UFC 223: Khabib v Ferguson: Career-Ending Battle?
It seems that the logjam in the lightweight division of UFC will finally come to an end at UFC 223 on April 7th. This is the date pencilled in for the long-awaited – and frequently postponed – clash between Khabib Nurmagomedov and interim title holder Tony Ferguson.
Officially, Conor McGregor has held the title in this division since claiming it from Eddie Alvarez back at UFC 205 in November 2016, but he is yet to defend it, and is locked in negotiations with the UFC over payments. His only outing in 2017 was the high-profile boxing match with Floyd Mayweather Jr., and though he has suggested that he might return to the Octagon in August or September, patience has clearly worn out in UFC circles.
UFC President Dana White has not definitively confirmed that McGregor will be stripped of his title following UFC 223 but has underlined that the fight between Nurmagomedov and Ferguson will go ahead.
Their credentials could hardly be more impressive. Despite being troubled with injuries and weight issues, Nurmagomedov has an awe-inspiring 25-0 win-loss record as a professional, recording nine of his wins in the Octagon. Most recently, he overwhelmed Edson Barboza in a one-sided fight at UFC 219.
Ferguson claimed the title of UFC interim lightweight champion by beating Kevin Lee at UFC 216 last October. That was the tenth win in a row for a fighter whose undefeated run stretches back to May 2012. Ferguson has regularly asked for bouts with the top names in the division – McGregor, Nate Diaz, and Nurmagomedov – and he is about to get his wish at the fourth time of asking. The coming together of two of the best fighters to grace the division was already keenly anticipated when it was arranged for the third time, at UFC 209, and their respective victories since then have only heightened expectations.
This being UFC, the rhetoric ahead of this fight is typically over the top, with Nurmagomedov’s manager, Ali Abdel-Aziz, suggesting that his man is going to do so much damage to his opponent at UFC 223 that Ferguson may never fight again.
Abdel-Aziz stated: “I feel sorry for Tony Ferguson, because on April 7th, Tony Ferguson is probably never gonna fight again. I’m concerned for his wellbeing, I’m serious. I’m not just saying that to promote a fight. I’m concerned for him…And I’ll tell you something…he’s not gonna be a normal human being. He’ll be in trouble…He will not be the same. He might not fight again.”
Bookmakers seem to agree that Ferguson has it all to do. Stakers.com rate Nurmagomedov as the hot favourite – they have rated him a 1.36 shot for victory, with Ferguson at 2.87. Those odds are no doubt prompted by the impressive nature of Nurmagomedov’s beating of Barboza and the suggestion that his preparations for that bout went much more smoothly than has been the case in the past, in terms of weight cut and nutrition.
However, though the pace and pressure that Nurmagomedov exerts when he’s in full flight can be intimidating, this fight might not be as one-sided as the bookmakers – and the Nurmagomedov camp – suggest. While both men have impressive records and an array of weapons, neither possesses the kind of striking that can end a fight in one blow. Essentially, they’re both grapplers, and that is likely to lead to an attritional encounter.
Ferguson may be able to make some inroads early on, perhaps with a few guillotines or triangles, but he is likely to spend most of the fight on the back foot. However, though he is likely to dominate the bout, Nurmagomedov doesn’t have the stopping power to deliver the fight-ending blow, and a grinding points victory for the Russian seems the likeliest outcome.
The one wild card ahead of this fight – aside from the possibility that injury or illness might lead to yet another postponement – is Nurmagomedov’s weight-cutting issues. If his fight camp doesn’t run as smoothly as it did before the Barboza fight, then Ferguson could be in with a chance of causing a minor upset.
For MMA fans, however, the most important thing is that these two finally get into the Octagon together for one of the most eagerly awaited fights in UFC history. The bout promises to be a division-defining encounter, and the prospect of the winner taking on a vengeful Conor McGregor later in the year adds an extra level of drama to what should already be a premier sporting spectacle.