The UFC has had a slow start to 2017, but their return to Las Vegas for UFC 209: Woodley vs. Thompson 2 this weekend will mark the beginning of some important fights as they head toward the spring.
The co-main event between lightweights Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson may be the most anticipated fight of 2017 so far, taking nothing away from the welterweight title fight. Ferguson has won 9 straight fights over quality competition in the 155 pound division, while Nurmagomedov has never lost a fight in his professional career (24-0).
Now you can go ahead and throw away the fact that this fight is for the interim lightweight championship, because all you really need to know is this fight will determine who the #1 contender is at lightweight and who the next challenger is for lightweight champion Conor McGregor (hopefully).
The truth is, this fight does not need a belt attached to it add any type of intrigue. These are CLEARLY the two best lightweights in the world not named McGregor and the fact that these two accepted this fight (instead of waiting for Conor) shows just how competitive they are, and fans of the sport should appreciate them.
If we’re talking about fighting styles, these two could not be any different. Nurmagomedov’s strengths come mostly from his ground game and his pure strength when he is on top of you reigning down blows, while Ferguson uses his unpredictability with a mixture of strikes and submission attempts that frustrate opponents.
No UFC lightweight in the past five years has been able to have much success against Nurmagomedov. His game plan is to take you down early and often and use his wrestling to find his way towards a submission.
Something that needs to be pointed out is although Nurmagomedov’s fighting record speaks for itself; the quality of competition could be questioned. His most notable wins have come over Michael Johnson and former champion Rafael Dos Anjos, but many of his other wins have come against unknowns in the sport.
A great comparison to this stretch of wins is to the career of former bantamweight champion Renan Barao. His win streak in the sport reached 22 and he even had great success in the UFC. But as the quality of competition each fight became tougher, the sport eventually caught up to him. He has now lost 3 out of his last 5 fights.
Nurmagomedov’s story could be completely different. He has a style of fighting that is more sustainable than Barao’s, but the quality of competition outside of the UFC will not do him any favors. Ferguson will be the biggest test of his career by far.
Ferguson ascension to the top of the lightweight division has been a joy to watch over the last 3 years. After winning The Ultimate Fighter in 2011, he has fought some of the best fighters the lightweight division has to offer with a fighting style that is flashy yet aggressive.
The problem with fighting Ferguson is that he will come at you with just about everything. Superman punches, cartwheel kicks, pulling guard to go for a submission. He frustrates opponents by being unpredictable, and just when you think you have settled in he can light you up with his jab.
Even if you get Tony to the ground, his submission skills are some of the best in the division. He will go for armbars and triangle chokes if forced to his back and will do everything he can go gain the upper hand.
Ferguson’s problems in this fight may come if he becomes too wreckless. Nurmagomedov will capitalize on any mistake that he makes. If Khabib is able to take his back in a scramble, Ferguson could be in trouble.
What makes this fight great is that has two fighters that are in their athletic prime. One could argue that they both should have received title shots by now, but this fight will prove without a doubt who should be next to fight McGregor.
Prediction: Ferguson by unanimous decision