December 11th, 2015 was the date originally set for the widely awaited fireworks between battle-tested UFC prospects Khabib Nurgadomedov and Tony Ferguson. The rising lightweight titans were meant to clash in the marquee event of a talent-stacked FOX card, but the undefeated Russian Eagle pulled out due to a broken rib, seemingly a solo drop in an ocean of injuries that sidelined the Dagestani-bred fighter for two full years.
In that two-year window of time where Khabib lamented to his fans: “I am not sure if I will ever come back [to MMA]”, El Cucuy went on to fight three times, choking out two mighty-scary foes in Barboza and Vannata before clowning the recently dethroned lightweight champ Rafael Dos Anjos throughout a hard-fought decision victory in Mexico City.
This fight was once again rescheduled for April 16th, 2016, before Ferguson ended up hospitalized with blood in his lungs, leaving Khabib to decimate a short notice replacement and UFC newcomer in a match so lopsided many fans felt they didn’t need to see it. Seldom do comebacks from lengthy layoffs, whether induced by surgery, commission-suspension or lack of motivation, result in success for the layoff-ee. Fortunately, this tune up fight came at the perfect time for Nurgadomedov, easing his return into the ever-evolving sport.
Since April 2016, the landscape of the lightweight division and the complexion of both fighter’s resumes have changed, now further appended with stupidly impressive, high-profile wins. In the 2nd-most watched UFC event since the company’s inception, the Eagle once again wowed the world in a spectacle of his singularly special, rag-doll skills, neutralizing the mobility of contender Michael Johnson in such a way that it looked like MJ was getting jumped.
Khabib’s record now stands at a mesmerizing 24-0, with eight wins against UFC-caliber competition. Ferguson is 22-3 and 12-1 inside the UFC, suffering his only loss via unanimous decision in a fight where he broke his arm, yet still dropped his opponent with that same mangled appendage.
Barring the wrath of the MMA gods and the injuries they’re liberally giving out these days, the two healthy fighters meet at the center of the cage in the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on March 4th for the interim belt. The winner will face current lightweight champ Connor McGregor down the line to unify the belts.
Ferguson gets his back (repeatedly) thrown to the mat, but frustrates the sambo phenom from bottom position by savagely attacking with endless elbows, upkicks, sweeps and other sundry unorthodox submission offence. Ferguson’s creativity will get him taken down, but his razor-sharp fundamentals and immaculate use of the jab will be the decisive factor in this fight. I see Tony’s striking marginally outpointing Khabib’s merciless grappling and ruthless top-control in a barnburner that delivers five of the most competitive rounds of violence we witness in 2017.