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Is Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Max Holloway the best booked UFC fight that never happened?

Khabib Nurmagomedov (left); Max Holloway (right)
Khabib Nurmagomedov (left); Max Holloway (right)
Johny Payne
ANALYST
Modified 05 Apr 2021
Feature

Yes. Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Max Holloway is regarded by many in the combat sports world as the best-booked UFC fight that never happened.

The fight between The Eagle and The Blessed One was put together without much buildup to it.

Khabib Nurmagomedov was willing to risk facing a dangerous striker and the then-UFC featherweight champion, despite having prepared for a different opponent. Meanwhile, Max Holloway stepped in on short notice to face one of the most crafty and vicious grapplers in MMA history.

Unfortunately, the fight never came to fruition. Nevertheless, today, we take a brief look back at the fight that could’ve gone down in history as one of the greatest combat sports contests of all time…


Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Max Holloway – How did the fight end up being booked?

Khabib Nurmagomedov was scheduled to fight Max Holloway for the UFC lightweight title at UFC 223 (April 7th, 2018). But this wasn’t the original plan for the event. Back then, the UFC lightweight title was held by Conor McGregor, who’d won it in November 2016 and hadn’t defended it or competed in the UFC since winning it.

The plan for UFC 223 was that it’d be headlined by a five-round lightweight bout between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson. This fight would determine the new UFC lightweight champion.

Bear in mind though, McGregor wasn’t going to be stripped of the title until the winner of the UFC 223 main event matchup would be confirmed. At this point in time, the Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson fight had been booked and canceled thrice over the past three years. This was the fourth time the fight had been booked.

Alas, the Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson matchup ended up being canceled yet again. Ferguson suffered a knee injury and withdrew from the UFC 223 fight on April 1st, 2018.

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This was when the UFC roped in then-UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov. The winner of Nurmagomedov vs. Holloway would be crowned the new UFC lightweight champion.

Unfortunately, on the day of the UFC 223 weigh-ins, Max Holloway had to withdraw from the event due to being declared medically unfit to compete. Holloway had reportedly faced serious health issues while cutting weight on short notice for the event. Thankfully, Max Holloway went on to recover from the incident.

Another notable occurrence was, needless to say, the UFC 223 media day bus attack perpetrated by Conor McGregor and his accomplices on April 5th, 2018. This had a butterfly effect on the UFC 223 main event, as other lightweights on the card, who could’ve replaced Holloway against Khabib Nurmagomedov, were affected by the attack.

Michael Chiesa was hurt in the attack, and his opponent Anthony Pettis weighed in for UFC 223 at 155.2 pounds. Pettis was 0.2 pounds above the weight limit and chose not to weigh in again.

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Paul Felder was also on the card and had weighed in at the lightweight title fight limit of 155 pounds. But he wasn’t a ranked UFC lightweight, so the NYSAC (New York State Athletic Commission) disallowed him from competing against Khabib Nurmagomedov.

The UFC was subsequently allowed to book Felder’s opponent Al Iaquinta against Khabib Nurmagomedov in the main event of UFC 223. Iaquinta had weighed in at 155.2 pounds, however, and the UFC claimed that they’d still recognize him as the UFC lightweight champion if he wins, albeit unofficially. Had he won, he’d have been booked in the next UFC lightweight title matchup at another event.

Regardless, it was The Eagle who ended up winning the UFC 223 fight and becoming the new UFC lightweight champion. Khabib Nurmagomedov did this by dominantly out-grappling and out-striking Al Iaquinta, winning via unanimous decision, with the judges scoring the bout 50–44, 50–43, and 50–43 in favor of Nurmagomedov.


Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Max Holloway – A brilliant stylistic clash

Throughout his career, Khabib Nurmagomedov has received widespread criticism for being a relatively unrefined striker. His detractors have even gone as far as calling his striking skills rudimentary.

And it goes without saying that one of the greatest strikers in MMA history, Max Holloway, was undoubtedly touted as a bad stylistic matchup for Nurmagomedov.

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Well, such was the case, at least on paper. On one hand, Khabib Nurmagomedov’s supporters claimed that Max Holloway would be taken down and stopped via ground strikes or submission, or perhaps he’d be dominated en route to a one-sided decision win for The Eagle.

On the other hand, Khabib Nurmagomedov’s critics opined that Max Holloway’s stellar takedown defense would ensure that the fight takes place on the feet. Holloway was truly the superior striker of the two, with an endless gas tank to boot, and would systematically break Nurmagomedov en route to a signature Holloway KO/TKO win.

Some believed that Max Holloway’s striking would daze Khabib Nurmagomedov and drown him, so much so that Holloway would end up submitting an exhausted Eagle. Maybe Holloway could fend off all takedown attempts, thoroughly outclass Nurmagomedov on the feet, and win a clear-cut decision.

After all, anything is possible in a fight!

Although the fight game never got to witness this gem of a fight come to fruition, one thing’s for sure – Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Max Holloway is etched in the history books as one of the greatest UFC fights that never happened.

Published 05 Apr 2021, 07:47 IST
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