Gilbert Melendez vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov Official for UFC 170

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Gilbert Melendez vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov Official for UFC 170
USA Today

The title race in the lightweight division took a few interesting turns in 2013, and it doesn't appear to be settling down in the new year.

With champion Anthony Pettis laid up for a good portion of 2014 recovering from a knee injury he suffered in November, the battle to secure the next shot at his title is in full swing. A handful of potential contenders are stepping into the Octagon in an effort to move up the divisional hierarchy, with an upcoming tilt between Gilbert Melendez vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov being the most recent addition to the list.

While the UFC didn't formally announce the bout as it commonly does with high-profile tilts, when Dana White revealed the fight poster for UFC 170, Melendez vs. Nurmagomedov was listed as one of the featured bouts on the card, per Dave Doyle of MMA Fighting.

The lightweight clash will join other high-profile fights on the bill, with Rashad Evans and Daniel Cormier colliding in light heavyweight action and Ronda Rousey and Sarah McMann battling for the women's bantamweight title in the main event. UFC 170 will take place on Feb. 22 at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.

The bout between the former Strikeforce champion and the surging young Dagestani has been rumored for weeks, and the information became official at last on Saturday night.

"El Nino" is coming off a front-runner for Fight of the Year after his epic squabble with former title challenger Diego Sanchez at UFC 166 in October. The two Mexican-American fighters engaged in a 15-minute war where neither fighter refused to take his foot off the proverbial gas.

While "The Dream" caught the "Skrap Pack" leader with an uppercut in the third round that briefly dropped him to the canvas, the overall fight was all Melendez as he battered Sanchez at every turn. The victory was his first official win under the UFC banner and put him back on the hunt for championship gold.

The Santa Anna native has won eight of his last nine outings. His only loss during that stretch came by way of a controversial split decision to Benson Henderson at UFC on Fox 7 in April.  

Whereas Melendez is a former champion who is looking to reclaim some hardware, the 25-year-old Russian is in the process of his first climb up the ladder.

"The Eagle" has been nothing short of impressive since joining the UFC roster in 2012, winning five consecutive showings against top-level competition. His most recent outing against Pat Healy at UFC 165 resulted in a unanimous-decision victory, as Nurmagomedov outworked and outclassed the gritty veteran to pick up the win.

On the strength of his eye-catching run inside the Octagon, he has quickly become one of the lightweight division's most heralded prospects. The AKA-trained fighter has handled every challenge the UFC has thrown his way with outstanding results, but a bout against Melendez will represent something else entirely.

The Team Cesar Gracie Fighter is recognized as one of the best 155-pound fighters in the world, and if Nurmagomedov can find success where so few others have, he'll take a huge step toward turning in his prospect label for one of title contender.

 

Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report.

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