Objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear, but it’s truly the offbeat, borderline eccentric madman riding shotgun that should be most concerning to UFC lightweight king Khabib Nurmagomedov. Top contender Tony Ferguson won’t make it rain green like Conor McGregor, but he could make it spew red by giving the champ a fight the likes of which the lightweight division has never seen.
Money, hype, showmanship—any quantifiable description of a mere spectacle falls at the wayside when pitting the baddest 155-pounders on the planet against one another.
Ferguson, a former interim lightweight champion, never lost his crown and currently rides a 12-fight win streak over a murderer’s row of opposition. He has been recast as the division’s enigma after spending the better part of the last decade fighting in the shadows. Few fighters have walked in that same invisible world—a place that makes The Upside Down seem like a leisurely stroll on a hot Sunday afternoon.
Nurmagomedov knows that sort of isolation.
Even as an undefeated destroyer, it still took him over a decade before he finally received an opportunity to pump the brakes on The Conor McGregor Show. Game recognizes game, and real recognizes real. He has seen enough of the lightweight landscape to know there is something inherently different about Ferguson—something that runs deeper than the quirky fighting style and ‘90s breakdancing routine.
“I think, just my opinion, like the last couple of years, I compete with guys like [Edson] Barboza, [Rafael] dos Anjos, Conor, [Dustin] Poirier, [Al] Iaquinta – all of these guys not tough like Tony Ferguson, and that’s why I feel like now I have real motivation,” Nurmagomedov told TMZ Sports back in February. “When I watch all these opponents I think, ‘OK, I can beat these guys.’ Of course I work hard, but right now, it’s like very, very tough opponent. That’s why, and we focus like always, but right now we have more focus, more hard work. Tony is not like these guys, he’s a little bit more tough than all of them.”
If Nurmagomedov can see the difference, why can’t the rest of the MMA world? Why is Ferguson being treated like hors d’oeuvres before another candlelit, main course meal with McGregor? It’s time to table the “red panty” talk and get weird with a whitey tighty night with El Cucuy.
There has been talk of the Nurmagomedov and McGregor rematch ever since the first fight ended in disaster at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas well over a year ago. A post-fight melee ensued between Team Nurmagomedov and Team McGregor, eventually spilling out into a raucous crowd of drunken and enraged fans.
It was reminiscent of the infamous riot at the MGM Grand spurred by the blockbuster heavyweight rematch between boxing legends Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield back in 1997.
But controversy breeds revenue, and anyone with a business sense could understand why the UFC is so gung-ho over wrapping a pretty bow around the rematch and gifting it back to consumers. For a man sunbathing in the UFC 249 spotlight, Ferguson might as well still be invisible.
Whether it’s fans clamoring for the McGregor and Nurmagomedov rematch or UFC President Dana White fielding questions about it, the MMA world is seemingly treating the upcoming lightweight championship as a simple tune-up fight—a mere means to an end.
Of course, Ferguson could photobomb those expectations by becoming the first man to defeat Nurmagomedov in a licensed fist fight.
His endurance is second to none, and he has the sort of guard game capable of turning even the most refined grapplers into human pretzels. He also boasts an extensive amateur wrestling background, coupled with the sort of unorthodox striking that puts even the division’s hardest punchers in full-on retreat mode. It’s easy to forget that 12 of his 25 wins have come by knockout. What he lacks in one-punch knockout power he makes up for with his unrivaled work rate. The cage is his ocean, and he leaves opponents to drown in it.
Nurmagomedov is the only top active lightweight with a larger consecutive body count.
This fight is bigger than money. It’s bigger than gold belts, endless publicity and broken attendance records. The UFC is essentially pitting two of the greatest lightweights in MMA history together in a legacy bout. It will be the fifth time the fight has been booked after the previous four times led to cancellations over the years. The fight has been snuffed out more times than an ill-fated teenager in a Final Destination movie.
Even with the fifth bout in peril due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, White remains insistent on moving on as scheduled in whatever venue he can find. Whether at the Barclays Center, the Wal-Mart parking lot or an emptied arena, the fight between Nurmagomedov and Ferguson must happen.
“There aren’t going to be any fans there,” Dana White told Yahoo! Sports’ Kevin Iole, via the South China Morning Post. “This thing is going to be a closed event. Everybody who is going to be involved in this thing is going to be involved because they want to be involved.”
Another cancellation is always a possibility, but the UFC would do so at the risk of the fight falling through at the next date. White swore up and down he’d never try to make the fight again before agreeing to book the fifth proposed bout. Could anyone really see him trying a sixth or possibly even a seventh time?
As of right now, the April 18 date still stands.
The sound of silence will serve as the backdrop for the anticipated lightweight scrap. Every thud of pounded flesh, gasp of precious oxygen and pain-induced grunt will blare audibly from a television screen.
A fist fight stripped to its bare bones for a sports-starved world and an ironically fitting way to close the curtains on the most elusive bout in MMA history.