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It may seem counterintuitive, but in order to properly put Khabib Nurmagomedov in context, we need to take a brief look at the heavyweight division.
Of all the legacy divisions -- lightweight through heavyweight, which have been part of the Ultimate Fighting Championship since the early years -- only two weight classes have never had exceptionally dominant champions: lightweight and heavyweight. Neither has had a single champion with more than three title defenses. Welterweight has had four champions with four or more title defenses, the high-end being nine; middleweight has only had one champ who exceeded three defenses, but he dwarfed that number with 10; and light heavyweight has had four champs break the seal, the most dominant of which defended it eight times. Yet no one at lightweight or heavyweight has managed to get past that vaunted third title defense. Either there have simply been no transcendent talents in either weight class, or something else is going on.
For heavyweight, there are a few forces at play. First, the size and power of heavyweights makes it so anyone can get knocked out on any given night. Second, heavyweight is an incredibly thin, shallow division, which makes sense because there aren’t that many heavyweight-sized athletes in the general population to begin with, and the ones that exist have much more lucrative athletic opportunities than fighting. Lightweight is a different story, though. It has always been one of the most -- if not the most -- talent-rich divisions. There are way more lightweight-sized athletes in the general population, and a higher percentage of them end up fighting because, especially in America, they’re too small to cut it in the most profitable sports. Heavyweight and lightweight thus have a great deal of parity, albeit on opposite ends of the talent spectrum. Yes, there are other factors at play, such as the prevalence of interim champions at heavyweight and the five-year moratorium of the lightweight division, but those are neither contradictory nor worth the digressions for this space.
At UFC 242 on Saturday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Nurmagomedov notched his second title defense with yet another lopsided mauling. The Dagestani has made outstanding fighters look like warmups and is now one win away from tying the record of three lightweight title defenses. B.J. Penn, Frankie Edgar and Benson Henderson all share that record, but even now, Nurmagomedov has already set himself apart from those three.
Henderson’s title reign consisted of beating Edgar for the title, beating him again to defend it, then beating Nate Diaz and Gilbert Melendez before losing the championship to Anthony Pettis. That’s an exemplary run on paper, but two of those defenses were tightly contested split decisions. Edgar’s title reign had similar asterisks. He beat Penn for the title, then again for his first defense. He then retained the title via split draw against Gray Maynard, then definitively beat Maynard for his final title defense before losing to Henderson. Again, two of those performances were far from dominant. His first win against Penn was a “Robbery of the Year” candidate, and retaining a title on a draw can only be considered a defense in the most technical of terms.
Then there’s Penn. Before he was setting records for most consecutive Octagon losses and getting knocked out in drunken street fights, he was lightweight’s most phenomenal talent. He lost in his first opportunity to get the lightweight belt in 2002, then was robbed on his next title effort a year later. The division was suspiciously put on hold after what was a clear win against Caol Uno was ruled a draw. When he came back to the division in 2007, however, he was the unstoppable force he was always meant to be -- at least for a little while. He dominated Joe Stevenson to win the title, then did the same to Sean Sherk, Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez. All four fights were record-book finishes: It was the first time Stevenson had been finished in the UFC, the first time Sean Sherk and Kenny Florian had been finished at lightweight and the first time Sanchez had been finished in his career. None of the fights were even a little close.
Nurmagomedov’s reign so far has been an extension of his 28-fight career unbeaten streak: absolute drubbings of Al Iaquinta, Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirer. He has only dropped a single round in the UFC -- the third round against McGregor -- and has dished out 10-8s in almost every fight. No other lightweight in UFC history has been nearly as dominant for nearly as long. Despite the historical and current depth and parity at lightweight, it’s hard to imagine anyone dethroning him anytime soon. Tony Ferguson is a legitimate threat, and you can never count out the brilliant violence of Justin Gaethje, but Nurmagomedov will still rightfully be favored in either of those matchups; that’s assuming Gaethje gets past Donald Cerrone or that the MMA Gods un-curse the Ferguson matchup. Truly, Nurmagomedov’s most formidable opponents thus far have been weight cuts and training camp injuries.
Yet that’s where the Penn comparison becomes instructive. Both Edgar and Henderson had enough close fights that it became an expectation that they’d lose the title sooner than later, but after “The Prodigy” notched his third dominant defense, it was widely believed that he had essentially cleared out the division. Maybe Maynard would pose a threat, but few really gave him a shot at winning. Then, a relatively Unknown Fighter coming off a win against unranked Matt Veach took the title from Penn in a controversial decision and transformed into a hall of fame-level champion.
I’m guessing the same will be true for Nurmagomedov. Should he lose before retirement, it will likely come against an opponent no one sees coming, someone who has been training specifically for him for years under the radar and fully comes into his own at the exact moment he gets a title shot. Then, maybe, hindsight will show us that this was inevitable, too. Maybe. Until then, I’m placing my bets on “The Eagle” getting a slew of additional title defenses and making official what we already know to be true: that he is the first truly dominant UFC lightweight champion.
Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.