Khabib Nurmagomedov makes strong case for UFC's No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Khabib Nurmagomedov celebrates his submission victory over Dustin Poirier (not pictured) in their lightweight championship bout during UFC 242 at The Arena on Sept. 7, 2019 in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Getty Images)

As Khabib Nurmagomedov was mauling Dustin Poirier and making him look more like a jobber than the elite lightweight that he is, a thought crossed my mind: This is what Jon Jones used to do to guys.

For the better part of a decade, whenever he wasn’t getting himself into trouble and getting stripped of his light heavyweight title, Jones would tear opponents apart and prove time after time that he was the greatest mixed martial arts fighter in the world.

Jones has fought eight times in the last six years. He’s gone 7-0 with a no-contest, though the no-contest was originally a head kick knockout of Daniel Cormier at UFC 214 in 2017 that was changed when Jones failed an anti-doping test.

But beginning at UFC 165 on Sept. 21, 2013, Jones has scored six decision victories and one stoppage among his seven wins. He’s no longer destroying his opponents like he once did.

Or, it should be said, like Nurmagomedov is doing now.

Nurmagomedov was typically brilliant on Saturday at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi when he submitted Poirier with a rear naked choke at 2:06 of the third round of a one-sided fight. He did what he said he’d do: He made him tired and then made him tap.

It raised his record to an astonishing 28-0 and 6-0 in the last three years since returning from a two-year absence because of injuries. He’s had three submissions and a knockout among those six wins and is getting better each time out.

What is remarkable about what he’s doing is that he’s decimating the sport’s deepest and finest division. The UFC has 12 divisions between women and men, and it ranks them together in its pound-for-pound list. The men’s lightweight division has four of those spots.

The division is not only deep, it’s diverse with fighters with all sorts of skills. Khabib is so far ahead of them, though, that it’s like Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont, when he won the Triple Crown by 31 lengths. Khabib is at least 31 lengths better than any other lightweight not named Tony Ferguson.

The only fight for the UFC to make for Nurmagomedov is, of course, Ferguson. The UFC has scheduled them four times previously, but injuries have forced each to be scrapped.

But Ferguson is a remarkable talent in his own right. He hasn’t lost since dropping a decision to Michael Johnson in 2012. He’s not only won 12 in a row since, including over some of the elite of the division, he’s made a habit of pummeling his foes so badly and marking them up so much their mothers wouldn’t recognize them.

Ferguson would have a 6½-inch reach advantage on Nurmagomedov, and that would be a factor, for sure. Ferguson’s UFC takedown defense is 75 percent, which could also work in his favor.

But Khabib’s pressure and relentlessness is like nothing else in the UFC. He failed on a takedown in the early seconds against Poirier, but grabbed his leg and wouldn’t let go of it. He made Poirier carry his weight and eventually he dragged Poirier to the mat.

He used his legs to tie up Poirier’s legs and had Poirier against the cage where there was no way for him to escape.

(R-L) Khabib Nurmagomedov submits Dustin Poirier in their lightweight championship bout during UFC 242 at The Arena on Sept. 7, 2019 in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Getty Images)

It was the same thing over and over in the fight, just as it was in the fight with Conor McGregor at UFC 229. Nurmagomedov was so effective that Poirier was at a loss as to what to say, or do, after the bout.

“I just let myself down,” Poirier said. “I didn’t cut any corners preparing for this. I felt my whole career set me up for this moment. Maybe there were times in there I could have did more. I was just so prepared, but I have to wake up and look myself in the mirror every morning with this result. If anything, adversity has taught me that when times are good, to be grateful and in times like this, to be graceful.”

He was graceful, but his emotions showed the impact Nurmagomedov has. No matter how good these guys are — and Poirier is about as good as there is and entered the fight on an enviable streak of wins over elite opposition — they melt in the face of Nurmagomedov’s pressure.

That’s why Nurmagomedov is the best fighter in the world right now. Jones has been great for a long time, and remains great. This is nothing against him. This is that Nurmagomedov has finally channeled that potential he had which made so many experts predict big things for him when he debuted in the UFC seven years ago.

Everybody is beatable, and Poirier clipped Nurmagomedov on the chin in the second round. Had he come back with another one, who knows what may have happened.

But at this moment in time, there is no more complete, no more dominant and no more scary fighter in the world than Khabib Nurmagomedov.

“Give me the respect and put me No. 1 pound-for-pound next week, because I think I deserve this,” Nurmagomedov said at the post-fight news conference. “I dominate all my opponents. I’m undefeated. I think I deserve some respect.”

He’s getting it here. He’s the best there is right now, and just like Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont, it’s not even all that close.

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