On November 12th, 2016, Conor McGregor defeated Eddie Alvarez to become the UFC’s lightweight champion. But he did so amid a cloud of controversy. Conor McGregor, while extremely talented, was not the man most deserving of a title shot. And his foe, Eddie Alvarez, also won the title while bypassing two more viable contenders. When McGregor fought Alvarez, two fighters sat watching eagle-eyed.
Khabib Nurmagomedov earned his 24th consecutive win on the undercard of UFC 205 while Tony Ferguson, who won his ninth fight in a row the previous week, watched on.
At UFC 205, Conor McGregor put on perhaps the most amazing performance of his career to date. There was a palpable sense of anticipation already building amongst fight fans. Fans wanted to see how McGregor would match up against the aggression of Tony Ferguson. Or, if he could withstand the wrestling onslaught of Khabib Nurmagomedov. While fans eagerly awaited the announcement of McGregor’s next opponent, they were left desperately disappointed when it was announced that McGregor’s sabbatical would be extended into late 2017.
Fan’s fears of a stagnated lightweight division would be eased however, as the UFC would soon go on to announce UFC 209’s blockbuster co-main event: Khabib Nurmagomedov versus Tony Ferguson for the interim UFC lightweight title.
In all reality, Nurmagomedov is likely the most feared fighter in the UFC right now. And since he defeated Rafael dos Anjos in 2014, many have viewed the Russian as the uncrowned king of the lightweights. But as gifted as Khabib is, he too is flawed—just not in his skill-set. Instead, Nurmagomedov is a victim to his own body.
Over the past few years, he’s suffered a variety of long-term injuries. In 2014, Nurmagomedov fell victim to the wrestler’s kryptonite by suffering a serious knee injury. Then after recovering, he damaged his rib. And in his extended absence, the lightweight division passed him by. But since returning to the cage, Khabib has dominated two foes. At UFC on FOX, he decimated Darrell Horcher—a late replacement. And at UFC 205, he manhandled Michael Johnson.
During Nurmagomedov’s injury-imposed absence, another UFC lightweight surged from obscurity to the top of the division.
Tony Ferguson is the epitome of the modern day fighter. He is gifted on his feet and on the ground. He is at a near-savant level. Nine consecutive UFC wins is unheard of in the lightweight division, and the manner in which Ferguson fights made his run to the top even more impressive. Ferguson is comfortable in the chaos, embraces the grind and goes toe-to-toe with all of his adversaries. While he has been hurt in fights, he somehow always manages to snag a win. And in his most recent fight, he looked like the best version of himself.
Belts don’t mean everything in the fight business. They really don’t. Great fighters have had a full career without tasting gold while other, less talented fighters have snatched one under bizarre circumstances. Regardless of who the true UFC champion is, Khabib Nurmagomedov versus Tony Ferguson will decide who the best lightweight on the planet is right now.