UFC 242 Editorial: On the cruciality of an Eagle and a Boogeyman

Heading into UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi on Saturday, few if any doubted that Khabib Nurmagomedov was the best lightweight in the world. That…

By: Jordan Breen | 4 years ago
UFC 242 Editorial: On the cruciality of an Eagle and a Boogeyman
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Heading into UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi on Saturday, few if any doubted that Khabib Nurmagomedov was the best lightweight in the world. That said, UFC interim champion Dustin Poirier’s sudden, rapid improvement over a six-fight unbeaten streak made him a provocative and enticing underdog pick for many – a notion that was brutally dispelled over 12 woefully lopsided minutes.

As is often the case on any UFC card, or any other major promotion’s offering, the lightweight division was on prominent display and offered us an array of exciting outcomes and intriguing insights. However, no matter whether or not you believe the 155-pound division still holds the mantle as MMA’s finest, regardless of how you want to play undercard matchmaker for the rest of the weight class, now more than ever, there’s only one fight to be made: yes, we need to try for a mindboggling fifth time to have Nurmagomedov face former interim titlist Tony Ferguson. In a division perpetually filled with Fight of the Night contenders and must-see bouts, it is the only contest that matters.

It’s not necessarily about how pressing the style matchup is. After all, Poirier is a well-rounded, ambidextrous, violent fighter who has shown tremendous growth in his game over the last two and a half years. At first blush, his style isn’t terribly different than Ferguson’s, though I would submit that Ferguson is a more classic boxer with a more unorthodox ground game. That notwithstanding, Nurmagomedov ragdolled Poirier, utilizing his idiosyncratic top-heavy – no, top-crushing – style of wrestling that ran the typically well-conditioned American out of gas within seven minutes, looking even more dominant than he did 11 months ago against Conor McGregor.

Per Haljestam-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been watching this sport for 20 years now and while I’ve seen plenty of wrestlers with more amateur accolades, I’ve never seen someone wrestle in the cage like Nurmagomedov. His indefatigability on account of his ability to control pace, his footwork, his variety of takedowns. The smaller subtleties, like switching to a rear waistlock when he can’t get a single-leg takedown, then forcing his opponents to tripod onto their head, crushing their diaphragm and stealing their air. His ability to use his hands to lock his opponents up while using his hips and legs to pass into dominant position and trap them. How many fighters do you see, when their opponent attempts to shimmy up the cage wall, triangle their legs, then drill them with uppercuts from their knees?

“I can’t get him the f-ck off me, man,” an exhausted Poirier told his corner between rounds. The second and third rounds. Two minutes before he got choked out. Dealing with a different animal.

Typically when we think of “style” in MMA, we think about what particular martial art a fighter comes from, what techniques they can extrapolate from that art and how they play into the cage. With Nurmagomedov, it’s more complex, which to my mind, makes him the consummate MMA fighter. Yes, in the broadest strokes, he’s a “wrestler,” but it’s the little intricacies of his game that make him such a dominant force, make him so hard to train for and lead to even elite opponents in an outstanding weight class looking like hapless amateurs against him. And on the topic of oversimplification, many are keen to point out just how hardened and badass Dagestani wrestlers are – I won’t necessarily disagree – I’m one of many who thought he lost to Gleison Tibau in his UFC debut seven years ago. While Nurmagomedov and his ancestors may have a brutish, hardscrabble history, his dominance in the cage is the product of smart, clever coaching that have transformed him into a generational terror.

So, if he’s so damn good, why is the Ferguson fight so damn important? Surely with Saturday’s announcement of the infinitely pined-for fight between Nate Diaz and Jorge Masvidal, if the winner dropped to 155 pounds to face Nurmagomedov, fans would be stoked, creating a grassroots excitement that would permeate the sport nevermind that either are easy style matchups for the Dagestani. I know that in this era of this UFC we’re living in nonsensical times under nonsensical overlords, but even this is too obvious to ignore. There are simply too many reasons for this to be the lockdown, no questions asked, next fight for Nurmagomedov.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Just pick one. First of all, we’ve been promised this fight four times before, indicating there is both a promotional and fan interest in the bout. The first time around was The Ultimate Fighter 22 Finale in December 2015, with Nurmagomedov pulling out due to a rib injury. Fast forward five months for the UFC on Fox 19, Ferguson suffers an undisclosed illness that causes blood and fluid to back up into his lungs, knocking him off the card. Just eleven months later, the two were due to square off for an interim lightweight title, before Nurmagomedov was deemed unfit to compete due to complications of weight cutting just before weigh-ins for UFC 209 in Las Vegas.

Fourth time is the charm, right? Wrong. Less than a week out from their slated bout at UFC 223 for the vacant lightweight title in April 2018, the UFC announced Ferguson had torn ligaments in his knee. It was said that he ripped his knee up while jerking around to greet a fan during a media engagement and tripping. The UFC announced his withdrawal on April 1, which made it at first seem like a joke, then simply sickly surreal. We’ve had this carrot dangled in front of us for long enough.

No one likes an unanswered question. The fundamental query that magnetizes us to this sport is “Who is the best?”, and at the same time, we recognize that there’s a reason that these athletes actually get in the cage and compete, rather than fights being simply voted on via paper ballot by fans and media.

Look at this year alone: did you think Weili Zhang would put Jessica Andrade out flat in 42 seconds? Did you think Jack Hermansson could take Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza down several times and outlast him over 25 minutes? Did you anticipate Anthony Pettis landing a Superman punch to put Stephen Thompson in the grave? Probably not. Ferguson has won 12 consecutive bouts, a number that Nurmagomedov only equaled Saturday with the Poirier win. Fighters who excel still deserve their day in court, their chance to thrill and surprise us, put their name on the map and gain greater bargaining power for themselves. Sure, Nurmagomedov just signed a mighty rich multi-million dollar contract, but I’m sure Ferguson would like a bite at the apple as well.

Above and beyond the business is pure competition, and I think this one cuts two especially crucial ways. Firstly, “The Eagle” and “El Cucuy” are both, even by MMA standards, unusually proud individuals. Yes, Nurmagomedov explicitly said in the cage following the Poirier win he wanted to take a little time off to relax and rest up and Ferguson has been embattled with his own personal issues. However, thing being equal, if you asked them both if they would feel satisfied if they ended their respective careers not having fought one another, I guarantee you both of them would give a resounding no.

On the other side of the coin, for fans and media, it’s been a long-running debate as to who the greatest lightweight in MMA history is. Now, not every division has it so easy: Stipe Miocic’s recent, redemptive knockout of Daniel Cormier has complicated the heavyweight history book, nevermind the protests from Fedor Emelianenko diehards; many may champion Max Holloway over Jose Aldo at 145 pounds by virtue of his two head-to-head wins; bantamweight is a mess with the constant turnover in the division; and can we still call Joanna Jedrezczyk the greatest strawweight woman ever with the constant flux we’ve seen recently at 115 pounds?

Still, lightweight has been complicated for longer and produces less compelling answers as to the all-time greatest. Is it Takanori Gomi for his longevity, star power and two spells atop the division? Is it B.J. Penn, who once destroyed Gomi, but never racked up that many great lightweight wins and in fact, his best win ever is a welterweight upset of Matt Hughes? Is it Eddie Alvarez for racking up major wins over the division’s best fighters for 12 years? None of them seem like satisfactory answers. This is a sport of constant flux, so I wouldn’t expect any individual fight outcome to stain the history book for the next century, but a Nurmagomedov-Ferguson fight would offer us the best vision at the most dominant lightweight we’ve ever had, which at this point, I think is something the best division in MMA deserves.

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