The rematch of Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson is the main event for UFC 209, but many think the fight between Khabib ‘The Eagle’ Nurmagomedov and Tony ‘El Cucuy’ Ferguson could end up being the better fight.
Either way the UFC Lightweight division will have an interim champion come the end of UFC 209, and it will either be Nurmagomedov or Ferguson. With a combined UFC record of 20-1, the ridiculous run of dominance from both men means they will now square off in what Nurmagomedov calls “the greatest lightweight fight ever in the UFC”.
With Conor McGregor away from the fight game, this is no doubt a fight between the two best fighters in the division, whether or not McGregor will return to defend his belt, the winner of this contest will be a worthy champion in arguably the UFC’s best weight class.
Ferguson (22-3), the winner of The Ultimate Fighter 13 in 2011, has won nine straight fights since his only UFC loss to Michael Johnson. Some of the wins have been high profile, a decision win over former lightweight king Rafael Dos Anjos and a submission victory against Edson Barboza.
However, ‘El Cucuy’ will be facing his toughest opponent yet, a man who is not only unbeaten in the UFC, but in his entire MMA career. Nurmagomedov’s record currently stands at 24-0, a record that includes a decision victory over Dos Anjos and a dominant victory over Johnson at UFC 205.
Unsurprisingly, Nurmagomedov is the bookmakers favourite going into UFC 209, but don’t rule out Ferguson.
More than just the title on the line for Khabib
Not only will Nurmagomedov battle for the interim Lightweight title, but he will also be aiming to keep his undefeated record intact. ‘The Eagle's record of 24-0 consists of eight wins via, submission, knockout and decision and whilst that looks like he can win a fight in any which way, his training and performances in previous fights shows he prefers to fight on the ground or in the clinch.
Training out of the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California, Nurmagomedov trains along side some of the UFC’s best, his teammates include current UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, Daniel Cormier, former UFC Heavyweight king Cain Velasquez and former Middleweight champion Luke Rockhold.
Heading into the fight, Nurmagomedov has spoken about his UFC dream, “I’m fighting for the title and I am very excited about this fight. This is my dream to become UFC’s undisputed, undefeated champion. And I will do this, Inshallah (if God wills), on March 4.”
His Combat Sambo background means he is trained in striking and grappling, but the Russian combines the two and uses his skills to stifle his opponent. He is also a black belt in Judo, which again points to his preference to fight on the ground. Add a ranking of International Master of Sports in Pankration, which is another form of ground game, it’s easy to see what style of fighting Nurmagomedov prefers.
In his fights, more often than not he resorts to taking his opponent down and punishing them on the ground. A prime example of that is his fight against Michael Johnson at UFC 205.
Johnson managed to keep his Russian opponent at a distance using his boxing skills and reach advantage, which was working wonders until Nurmagomedov decided to shoot for a takedown. The fight ended up on the ground and that was all she wrote; the Russian claimed his 24th win via kimura.
Nurmagomedov isn’t the best striker and his stand up game was brought into question as Johnson rocked him early on in the contest, and with Ferguson being an exceptional striker, if the fight can stay stood up his chances of winning will increase dramatically.
Success may come on the ground for Ferguson
A brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, an All-State wrestler and eight submission victories on his record, Ferguson has certainly been trained well on the ground. The California native fighter also has 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu on his CV, so he knows how to take the fight to the ground.
When the fight is stood up, that is when Ferguson is in his natural habitat. He is one of the most dangerous and creative fighters in MMA; he can finish his opponent on the feet with an array of unique and exciting techniques.
Whilst some of his methods are different, all are effective and Nurmagomedov will have to be wary that ‘El Cucuy’ could cause him a nightmare.
With that being said, Nurmagomedov will be having nightmares if the fight doesn’t end up on the ground. With Ferguson being an exceptional striker, if the fight is stood up, he will undoubtedly win, so Nurmagomedov needs to get the fight to the ground as soon as possible and utilize his spectacular ground game.
Like aforementioned, Ferguson is highly skilled on the ground, however, the number two ranked fighter’s ability to guard himself isn’t the best, which is something Nurmagomedov will definitely look to exploit, as the number one contender is a master at ground and pound.
Ferguson does however have an extensive submission skillset, he has a knack for locking in nasty d’Arce chokes and guillotines, and he can also transition quickly and lock in a rear-naked choke. The 33 year-old’s submission game also contains leg locks, which add variety to his ground game, and this makes him a very dangerous foe no matter where the fight ends up.
Nurmagomedov has vowed to break Ferguson's arm, and that is something the latter isn't too impressed by, “I’m going to hit him with every f**king arsenal I have and I can submit him with one arm. I’ll cut him up with my elbows and I’ll hit him with my punches and he’ll take a knee and he’ll bow to me before I ever go down not getting my victory. That’s how f**king pissed I am because of that.”
It comes as no surprise that Nurmagomedov is heading into the fight as the favourite, but I think Ferguson will pick up the interim Lightweight title. As a fighter who is incredible stood up and very difficult to take down, I feel he has the skill set required to hand ‘The Eagle’ his first loss.
Tony ‘El Cucuy’ Ferguson will win via third round knockout.