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Opinion: The UFC’s next lightweight champion

Overthrowing Khabib Nurmagomedov is one of the stiffest challenges in MMA today.

Mandatory Credit: Jeff Bottari - Zuffa LLC

For years – the UFC’s lightweight division has comfortably been one of the most competitive in all of mixed-martial-arts. In the current climate; nothing’s changed.

If we look at even the top five of the division, the names we’re greeted with are incredible. Kiwi striker, Dan Hooker rounds off at #5. Former WSOF champion and upcoming interim title challenger, Justin Gaethje takes #4. Former two-weight world champion, Conor McGregor sits at #3. One-time interim champion, Dustin Poirier claims #2. Then, we’ve got the everlasting, Tony Ferguson at #1 – a more than familiar territory. On any given day – each and every one of those mentioned before could claim promotional gold, however, let’s look at the current pacesetter.

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Khabib ‘The Eagle’ Nurmagomedov. Unmatched. Unrivalled. Unhampered. A true generational talent. Arguably the greatest, most imposing wrestler the promotion have ever had on their books. A 28-0 record speaks for itself. The Dagestani has already bested both McGregor and Poirier, however, to solidify his legacy as the greatest lightweight of all time – he must overcome Tony Ferguson.

Getting both Khabib and Ferguson to stand opposite each other in an Octagon has proven fruitless – five times in fact. It really is a legacy-defining matchup for both of these standouts. Both men are riding staggering twelve fight win-streaks at 155-pounds – with résumés littered with talent. In what may come as a contentious opinion – given the current landscape at 155-pounds, I’m putting all my eggs in a Tony Ferguson shaped basket. So much so, that I’m favouring him against Gaethje for their interim championship meeting at UFC 249 this Saturday – before eventually unifying the titles whether that be against Khabib or whomever.

Tony Ferguson:

Mandatory Credit: Jeff Bottari – Zuffa LLC

If Khabib is consensually known as a generational talent, surely that label falls at the feet of Tony Ferguson as well. The 36-year-old, as noted earlier, has won twelve straight – with a unanimous decision loss to Michael Johnson back in 2012, coming as his only defeat in nineteen outings. Ferguson, who suffered a broken forearm in that pairing with Johnson – has rebounded in truly spectacular fashion. 

The 10th. Planet Jiu-Jitsu black belt is a poised submission-specialist, however, his striking repertoire is a somewhat overlooked aspect of his arsenal. The Oxnard native is a pressure fighter in every sense of the word. For case studies, look at his two most prior victories. Combinations aplenty, unorthodox elbow strikes, leg kicks, and herky-jerky movement aided him in successes against former WEC and UFC 155-pound best, Anthony Pettis, and Muay Thai ace, Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone. 

One of my main reasons for choosing Ferguson to next claim the undisputed lightweight title – is the severe danger he presents to Khabib and his unblemished record. My thought process remains the same; a superior submission artist holds the key to dethroning Khabib. At 155-pounds today, Ferguson and Charles Oliveira are arguably the best finishers, whether that be from top – or off their respective backs.

At UFC 242 last September, the aforementioned Poirier came relatively close to upsetting the odds as he attempted to cinch in a guillotine. Poirier is undoubtedly a talented Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, although, we rarely see it put to offensive use in the Octagon. The immediate thought that came to mind after Khabib eventually secured his own rear-naked choke was; would Tony Ferguson or Charles Oliveira have managed to finish that guillotine?  

For someone as technically proficient as Khabib – who rarely if ever leaves space available for submission attempts to invade his defence – scrambles are where Ferguson could shine. The former interim champion won that title via a third-round triangle of Kevin Lee back in 2017, creating sufficient space to do so. In D’Arce finishes of Edson Barboza and Lando Vannata, Ferguson managed to lock up the finish after bloodied affairs. Scrambles are key for ‘El Cucuy’ if he finally meets with Khabib.

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