The UFC lightweight division is still far from clearing up its title picture, but a big step will take place at UFC 219 when Khabib Nurmagomedov meets Edson Barboza.
The UFC lightweight division was grounded to a halt in 2017. While champion McGregor left to try boxing, the rest of the contenders at 155 jockeyed for position in the hope of securing their own high-profile bout with “The Notorious” upon his return. No contender was more criticized then Khabib Nurmagomedov whose absence cost him a title shot and has now placed him with the most difficult schedule to get to the belt. The biggest beneficiary: Edson Barboza whose career re-invention has put him in one of the most high profile bouts to take place in the division this year at UFC 219.
Earlier in March, Nurmagomedov was set to face Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight title. The day of the weigh-in, Nurmagomedov fell ill and was forced to withdraw from the bout. He quickly became the target of ridicule, with allegations that tiramisu was the reason for not making weight for the most important fight of his career.
Injuries later in the year took him completely out of the title picture, and Ferguson would go on to win the interim title after defeating Kevin Lee. Nurmagomedov, undefeated at 24-0, was suddenly forgotten with the public clamoring for McGregor to either unite belts against Ferguson or complete his trilogy with Nate Diaz.
Keeping him relevant have been frequent comments by McGregor that he has a desire to compete in Russia when the UFC makes its debut in the country. Nurmagomedov, who was born in Russia, would obviously be the best opponent to pair with McGregor if the UFC is to put on an electrifying event to break ground in the market. The biggest caveat is that he is logistically far behind several contenders for a potential bout with “The Notorious.”
One of those is Brazilian powerhouse Edson Barboza. After years of mixed success in the Octagon, “Junior” is in the midst of his best career stretch after dispatching top contenders Anthony Pettis, Gilbert Melendez, and Beneil Dariush. In his most recent bout against Dariush in March, Barboza patiently overcame a solid game plan by Dariush to score one of the best finishes of the year with a flying knee KO. Currently, Barboza is ranked fourth in the UFC’s rankings. With a victory over Nurmagomedov, the Brazilian would find himself in a title eliminator in 2018.
Stylistically, the bout figures to be a striker vs grappler match-up. Khabib Nurmagomedov has torn through the competition behind his phenomenal grappling. An elite Sambo practitioner, his prowess was never more evident than when he stifled current welterweight contender Rafael dos Anjos in what was the Brazilian’s only loss between 2012 and 2015. Standing up, Nurmagomedov’s striking has often drawn criticism for appearing uncomfortable in exchanges.
Barboza provided one of the best knockouts in MMA history when he scored a spinning wheel kick KO over Terry Etim in 2012. His performance that night inspired many copycats but his talent as a striker has never been in doubt. While he has made strides to be a more calculating fighter, his abilities on the mat are nowhere near what he can do with his Muay Thai.
For Barboza, the key will be to use his range and footwork to frustrate Khabib Nurmagomedov. He should look to get in and out with his striking and keep the Russian in the center of the Octagon. In doing so, he will force Nurmagomedov to have to shoot from a distance which will be much more telegraphed and easier for him to stop. He should avoid throwing his vaunted kicks in the early going of the fight as they could be caught and turned into a takedown. Instead, he should wait until later in the fight when Nurmagomedov is weary of his punches and then begin to chop away.
For “The Eagle,” it’s imperative he keeps Barboza with his back to the fence. Doing so will take away the space the Brazilian needs for his more rangy attacks and force him to use more energy by fighting off of his heels. Furthermore, Nurmagomedov can tie up Barboza in the clinch and use the fence to help drag him to the mat. On the ground, the Russian holds a decisive edge and should have no issue maintaining top position. He frequently works to improve his position so the threat of being stagnant and being stood up isn’t a concern, but he should avoid taking unnecessary risks that could allow Barboza to escape back to his feet.
If Khabib Nurmagomedov is to be believed, he has been told by the UFC that a bout against Tony Ferguson could be next for him as soon as March or April with a victory at UFC 219. Seeing as Barboza was previously defeated by Ferguson, a victory for him would likely put him against another a different top contender such as Eddie Alvarez or Dustin Poirier in what could easily be for the next shot at the title after McGregor and Ferguson settle their business. Regardless, the winner should be no less than one fight away from a shot at the belt in a crowded lightweight division. That alone puts enough on the line in what should be a hotly contested co-main event.