It’s not the bout promised a week ago, but a greater place in history awaits either Khabib Nurmagomedov and Max Holloway at UFC 223.
When it was announced that Tony Ferguson was out of UFC 223 with an injury, it was a blow to the MMA world. Not only were he and Khabib Nurmagomedov two of the best lightweights in the world, they were two of the most dominant mixed martial artists in the entire sport. But as the reality settled, so did the consolation that now awaits on Saturday. Nurmagomedov will challenge for gold for the first time, and he now faces a legend in the making in featherweight champion Max Holloway.
For Khabib Nurmagomedov, the irony of the circumstances is not lost on anyone. He was the one who pulled out at the eleventh hour last March. He was the one who had already pulled out of the bout once before and he was the one who was not healthy enough to compete when the UFC put together an interim title fight last September. So for the “blame” to now be on Ferguson comes off as a moment of justice for “The Eagle.”
He has spent several months regarded as the ultimate kryptonite to MMA superstar Conor McGregor, but the reality is he has spent years working toward this point. Nurmagomedov began his career in Russia and tore through the competition in his homeland and other parts of Eastern Europe before making his UFC debut in 2012. He then reeled off nine straight victories in the Octagon to become one of the most feared contenders in the world.
Along the way, his style of Sambo has made him the most dangerous grappler at 155 pounds as he has been able to use his skills on the mat to dismantle every opponent put in front of him. Last year, Nurmagomedov called for the championship bout he felt he deserved, but falling out of the bout with Ferguson and subsequent absence with a back injury hurt his reputation with the fans. In December, he had a chance to redeem himself as he was paired with dangerous striker Barboza. Nurmagomedov turned in the performance of his career, surviving the best shots from the Brazilian striker and taking a decisive victory on the scorecards.
And your 2017 Fighter of the Year goes to …
"The man with the most finishes, wins and the longest winning streak in UFC featherweight history."
— UFC (@ufc) January 8, 2018
Max Holloway was not the frontrunner for this opportunity. By all accounts, the next chapter of “The Blessed Era” was going to be against top featherweight Brian Ortega at 145 pounds, possibly in a historic debut in Hawaii. He had already pulled out of a bout with Frankie Edgar in February, so it only made sense for that a late Spring or early Summer return would be next on his calendar.
Instead, he now enters Saturday’s bout with an opportunity to become the second fighter in UFC history to hold a title in two weight classes simultaneously. He has made only one defense of his featherweight title so far, but none are questioning that he worked his way through the ranks the hard way. Holloway needed ten straight victories before he was granted a shot at the world championship. By comparison, Conor McGregor was scheduled for his first UFC title shot after only five.
In the span of Holloway’s now astonishing twelve fight unbeaten streak, he has dismantled nearly every notable contender in the featherweight division. Frankie Edgar was seen as the last of the established names left for Holloway to complete his sweep of the weight class. Even now, most would argue that Holloway would be left only with rematches if he were to dispatch both Edgar and Ortega this calendar year.
The battle pits two of the top names in the sport today. But there is a harsh reality: Holloway enters the bout officially on six days notice. He is one of the best in the world, but is his body in shape for a 25 minute battle after also suffering an injury just two months ago.
Assuming Holloway is in excellent shape for the fight, the key will be to use his footwork. He is a brilliant technical striker and he should be looking to get in and out behind crisp, sharp punches. Crucially, he needs to throw first and come forward to keep Nurmagomedov from settling up a takedown or to try to initiate the clinch.
For “The Eagle,” he should look to implement a similar strategy as he did against Edson Barboza last December. By coming forward, he takes away Holloway’s ability to settle into a rhythm for his striking. From there, he should do what he does best and relentlessly pursue the takedown. Holloway has not faced a grappler near Nurmagomedov’s caliber in the UFC and the Russian should look to exploit that by smothering his opponent with ground-and-pound. Also, if Holloway isn’t at 100%, forcing him to work in the clinch and defend takedowns will help to quickly exhaust his gas tank.
Nurmagomedov has his perfect storyline set before him: Defeat Holloway and set up a pay-per-view super fight with Conor McGregor in Russia. Getting the Irishman to the cage will likely come down to how much he has to gain financially, a victory for Nurmagemedov would only prove what is already known: he is one of the greatest threats to McGregor in mixed martial arts.
For Holloway, there is certainly a storyline for his own fight with “The Notorious.” McGregor has long bragged about being the “double champ” but he would be forced to either put his money where his mouth is or come off as diffident that he could defeat Holloway a second time. If the bout doesn’t come to pass, both Ferguson and Ortega figure to be in his crosshairs. But after years of proving he’s the one who deserves the shot at someone else, he will gain the power to force the contenders to prove why they deserve the shot at him.
Editor’s Note: Written before McGregor incident