’t been much talk lately about what’s next for him. I can’t imagine it’s a move to heavyweight quite yet but hell, maybe that’s it. Maybe Jon watched Stipe get completely hustled on the floor and thought, “Damn, Ryan Bader probably beats Stipe, I sure as hell will” and has finally decided to pull the trigger.

In fact, that’s what I’m going to bet, not just because Jon will knuckle up Stipe but because by calling dibs right now, he twists the knife one final time on Daniel Cormier by taking the trilogy fight between Cormier and Stipe out of the equation entirely. A truly savage move by Bones.

After that, he’ll fight DC a third time just to rub it in and then he’ll go back down to light heavyweight and fight like, Corey Anderson because methinks he shouldn’t want any part of Francis Ngannou given how gun shy he was against Thiago Santos.

Interdivisional non-title fights

You nailed a couple of good ones (though Edgar-Cruz doesn’t count since Frankie is dropping to 135 and that’s 100 percent the fight they should make). Romero-DC is one of those fights I’ve always dreamed of happening but know it never will and Aldo-Pettis is the perfect fight for both of them. Aside from those, I’d love to see Gustafsson move up and take on Alistair Overeem (though it appears Rockhold-Gustafsson may be more likely to happen) and I’ve wanted to see Tyron Woodley move up and take on some middleweights, maybe Romero. But the holy grail of this idea is the fight I’ve been calling for for the past two years: Robbie Lawler vs. Anderson Silva. It’s a perfect fight for both men, especially given where their careers are.

The Eagle vs. El Cucuy

These are the questions I live for. First, let’s set the parameters.

There are many kinds of eagles native to Russia - including ones that try to attack and fly off with f*cking deer - but the most famous Russian eagle is the double-headed eagle found on the coat of arms of Russia, so that will be one combatant. The other is a little trickier as depending on the version, El Cucuy can be many different things or have many different appearances. In some tellings it’s a wolf-like creature with huge ears, in others it’s more like a person or Bogeyman, and in others it’s basically an anthropomorphic alligator. Basically the only thing all the versions have in common is that El Cucuy comes and takes bad children away in the night and (most likely) eats them. So for our purposes let’s split the difference and say that El Cucuy is all of those things by way of being a shapeshifter whose sole purpose in life is to eat naughty children.

So now that we have a clearer picture of our two fighters, what happens? Well, it feels like everything lines up very well for the Russian Eagle.

For one thing, it seems like El Cucuy is just a worse version of a Russian Eagle. They both use stealth and covert attacks to capture, kill, and eat their prey, but El Cucuy relies heavily on the cover of night, while the Russian Eagle is just as adept at hunting during the day. Even if the battle happened to take place at night, the Eagle has two heads, meaning one can sleep while the other stays on high alert so El Cucuy’s skullduggery would get nowhere. Advantage, Russian Eagle.

Secondly, the Eagle is not a naughty child, but a fully-grown Eagle with two heads for fighting. While El Cucuy is no doubt fearsome for a six-year old, it’s a whole different ball game when there’s something that can fight back standing across the arena from it. As Omar Little once said, “How you expect to run with the wolves come night, when you spend all day sparring wit’ the puppies?” Advantage, Russian Eagle.

Thirdly, we shouldn’t underestimate how big of an advantage flying is. When push comes to shove, the Russian Eagle can go airborne where El Cucuy cannot follow, meaning a tactical retreat is always an option. Advantage, Russian Eagle.

Finally, we need to recognize that El Cucuy is actually not nearly as tough as portrayed. Yes, it eats children which gives off the appearance of being a hardened mythological entity not to be trifled with but when you really think about it, it’s just a product of strong marketing. El Cucuy isn’t some mindless monster running amok and eating all the children it can get its hands on. It just eats the bad ones. Think about it, that means there’s the implicit idea that what El Cucuy is doing is for the good of society. Like, at some point El Cucuy was sitting around moralizing about harming innocent lives and ultimately decided “Welp, I have to eat kids to survive but what if I just eat the naughty ones. Then that won’t be so bad. Plus, then maybe parents won’t try to keep me from eating their kids if I’m only going after the bad ones so it’ll be easier to hunt.” Does that sound like a truly fearsome beast do you?

Meanwhile, the Russian Eagle is both Russian and an Eagle, two things most people would opt not to pick a fight with. If you somehow could mix in a badger you’d have the perfect trifecta but instead, the Russian Eagle gets a second head. If the Russian Eagle is hungry, it’s going to fly around and then kill and eat whatever has the bad fortune to come across its gaze first, innocence be damned. That’s a hardened badass.

Unless El Cucuy can shapeshift itself into Heracles, it’s in trouble.

Thanks for reading this week and thank you for everyone who sent in Tweets! Do you have any burning questions about at least tacitly related to combat sports? Then you’re in luck because you can send your Hot Tweets to me, @JedKMeshew and I will answer them! Doesn’t matter if they’re topical or insane. Get weird with it. Let’s have fun.