UFC 242 is in the books and to the surprise of very few – although many online analysts including myself picked against him – Khabib Nurmagomedov is still the UFC Lightweight champion. ‘The Eagle’ largely dominated interim champion Dustin Poirier, and despite taking some clean punches at the beginning of the second round, he was able to impose his will using his powerful wrestling game en route to a third-round rear-naked choke submission.
Right now there can be no doubt that Khabib is the best 155lbs fighter on the planet, but with 28 wins in 28 fights dating back to 2008 and no defeats, 12 victories in the UFC and the record for the most takedowns in any single UFC fight with 21 against Abel Trujillo, is the Dagestani native now the greatest Lightweight in the history of the sport? It’s a thought that’s definitely worth exploring.
Fighters usually considered the greatest of all time in their weight class are ones who tend to have ‘cleared out’ their division in terms of other top contenders, sometimes even across multiple generations of fighters.
Fedor Emelianenko, for instance, was clearly the best Heavyweight of his era, but I’d argue he remains the greatest Heavyweight of all time too simply because the generation that has followed – Cain Velasquez, Junior Dos Santos, Stipe Miocic et al – hasn’t seen one single fighter be as dominant as Fedor was.
George St-Pierre on the other hand is the greatest fighter of all time, period, in my opinion, as not only did he cement himself as the best fighter of the Hughes/Trigg/Sherk/Penn generation, but also of the Fitch/Alves/Shields/Koscheck and Diaz/Condit/Hendricks generations, too.
Khabib? He’s got big wins over Rafael Dos Anjos, Michael Johnson, Edson Barboza, Al Iaquinta, Conor McGregor and now Dustin Poirier – which in fact isn’t really that extensive of a list when you consider how stacked with talent Lightweight has been over the half-decade that the Dagestani has been active in the UFC.
He’s definitely dominated all of those opponents, but to claim he’s ‘cleaned out’ the division simply wouldn’t be true – his poor schedule, caused both by injuries and self-imposed layoffs, has seen to that.
So who would be the other possibilities for the greatest of all time at 155lbs? The first name that usually comes to mind is UFC Hall of Famer BJ Penn. ‘The Prodigy’ could definitely be considered the most naturally talented Lightweight of all time – if not the most talented across all weight classes – and it is true that during his Lightweight title reign, from 2008 to 2010, he was incredibly dominant against some extremely tough opponents.
But even if you ignore his late-career slide, Penn’s record flatters to deceive. The Hawaiian lost his first title shot – against Jens Pulver – and then failed to win the title in his second attempt when he drew with Caol Uno.
And even his actual title reign saw him defend the belt just three times before he was shockingly upset by Frankie Edgar. In fact, given his best career win came over Matt Hughes in 2004, there’s probably a fair argument to suggest that Welterweight BJ Penn was better than the Lightweight version.
What about Takanori Gomi, who was the name usually thrown out by non-UFC fans to dispute the idea of Penn as the greatest? ‘The Fireball Kid’ was a fantastically exciting fighter to watch in PRIDE at his peak, and he was clearly the most dominant Lightweight fighter in Japan for a time.
But with the power of hindsight, his competition actually wasn’t that great, outside of Tatsuya Kawajiri and Hayato Sakurai – who shouldn’t really be considered a ‘Lightweight’ per se as he never actually fought at 155lbs.
Outside of that? Gomi never fought the other greats of that generation, names like Vitor ‘Shaolin’ Ribeiro, Yves Edwards and Josh Thomson, and he also lost to both Penn and Joachim Hansen during that period. And his time at the top, even in PRIDE, was surprisingly brief – he captured PRIDE’s Lightweight title in December 2005, and then lost his very next fight to journeyman Marcus Aurelio just a couple of months later and never really regained his dominant aura.
In fact, there’s probably a fair argument that Gomi isn’t even the greatest Japanese Lightweight of all time, and that title should go to Shinya Aoki – another man who non-UFC fans hailed as a potential rival to Penn during the reign of ‘The Prodigy’. A submission expert and one of the best grapplers to ever compete in MMA, Aoki’s record – at his peak – definitely holds up.
‘Tobikan Judan’ picked up wins over Hansen, JZ Cavalcante, Ribeiro, Eddie Alvarez and Kawajiri amongst others, but it must be said that everything Aoki-related probably deserves an asterisk of some kind.
Many of his wins stemmed from the use of his long tights for more grappling control – something not allowed in the US – and at times it outright felt like the Japanese officials were biased towards him. And when he did make an excursion into the US, in 2010, he was thoroughly embarrassed by Gilbert Melendez.
And that, in essence, is the problem with trying to find a ‘GOAT’ in the Lightweight division. Arguments could perhaps be made for a handful of others – Melendez, Alvarez, even Benson Henderson or Frankie Edgar – but you can easily find fault in all of their records just as you can for Penn, Gomi and Aoki. So why is it so tricky?
Essentially, the fault lies with the division itself. More than any other division in MMA, Lightweight, up until recent years, was the one that saw its talent most thinly spread across various promotions.
The UFC has always had a monopoly on the world’s best Welterweights – hence GSP being able to prove his dominance there – and while PRIDE only housed the world’s best Heavyweights for a time, the legend of Fedor meant that top fighters followed him to various promotions, allowing him to assert his dominance too.
Lightweight though is different. The UFC temporarily folded the division in 2004 and when they bought it back in 2005, the majority of the world’s best were in PRIDE. And when that promotion crashed in 2007, things became even more of a mess, with some fighters migrating to the UFC and StrikeForce while others stayed in Japan with the new DREAM promotion.
Of course, that’s all in the past now; the UFC now largely houses the world’s best fighters in every weight class and Lightweight is no exception. And given he’s been the most dominant 155lber of this current era, that means that Khabib’s claim to being the greatest of all time at the weight is just as strong as any other, including the claims of Penn and Gomi.
But to really cement himself up there with GSP, Fedor Emelianenko, Demetrious Johnson and so on? For me Khabib’s got to fight a little more. Tony Ferguson should hopefully be next – and if he were to beat Khabib then his own claim to the ‘greatest’ title could come to the forefront – and if Khabib gets past him, then the likes of Donald Cerrone, Justin Gaethje and any newer prospects will hopefully follow.
For now though, is Khabib the greatest Lightweight in MMA history? The answer is that most likely, he is. And judging by his showing against Poirier last night, who would argue against him?Published 08 Sep 2019, 20:50 IST