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Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson: The tale of the most highly-anticipated fight in MMA history

  • Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson are set to fight at UFC 249 - but will it happen?
  • The fight is the most highly-anticipated in UFC history having been canceled previously on four occasions.
Scott Newman
SENIOR ANALYST
Feature
Modified 24 Mar 2020, 04:20 IST

Will the coronavirus pandemic rob us of Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson?
Will the coronavirus pandemic rob us of Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson?

Despite promising that things would go on, the UFC has followed suit with the rest of the sports world during the Covid-19 crisis by canceling its upcoming shows. This weekend should’ve seen Fight Night 171 take place in London, but this show – along with the following two – was scrapped last week.

That leaves UFC 249 as the promotion’s next show, and despite losing its venue – Brooklyn, New York - due to the pandemic, UFC President Dana White has continued to promise that this card will definitely happen. Right now, if we’re frank, that doesn’t seem likely. And yet, can anyone be surprised? After all, the planned main event for the show is arguably the most highly-anticipated in promotional history – but it’s also perhaps the most cursed, too.

UFC 249 marked the fifth time that the UFC had attempted to book a fight between current UFC Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and top contender Tony Ferguson; no other fight in MMA history has been put together and canceled on five occasions, but that now appears to be likely with this one.

So how did we get to this stage, a stage in which a fight between two Lightweights, the best in the world but hardly the most charismatic or great on the mic, became such a highly-anticipated clash? Well, you’ve got to go back nearly a decade to truly understand.

Ferguson made his UFC debut first; painted as the “villain” of the 13th season of The Ultimate Fighter, so few people actually watched that series of the reality show that by the time ‘El Cucuy’ knocked out Ramsey Nijem to win the show’s tournament, he became just another prospect to keep an eye on, another cog in the UFC machine.

Ferguson’s vicious striking had won him the TUF series, but it was his strong wrestling background – he’d been a successful collegiate wrestler, albeit not an NCAA champion or anything like that – that really marked him out as someone to watch. By the end of 2011, ‘El Cucuy’ was 3-0 in the promotion, having dropped to 155lbs to beat veterans Aaron Riley and Yves Edwards.

Ferguson debuted in 2011 with a knockout of Ramsey Nijem, winning TUF 13 in the process
Ferguson debuted in 2011 with a knockout of Ramsey Nijem, winning TUF 13 in the process

Late 2011 was also the point in which the UFC inked Nurmagomedov; the Dagestani-born fighter brought an impressive 16-0 record to the Octagon, but given that his victims all came from the Russian regional circuit, nobody really knew how good he was.

A third-round submission of Kamal Shalorus suggested he had potential, but his second fight saw him squeak out a questionable decision over gatekeeper Gleison Tibau – a performance that’s largely forgotten now, but one that exposed Nurmagomedov’s somewhat rudimentary striking.

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By the time ‘The Eagle’ was 2-0, Ferguson was on the shelf. A fight against Michael Johnson in May 2012 hadn’t gone his way; Ferguson had been winning the fight until he suffered a broken arm, and after the injury, Johnson took over to win a decision. The injury derailed ‘El Cucuy’ and wrecked his momentum; he wouldn’t be seen again until October 2013.

In the meantime, Nurmagomedov continued to win. A knockout of Thiago Tavares was impressive, but it was his May 2013 victory over Abel Trujillo that really opened the eyes of observers. ‘The Eagle’ missed weight for the fight, coming in at 156lbs, but threw Trujillo around like a ragdoll, completing 21 takedowns in the process, a new UFC record. When he threw the dangerous veteran Pat Healy – renowned for his size and strength at 155lbs – around too, everyone knew the Dagestani meant business.

By the end of 2013, Nurmagomedov was entrenched in the UFC’s top 10 at 155lbs, firmly considered a title contender. Ferguson meanwhile was still flying under the radar, a victim of over a year out of action. He returned in October 2013 to choke out Mike Rio, using his freakishly long arms to lock up a beautiful D’Arce, and then went 3-0 in 2014, impressively beating Katsunori Kikuno, Danny Castillo and finally Trujillo – finishing him off in the first round.

Khabib took Abel Trujillo down 21 times, breaking a UFC record in the process
Khabib took Abel Trujillo down 21 times, breaking a UFC record in the process

For Nurmagomedov, 2014 represented a largely wasted year. A planned fight with former top contender Gilbert Melendez fell apart due to Melendez’s contract issues, and after ‘The Eagle’ defeated Rafael Dos Anjos – again displaying his incredible wrestling to push a pace that wilted his opponent – it was the Brazilian who rose through the ranks to position himself as a top contender by the end of the year.

