Weighing the Options of Khabib Nurmagomedov

Fightland Blog

By Tom Taylor

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Last Saturday, in the main event of UFC 205, UFC featherweight champion Conor McGregor made history as the first UFC fighter to hold titles in two weight classes simultaneously. He did so with a seemingly effortless second-round knockout of UFC lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez.

McGregor’s victory was so impressive—and so historically important—that it overshadowed all others on the card. Khabib Nurmagomedov’s lopsided thrashing of the dangerous Michael Johnson, however, clocked in as a close second.

With this victory over Johnson, which was won with a bone-bending, second-round kimura, Dagestan’s Nurmagomedov improved his overall record to a sparkling 24-0. Under normal circumstances, this incredible record would almost certainly earn him a shot at McGregor’s newly won lightweight crown. Nurmagomedov wasted no time in angling for this fight in his post-fight Octagon interview with Joe Rogan.

“I understand how crazy powerful the UFC PR machine is,” the streaking lightweight told Rogan. “[Conor McGregor] beginning of the year, he tapped like a chicken, end of the year, he fights for the title. Crazy.”

“I want a fight with your chicken, because this is the number-one easy fight in the lightweight division,” he continued.

Unfortunately for Nurmagomedov, circumstances in McGregor-ruled divisions are far from normal. Just as the Irish star departed from the featherweight division moments after winning the belt, he now plans to take some time off to father his first child with long-time girlfriend Dee Devlin. While the champ enjoys this hiatus from the sport, the many contenders in the two divisions he rules will be forced to skirmish amongst themselves without a belt to chase. That, of course, includes Nurmagomedov.

If a title bout with McGregor is out of question for the moment, Nurmagomedov has two choices: wait around and hope a bout with a returning McGregor materializes down the road, or take a fight in the meantime—and hope like hell he wins it. Given that Nurmagomedov has already endured long stretches of involuntary inactivity due to injuries, he’s unlikely to choose to wait around. This, of course, means another fight, and the opportunity to extend his record to an absurd 25-0.

So, if Nurmagomedov does take another fight, who might his opponent be?

Well, the most logical option seems to be Tony Ferguson. Currently riding high on a nine-fight win-streak—including a recent win over former champion Rafael Dos Anjos—Ferguson finds himself in a similar boat as Nurmagomedov. Like Nurmagomedov, he’s done more than enough to earn a shot at gold, but has also been deprived of the chance by the strange circumstances created by McGregor’s presence in the division. By pairing Nurmagomedov and Ferguson together, the UFC would not only be keeping both men busy, but also create what’s likely to be an incredibly exciting fight. Furthermore, Nurmagomedov and Ferguson have significant history together, having been scheduled two times to no avail in the past.

Yes, it’s safe to say that this fight makes a good deal of sense in McGregor’s stead. It could even be contested for an interim title if the Irishman’s absence from the division turns out to be a long one. Yet the UFC’s matchmaking team often works in mysterious ways. It’s entirely possible that they’ll go in another direction with Nurmagomedov and Ferguson.

So, in a world where the UFC elects not to pair Nurmagomedov and Ferguson together—perhaps because they don’t want to eliminate an intriguing lightweight contender in doing so—who might Nurmagomedov fight next?

Another enticing option is Brazil’s Edson Barboza. Though Barboza isn’t riding the kind of streak that Nurmagomedov and Ferguson are, he remains one of the lightweight division’s premier players, as he currently holds the number 5 spot in the divisional rankings. Given that he recently defeated a former UFC champion in Anthony Pettis and a former Strikeforce champion in Gilbert Melendez, he’s ready for another big step up the ladder, and Nurmagomedov would represent just that. Furthermore, a scrap between Barboza, arguably the best striker at lightweight, and Nurmagomedov, arguably the division’s best grappler, would represent an incredible style clash that harks back to the halcyon days of MMA, when pure strikers duked it out with hard-nosed grapplers under the fluorescent lights of rec center basements.

Then there is perhaps the least likely of all Nurmagomedov’s options: a scrap with the UFC’s fourth-ranked lightweight, Nate Diaz. Diaz has been around forever, but recently realized new heights over the course of two unforgettable welterweight battles with McGregor. These two fights thrust the Stockton native into the mainstream limelight, and transformed him into one of the sport’s biggest stars. Regrettably, however, he doesn’t appear interested in anything other than a trilogy battle with McGregor. And so, compelling as it would be, a bout between him and Nurmagomedov is unlikely to materialize. But we can hope…

At 24-0, Khabib Nurmagomedov has to be wondering what the hell else he has to do to earn a lightweight title shot. Unfortunately, it seems like he’ll have to do a little more waiting—and fighting—before he gets a crack at the division’s undisputed crown. The good news is that he’s got a handful of exciting matchup options with which to keep busy while McGregor takes his break.


Check out these related stories:

How Conor McGregor Killed Another King

After Huge Victory, Conor McGregor Wants an Ownership Stake in the UFC

Conor McGregor Wins a Second Title and Someone Forgot His Belt