The best lightweight in mixed martial arts fought at UFC 205 but his name isn’t Conor McGregor.
Approximately four hours before the Irish superstar knocked Eddie Alvarez silly to become the UFC’s first simultaneous two-weight champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov was busy showcasing his innate ability to maul any poor soul who happens to be locked inside a cage with him.
Nurmagomedov improved to 24-0 in MMA as he ragdolled No. 6-ranked lightweight contender Michael Johnson for roughly 12 minutes before nearly ripping his shoulder out of its socket with a fight-ending kimura in the third round of a featured preliminary bout.
The Dagestani fighter is an absolute force. One of the truly elite grapplers in MMA and a perfect foil to a striker of McGregor’s calibre.
McGregor operates on a different frequency than his peers when it comes to striking — much like Anderson Silva did when he debuted in the UFC a decade ago and left people awestruck. Well, Nurmagomedov’s grappling and dominance on the ground is just as impressive.
Nurmagomedov toyed with Johnson like he has toyed with opponents his entire life. He isn’t the All-American Division 1 wrestler we often see have success in the UFC. He’s a different breed of grappler. A world champion in combat Sambo and no-gi Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Oh, and he grew up wrestling bears. That’s not some cliquey fight terminology either. No. He literally had a pet bear with whom he would wrestle.
The 28-year-old has been pleading for a title shot for several years now and based on ability alone he has deserved one for that long.
Prior to Rafael dos Anjos’s incredible two-year run that saw him win the 155-pound strap and earn consecutive victories over Benson Henderson, Nate Diaz, Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone — perhaps the most impressive run in the history of the UFC’s lightweight division — he was completely outclassed by Nurmagomedov in 2014. Nurmagomedov has been that good for that long. Unfortunately, after beating dos Anjos, he was out of commission for two years dealing with a myriad of injuries including multiple knee surgeries.
But Nurmagomedov is finally healthy and has two dominant stoppage wins in 2016. There is no valid excuse from a meritocracy standpoint for not giving him a shot at the title and subsequently McGregor, whose fight with Alvarez was his first lightweight bout in the UFC.
Nurmagomedov did his best to build up some public interest in a potential showdown with McGregor even though McGregor hadn’t yet beaten Alvarez.
“I want to stay humble but I have to talk because your guy talks too much,” Nurmagomedov said in broken English while addressing McGregor’s fan base inside Madison Square Garden. “You know what’s interesting? I understand [the] crazy power of [the] UFC PR machine. Your guy, beginning of the year he tap like chicken [to Nate Diaz at UFC 196], end of the year he fight for the title. Crazy. You know this is true, this is not trash talking. Irish only six million, Russia 150 million. I want to fight with your chicken because this is No. 1 easy fight in lightweight division.”
Calling McGregor the easiest fight in the lightweight division were the famous last words of Alvarez, but Nurmagomedov is frustrated that he has been overlooked in the title picture thus far.
In fact, Nurmagomedov was presented with a bout agreement to fight Alvarez at UFC 205 but when McGregor expressed his interest in competing for the 155-pound belt the UFC quickly put together McGregor-Alvarez instead because of its potential drawing power. Nurmagomedov felt as if UFC president Dana White and the organization used him as a pawn to ensure McGregor would headline the UFC’s first event in New York City.
He made sure to let White know how he felt and did so during his fight with Johnson as White watched cageside.
“I talk to Dana in between rounds,” Nurmagomedov explained to reporters afterwards. “I said, ‘Hey, don’t send me no more of your fake contracts, I need real contracts.’ So he said, ‘Hey, you have to finish this fight.’ I told him, ‘You already know I deserve this. After this fight, you need to send me a real contract.’ And then he told me to go finish it. After I finished fight I told him I’m waiting for agreement. Maybe in Brooklyn, UFC 209, why not? February, UFC 210 in Las Vegas. Anywhere, it doesn’t matter. Russia, Ireland, I can fight in his backyard, anywhere. I know all of you know I deserve this.”
White later corroborated the story although he never did confirm whether or not Nurmagomedov, now 8-0 in the UFC, will get the next title shot.
Immediately following UFC 205, McGregor threw a bit of cold water on the idea of his first lightweight title defence being against Nurmagomedov.
“He’s fought once in eight years,” McGregor exaggerated to reporters in New York while on the dais sitting behind his two shiny belts. “He ain’t fight too frequent for my liking. For me to commit to something like that, I need to see solid proof that people are gonna show up and he’s a consistent pull-out merchant. He had a good performance tonight. Fair play to him. I need to see activity. I need to see consistency. I need to see me. If you want me to come and change your life, if you want me to come pick you, you better have some damn reasons for me to do that.”
Read between the lines and it sounds an awful lot like McGregor doesn’t want to fight Nurmagomedov. At least not in the near future. McGregor is always looking for something bigger and better and from a marketing standpoint there are bigger fights for him to consider — a trilogy bout with Diaz for example or even taking a run at Tyron Woodley’s welterweight title.
“It’s exciting,” White said. “It’s fun all the different options Conor has.”
This isn’t to suggest McGregor is afraid of Nurmagomedov, but he’s smart enough to realize that this matchup presents major problems stylistically. Nurmagomedov can’t match McGregor’s charisma — no one in MMA can, really — but he can match him in fighting ability. That’s a scary proposition for someone like McGregor with so much to lose.
McGregor has positioned himself to pick and choose his opponents. It’s a luxury most fighters don’t ever have and one where the optics can be unfavourable if it appears like you might be dodging an opponent. Floyd Mayweather was criticized over the years for ducking specific fighters at times but his unparalleled success in and out of the ring allowed him to do so. McGregor is no different.
His dismissive attitude towards Nurmagomedov seems to be another example of him establishing that he’s the one who calls the shots.
Or maybe, before he begins thinking about a destroyer like Nurmagomedov, he has other business to attend to. McGregor announced that he is set to become a first-time father in the spring and also explained that he wants to sit down with the new UFC ownership group to discuss his financial future.
“They’ve got to come talk to me now because no one’s come and talked to me since the sale has happened as a businessman,” McGregor said. “I’ve been approached as, ‘Hello’ and that type of stuff, but I’ve earned something. I mean, who owns the company now? People have shares in the company. Celebrities. Conan O’Brien owns the UFC nowadays, so where’s my share? Where’s my equity? If I’m the one that’s bringing this, they’ve got to come talk to me now that’s all I know. I’ve got both belts, a chunk of money, a little family on the way. You want me to stick around? Do you want me to keep doing what I’m doing? Let’s talk. But I want the ownership now. I want the equal share. I want what I deserve, what I’ve earned.”
You know what? McGregor does deserve more money because of what he brings to the table.
Nurmagomedov, on the other hand, deserves the next title shot because he is the best fighter in the division.