Why? Injuries, of course. A fight with Donald Cerrone, which would’ve put Nurmagomedov in line for a potential title shot with a win, but fell apart due to a knee injury suffered by the Dagestani. The UFC seemed determined to book the fight though and put it together again in May 2015 – only for another injury to sideline Nurmagomedov. By this stage, Ferguson was surging forward.

2015 begun with him choking out Tibau in his most impressive showing to date, and he followed that with a resounding win over tough veteran Josh Thomson, beating him from pillar to post like nobody had ever done before. Suddenly – with Cerrone positioned as the top contender for then-champion Rafael Dos Anjos’ title – it was a fight between Ferguson and Nurmagomedov that everyone wanted to see.

The UFC naturally obliged and pitted the two against one another in December 2015’s TUF 22 finale. With Dos Anjos and Cerrone set to face off just a week later, it seemed that the winner would almost certainly face whoever was holding the title in their next fight.

Weeks before the fight, another injury reared its head; Nurmagomedov was once again sidelined, leaving Ferguson to face off with dangerous replacement Edson Barboza. In a back-and-forth bloodbath, it was ‘El Cucuy’ who came out on top, again putting those long arms to use by locking up another D’Arce choke.

This time it was Ferguson who was sidelined; a lung issue forced him out and left Nurmagomedov to squash late replacement Darrell Horcher in what was largely a waste of a fight, albeit a useful one for ‘The Eagle’, who hadn’t actually fought in two years by that point. When ‘El Cucuy’ returned, meanwhile, he was matched with Michael Chiesa – who then pulled out with an injury, and so Ferguson instead defeated newcomer Lando Vannata in a surprisingly great fight.

The two men then fought in the same month – November 2016 – but against different opponents; Ferguson beat Dos Anjos while Nurmagomedov beat Johnson. At the same time, Conor McGregor unseated Eddie Alvarez – who’d beaten Dos Anjos previously – to take the title, only to take a leave of absence from the sport shortly thereafter to pursue a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather.

And so the UFC went back to the well, matching Ferguson and Nurmagomedov again, this time with the interim Lightweight title on the line. But once again, disaster struck; this time, the event – UFC 209 – was less than a day away when a botched weight cut forced Khabib out of the fight, causing the UFC to have to call it off once again.

The fight was canceled at UFC 209 due to a botched weight cut from Khabib
The fight was canceled at UFC 209 due to a botched weight cut from Khabib

Ferguson would eventually fight for the interim title, but not against Khabib; instead, he faced Kevin Lee at UFC 216, defeating him in the third round of a very tough fight with a triangle choke. ‘The Eagle’ meanwhile returned two months later to defeat Barboza in brutal fashion. And so heading into 2018, once again the UFC attempted to make the fight that by now, everyone in the MMA world wanted to see.

The fight was set for UFC 223, but this time – seemingly confirming that the pairing was cursed – it was Ferguson who was forced out, somehow managing to tear his knee ligaments apart after stumbling on the set of a pre-fight media scrum. Khabib defeated late replacement Al Iaquinta for the title and then went onto destroy McGregor too – coincidentally on the same card that saw Ferguson return to beat Anthony Pettis.

That took us into 2019 – where Ferguson was sidelined with mental illness for a short period before returning to beat Cerrone, while Nurmagomedov defeated another interim champion in the form of Dustin Poirier. And so, four years and four months after the two were first signed to fight one another, here we are.

What can we learn from this convoluted tale? Well, it’s easy to understand exactly why the fight is so highly anticipated, for one. The single constant during this entire period is a simple one – both men have continued to win against every opponent thrown at them. Since the cancelation of their first fight alone, they’ve beaten 11 different opponents between them, and if you look at their UFC careers as a whole, that number increases to a ridiculous 23.

23 different fighters - including Conor McGregor - have fallen to Khabib and Ferguson
23 different fighters - including Conor McGregor - have fallen to Khabib and Ferguson

So forget about charisma, forget about mic skills, and forget about drawing power. There’s a reason that everyone wants to see Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson and that’s because there’s never been a fight like this in MMA history. No other two fighters – in the same promotion – have been able to be this dominant in a single weight class without being able to face one another.

Whether ‘The Eagle’ and ‘El Cucuy’ finally get it on at UFC 249 is impossible to say right now – only Covid-19 can answer that question, and the virus isn’t talking – but one thing’s for certain; for either man to face a different opponent in their next trip to the Octagon would be a crime. If MMA really has any gods, they’ll allow this fight to happen in 2020. 

Published 24 Mar 2020, 04:20 IST
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