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Dustin Poirier knew what was waiting for him in the cage on Saturday night in Abu Dhabi. He knew which takedowns Khabib Nurmagomedov would attempt and what the Dagestani would do if he got into a dominant position. He knew the fate of the 27 men who’d come before him.
“The Diamond” studiously and painstakingly stocked his defensive arsenal, drilled his sprawl and doubled down on his visualisation. Saturday night was the culmination of over a decade’s work for the 30-year old; it was his destiny, he told us, to march into enemy territory against the sport’s most dominant and vexing force, flatten him with a punch or a jumping guillotine choke, then roll out of there the undisputed champion.
After two rounds with Nurmagomedov, Poirier’s resolve was wilting. “The Eagle” had spent the better part of 10 minutes wearing him down from top position, and Porier returned to his corner in a state of frustration, remarking to his coaches “I can’t get the f--cker off me”. One hundred and twenty six seconds later, he submitted to a rear-naked choke.
Nurmagomedov is once again the undisputed champion, and has been victorious in each of his 12 fights in the UFC. Of the 35 rounds he’s spent in the octagon, he’s won 34 on the scorecards, the lone exception a close third stanza at UFC 229 last October against Conor McGregor. In the cage on Saturday night, from the moment Khabib grabbed Poirier’s left leg in the opening 90 seconds, a dominant victory felt like a foregone conclusion, and in the aftermath we’re left wondering if there’s anyone out there with a skillset capable of giving him problems.
Which is beguiling, because the 30-year old Dagestani has far from cleaned out the lightweight division. He’s beaten four individuals in the Top 10 (Poirier, McGregor, Al Iaquinta and Edson Barboza), but there are plenty of suitors to keep him occupied if he is to solidify his spot as the promotion’s greatest ever lightweight. He is celebrated because of the way he beats his opponents, utilizing relentless pressure and a grappling skillset that’s been aptly described as fighting wet cement, but his resume -- especially considering the depth of the 155-pound division, and Nurmagomedov’s less-than-busy fight schedule of late -- doesn’t yet put him in the “all-time” conversation.
Case in point is Tony Ferguson, the shades-wearing, Imanari-rolling eccentric who’s also managed to put together 12 straight victories in the Octagon. That fight, moreso than any other, is the key to Nurmagomedov unlocking the final level of this game and displacing Jon Jones atop the pound-for-pound throne. “T-Ferg” and Nurmagomedov have been matched up no fewer than four times over as many years, and while a succession of ever-crueller events -- poorly executed weight cuts, 11th hour injuries and obtrusive studio cables -- have conspired to keep that from happening, this has only served to make an eventual booking more urgent.
Whereas Nurmagomedov would surely enter that bout as the favourite, Ferguson’s submissions, durability and straight nasty bottom game present questions that simply haven’t been posed to Khabib by his past opponents. That there has never been a bout in the organization’s history involving two men on 12-fight UFC winning streaks only adds to its significance.
But when asked about Ferguson on Saturday in the wake of his victory, Nurmagomedov was exasperatingly non-committal. Though he had expressed interest in fighting the former interim champion in the lead up to UFC 242, at the post-fight press conference he brushed off the suggestion that a victory over Ferguson was a prerequisite to solidifying his legacy. He also indicated that he intended to take a little bit of time off -- this after almost a year on the shelf courtesy of his post-fight hulk-smashing last October -- once again leaving the division in a state of suspended animation.
Making matters worse, if only because of the UFC’s historical indifference to Ferguson and its markedly different attitude towards fight that do well on pay-per-view but are otherwise meritocratically indefensible, is the existence of two alternate scenarios that appear to have peaked the interest of the two most relevant stakeholders. At the same press conference where he dismissed questions about Ferguson, Nurmagomedov spoke excitedly about welcoming former welterweight and middleweight champion Georges St. Pierre back into the Octagon and giving him an opportunity of becoming the organization’s first “champ-champ-champ,” while UFC President Dana White asserted that a McGregor-Khabib rematch would “make sense” if Ferguson didn’t “take the fight.”
McGregor getting a rematch wouldn’t make sense, and the suggestion that Ferguson would reject the UFC’s offer is an allusion to how small a purse the organization will offer him.
“The Notorious” is nearly three years removed from his last victory and was thoroughly dominated by Nurmagomedov in their first pairing last year. Since then, he has announced his retirement, come under investigation for an alleged sexual assault in Ireland and committed multiple assaults caught on video, including one perpetrated against a 50-year old in a Dublin pub. After such a transcendent run from beating Marcus Brimage in Stockholm circa 2013 to shellacking Eddie Alvarez at Madison Square Garden three and a half years later, the Irishman has for years been a blight on the sport in every conceivable arena, and the notion that he should be rewarded with another title shot -- much less at the expense of Ferguson -- borders on the offensive.
The GSP match-up is similarly problematic, but for a host of different reasons. The semi-retired “Rush” has never fought at 155-pounds and has made it clear that he has little intention of defending the belt should he manage to capture it. The hypothetical match-up is steeped in risk -- of a botched weight cut, or a jailbreaking champion -- and whilst a non-title catchweight bout sometime in late 2020 would be permissible, it can only be after Ferguson has gotten his due.
The lightweight division possesses a dominant champion and the most deserving No. 1 contender in the sport’s history. There is genuine antipathy between the two of them and neither man’s legacy will be complete without squaring off against the other. The question of who is the superior combatant is one that the UFC was literally built to answer, and to our knowledge, both are healthy and physically capable of commencing fight camp for a fight date inside 2019.
Yet the caveats that Nurmagomedov and White are now making illustrate just how far the UFC of 2019 has departed from that standard, and how depressingly plausible it is that Khabib-Ferguson will be sidelined once again.
If that happens, Nurmagomedov’s quest for pound-for-pound supremacy will remain incomplete. And it will be just as much his fault as it is anyone else’s.
Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.