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Making the Grade: UFC 242: Khabib vs. Poirier

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

If there was any doubt about Khabib Nurmagomedov’s claim as the best lightweight in the sport, those questions were emphatically answered during UFC 242 on Saturday.

The undefeated Russian dominated interim champion Dustin Poirier for the majority of two-plus rounds before finishing the fight with a rear-naked choke submission in the third.

Nurmagomedov is now 28-0 in his career and he’s lost all of one round in his entire 12-fight UFC career — and the round he lost in the fight with Conor McGregor is highly debatable.

In the co-main event, Paul Felder eked out a hard-fought split decision over Edson Barboza in a rematch from their first fight in 2015. Felder had to endure plenty of Barboza’s signature striking as well as a nasty cut that opened as a result of an accidental head butt to work his way back into the fight before getting the nod on the judges’ scorecards.

The event also served as the first marquee show after the UFC embarked on a five-year relationship with Abu Dhabi to bring a card there along with a title fight every year for what has to be a rather handsome fee.

There’s a lot to unpack from the event on Saturday so with that let’s look at the best and the worst of what took place at UFC 242: Khabib vs. Poirier.


The Eagle Soars

Khabib Nurmagomedov has officially become the boogeyman of the UFC lightweight division.

It’s not enough that he’s the most dominant fighter in the 155-pound division — a weight class that is stacked from top to bottom — but he constantly mauls his competition. What makes Nurmagomedov such a scary individual to fight is that every opponent he faces knows exactly what he’s going to try to do and not a single person has been able to stop him.

Sure, Nurmagomedov has missed a takedown here or there but ultimately he always seems to find a way to drag his opponents down to the canvas and from there it’s like watching the nature channel when a lion captures a gazelle. Nurmagomedov is relentless with his ground attack and at that point the fighters facing him are just trying to survive to the final bell.

On Saturday, Nurmagomedov had to fight through more adversity than perhaps any time since he became a top-ranked lightweight and ultimately that was a single punch landed by Dustin Poirier and a guillotine choke attempt that was eventually thwarted. In both instances, Nurmagomedov came roaring back by winning the second round after Poirier landed his best punch of the fight and then slipping free of the guillotine choke before finishing the interim champion a few seconds later.

Like all great champions, Nurmagomedov will be judged by the kind of competition that opposed him and that’s where his accomplishments are made even more impressive. Poirier laid out a path of destruction going through Eddie Alvarez, Anthony Pettis, Justin Gaethje and Max Holloway to get to the title fight and he still didn’t make it past the third round with Nurmagomedov.

Obviously challenges still lie ahead for Nurmagomedov, most notably a showdown with Tony Ferguson, not to mention a power-punching All-American wrestler named Justin Gaethje as well as a top prospect like Gregor Gillespie, who might actually have best weapons to counter the Russian’s dominant grappling game.

Despite all those fighters coming up the ranks, it’s still going to be awfully hard for anybody to dethrone Nurmagomedov as he looks to tie the all-time title defense record in the lightweight division with his next fight.

The Diamond Still Shines

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Dustin Poirier didn’t leave Abu Dhabi as the undisputed lightweight champion but chances are he will return home to Louisiana as one of the most beloved fighters in the entire sport.

Nothing has ever come easy to Poirier, which is what makes his story that much more compelling when you start to realize what he’s gone through to finally reach the apex where he could compete for a UFC title.

When his fight with Nurmagomedov ended, there was no bad blood or disrespect — instead Poirier paid homage to his opponent while fighting back the tears of disappointment, which showed just how much all of this meant to him. Much like fellow Louisiana native Daniel Cormier, Poirier seemed more concerned about the people he let down by losing rather than passing the buck on why he didn’t get the win.

The reality is Poirier shouldn’t be ashamed of his performance much less issue apologies for coming up short against Nurmagomedov. In reality, Poirier probably came closer to handing Nurmagomedov a defeat than any other opponent he’s faced in the UFC and that’s just building blocks for the future.

When it’s all said and done, Poirier may not have a UFC title around his waist but he’s still the best that this sport has to offer. He does everything the right way from his performances inside the Octagon to the way he carries himself outside the cage, not to mention how he’s always dedicated to helping those less fortunate than him.

And don’t forget Poirier has been here before — he’s suffered losses but then found a way to get back to where he wants to go. Don’t be surprised if a year or two from now that Poirier is right back in title contention, banging on the door of another opportunity to live his dream of becoming an undisputed UFC champion.

New Blood

There is no doubt that UFC 242 was a top-heavy card dependent on the main event between Nurmagomedov and Poirier but the rest of the event featured a couple of potential future title contenders and some young up and coming talent worth watching.

In the co-main event, Paul Felder earned a razor-close split decision over Edson Barboza in a rematch from another painfully close fight in 2015. It’s possible to argue all day about who won the fight because it was a back and forth battle throughout but Felder’s victory ultimately creates a new threat to the top of the lightweight division.

Felder has been making a steady climb up the rankings but now with a signature win over Barboza on his resume, he’s finally ready to challenge the fighters in the upper echelon of the 155-pound weight class. When Felder mentioned names like Conor McGregor and Justin Gaethje after his win, that’s exactly the kinds of fights that should be awaiting him when he books his return to action later this year or in 2020.

