Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson - could El Cucuy have been Khabib's kryptonite?

Could Tony Ferguson really have defeated Khabib Nurmagomedov?
Could Tony Ferguson really have defeated Khabib Nurmagomedov?
Scott Newman

The most cursed fight in UFC history, the Lightweight clash between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson – who both held UFC gold during their tenures with the promotion – was canceled on no fewer than five separate occasions.

And with Khabib now retired from MMA and Tony Ferguson looking a shadow of the fighter he once was during his prime, it’s safe to say that the chances of us ever seeing the fight are now slim to none.

But while plenty has been spoken about the cursed nature of the fight and the various times it was canceled, less has been said about what actually would’ve happened had the two fighters thrown down.

So was the idea that Tony Ferguson was the man with the best chance of defeating Khabib Nurmagomedov simply a myth? Or was there some truth in it?

Why did some UFC fans believe Tony Ferguson had a chance of defeating Khabib Nurmagomedov?

In his prime, Tony Ferguson was a genuine monster.
In his prime, Tony Ferguson was a genuine monster.

There’s no disputing that at his peak – from his 2013 return from injury to his 2020 loss to Justin Gaethje – that Tony Ferguson was a truly fantastic fighter.

But it’s the old adage that “styles make fights” that really made UFC fans believe that El Cucuy had a chance of defeating Nurmagomedov.

The Eagle ran through practically every opponent he faced in the UFC. But Dagestani dealt with strikers with ruthless precision in particular.

The likes of Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje simply couldn’t stop Khabib from taking them down. And once on the ground, they simply didn’t have the grappling skill to fend The Eagle off.

However, while Tony Ferguson was also a renowned striker, beating the likes of Rafael dos Anjos, Anthony Pettis and Josh Thomson with his kickboxing, he also had a pretty venomous ground game.

Of his 25 victories in MMA, eight came by submission, including six in the UFC.

And when Ferguson’s impressive wrestling background continued, the general feeling from certain circles was that Khabib Nurmagomedov would’ve struggled with him.

Essentially, the idea was that Ferguson – like McGregor, Poirier and Gaethje – would be favored over the Dagestani on the feet. But unlike those three, he’d also have the skills on the ground to really threaten Khabib there too.

What evidence was there for this?

Khabib Nurmagomedov was still a rising prospect when he was first booked against Tony Ferguson.
Khabib Nurmagomedov was still a rising prospect when he was first booked against Tony Ferguson.

Unfortunately, the idea of Tony Ferguson being able to test Khabib Nurmagomedov and possibly even beat him was largely without evidence to support it.

That’s because Khabib – with his incredible wrestling and pressure game – was practically in his own league when compared to the UFC’s other Lightweights.

Ferguson did deal with excellent grapplers such as Gleison Tibau and Kevin Lee during his peak years in the UFC.

However, it’s worth remembering that when the idea of Ferguson vs. Khabib was first mooted, The Eagle was still a rising star. In fact, he hadn’t picked up his signature wins over Poirier, McGregor and Gaethje.

Ferguson and Nurmagomedov were first set to face off in late 2014. At that point, Khabib’s best win was a bullying decision over Rafael dos Anjos.

So at that point, it probably did make sense that Ferguson, who was well-rounded in all areas, would provide the Dagestani with a unique threat.

In reality, though, this may not have been the case.

What happened when Tony Ferguson fought against wrestlers like Khabib Nurmagomedov?

Tony Ferguson had struggles against wrestlers such as Danny Castillo.
Tony Ferguson had struggles against wrestlers such as Danny Castillo.

While Tony Ferguson never fought a grappler as good as Khabib Nurmagomedov, as we previously mentioned, he did pick up wins over numerous grappling-based opponents.

Of his victims, the names that stood out in this area would be dos Anjos, Tibau, Kevin Lee and Danny Castillo.

We can probably discount Tibau and dos Anjos from this discussion for a moment. Both fighters were renowned for their Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and submissions, but neither brought a truly top-level wrestling game to the octagon.

On the other hand, Lee and Castillo were both standout collegiate wrestlers, although neither man reached the status of an NCAA Division I All-American like other UFC stars. And that puts them into a similar – albeit lower – bracket to Khabib Nurmagomedov.

So what happened when Ferguson fought them? Interestingly, neither fight was a whitewash for El Cucuy.

Tony Ferguson did finish Lee in the third round of their clash, submitting him with a triangle choke from the guard.

However, Lee, who almost finished Ferguson with punches from the mount in the opening stanza, dominated the early rounds. El Cucuy only took over when The Motown Phenom began to tire out.

And Ferguson’s fight with Castillo was probably his toughest test until he fought Gaethje in 2020.

Last Call took Ferguson down on multiple occasions and was able to have success from top position, to the point that a lot of fans scored the fight for him and not El Cucuy.

Given that neither Lee nor Castillo were close to Khabib’s level as a grappler at the time they faced Ferguson, the idea that El Cucuy could’ve had success against the Russian suddenly seems much more unlikely.

Does the debate change depending on the date of the fight?

Tony Ferguson may have reached his prime before Khabib Nurmagomedov reached his.
Tony Ferguson may have reached his prime before Khabib Nurmagomedov reached his.

While it’s likely that prime Khabib Nurmagomedov – the version who routed Poirier and Gaethje – would have had no issues dealing with Tony Ferguson, it is worth remembering that in 2014, when the two were first signed to fight, Khabib hadn’t fully developed.

The Eagle was still a crude striker at that point. While he was already an incredible wrestler, he hadn’t begun finishing foes at the rate that he eventually would.

In fact, at the time that their initial fight was signed, Khabib had just two UFC finishes to his name.

So is it unreasonable to suggest that Ferguson could’ve won that fight in 2014? Perhaps not.

It certainly would’ve been a closer call than the fight that was initially planned for 2020’s UFC 249. Judging on what we’ve seen from Ferguson since then – and what Nurmagomedov did to Gaethje – that meeting probably would’ve been a one-sided crushing.

In conclusion, then, it obviously would’ve been fun to see Ferguson and Khabib face off. But the idea that Tony Ferguson represented the only man capable of defeating him was perhaps more built on his impressive winning streak and not his actual skills inside the octagon.

Edited by Zaid Khan
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