Meanwhile, Islam Makhachev picked up another impressive win over highly touted ground specialist Davi Ramos as he earned his sixth victory in a row overall. It’s time for Makhachev to get a top 15 ranked opponent so he can prove if he’s ready to hang with the best lightweights in the world.

Ottman Azaitar was another bright addition to the UFC roster and he made an immediate impact with a highlight reel knockout in his debut fight. While it was his third appearance inside the Octagon, Muslim Salikhov also proved why he was promoted as a human highlight reel when he was signed to the UFC.

Makhachev, Azaitar and Salikhov are also going to be great additions to upcoming UFC cards throughout Europe as the promotion continues to expand into new markets across the world.


It’s Getting Hot in Here

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

When the UFC inked the five-year deal to go to Abu Dhabi, there was little doubt that the red carpet would be rolled out for the mixed martial arts promotion, especially with a title fight as big as the one involving lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. In fact much like the last time the UFC visited the United Arab Emirates, an entire stadium was build for the fights that were held in Abu Dhabi.

Unfortunately, construction on the new stadium wasn’t even finished when fighters began arriving for the event with air conditioning units reportedly not installed until days before UFC 242 took place.

Abu Dhabi is rather warm this time of year with temperatures peaking north of 100 degrees daily and unlike many desert regions, it was also remarkably humid, which makes the heat that much more unbearable. That’s the kind of hot, swampy conditions the fighters had to endure on Saturday with more than a few remarking afterwards how sweltering it was to compete in those conditions.

During the broadcast, play-by-play commentator Jon Anik noted that the temperature on the arena floor felt like 123 degrees during the main card.

It’s unknown how much or how little that ultimately affected some of the performances witnessed at UFC 242 but the fact is it shouldn’t have happened and it absolutely should not happen again.

Thankfully none of the fighters experienced heat stroke during the event on Saturday but it definitely wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that it could have happened. Just walking around in those conditions can be dangerous much less exerting yourself physically in a fight and the repercussions could have been disastrous.

If a new arena is going to be built every time the UFC comes to town, the promotion would be advised to ensure that construction is completed and the building has the proper temperature control installed before arriving on the ground. Fighters should not be required to compete under those harsh conditions, especially considering the kind of inherent danger that comes along with physical exertion in 120-plus degree heat.


If He Accepts the Fight

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It’s a dangerous business being declared the next in line for a title shot in the UFC.

On paper, every athlete scratching and clawing their way to the top of a division dreams of the day they hear the news that a title shot is awaiting them in the near future. Unfortunately, being a No. 1 contender these days is almost as much a blessing as it is a curse.

This past week negotiations broke down in the proposed title fight between Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington for UFC 244 in New York. Sources confirmed to MMA Fighting that the issue essentially revolved around money and the offers that were being made to the reigning champion and No. 1 contender to compete in November.

When terms with Covington couldn’t be reached, rather than taking a breath and sitting back down to the negotiating table, the UFC opted to just move onto the next best option. That was Jorge Masvidal, who was fresh off back-to-back knockout wins over Darren Till and Ben Askren. Then negotiations with Usman and his camp reportedly broke down and there were rumors swirling that perhaps the UFC would strip his championship away and make an entirely new title fight to headline the upcoming show at Madison Square Garden.

Now make no mistake — this is not the first time the UFC has threatened to take away a title from a defending champion for not accepting a fight on the promotion’s terms. That threat has been lobbied numerous times over the years.

In the end, the UFC made an entirely new fight between Masvidal and Nate Diaz while also opting to invent a one-night championship title dubbed the ‘Bad Motherf—ker’ belt that will be awarded to the winner.

As it turns out, Masvidal vs. Diaz was the fight most people wanted to see anyway but the fact that it took a champion nearly being stripped of his title and a challenger who has absolutely earned his right to fight for the belt being passed over to make it happen is beyond insane.

On Saturday night, UFC president Dana White declared that Tony Ferguson would be the next fighter in line to face Khabib Nurmagomedov for the lightweight title while he added one small caveat onto his status as the new No. 1 contender.

“Tony Ferguson is next in line for the fight if he accepts the fight,” White said. “We’ll see how this thing plays out when Khabib will fight again and if Tony wants the fight.”

“If he accepts the fight” is absolutely promotional phrasing to put the onus back on Ferguson to take whatever offer is made to face Nurmagomedov rather than an actual negotiation where the two sides would haggle over money. If the terms of a deal aren’t acceptable, Ferguson and his management team may decline the offer, which means technically they turned down the fight.

And thus begins the constant circle where the blame is placed on the fighters for not taking a fight despite a million other mitigating factors potentially playing a part in why a particular matchup isn’t happening. There’s obviously more to the story involving Usman and Covington than some ridiculous notion that one of them afraid of the other.

Usman just dominated arguably one of the greatest welterweight champions in the history of the sport in Tyron Woodley and Covington did the same to possibly the scariest power puncher to ever set foot in the Octagon in Robbie Lawler. The reality is neither of them is scared to fight.

So think about this exact scenario if something happens — outside of a catastrophic injury — that prevents Ferguson from taking on Nurmagomedov next. Chances are Ferguson isn’t avoiding a fight he’s accepted four times previously — he might just be asking for more than the UFC is willing to give.