UFC: The Mess of Finding a Fight for Khabib Nurmagomedov

Matthew RyderFeatured ColumnistJanuary 29, 2014

Khabib Nurmagomedov, from Russia, celebrates after Thiago Tavares, from Brazil,  during their lightweight mixed martial arts bout at the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
Andre Penner/Associated Press

Just last week, in the midst of a controversy involving Nate Diaz, Khabib Nurmagomedov and the he-said, she-said game of matching opponents in the fight business, I tried my best to explain it from the point of view of Diaz.

In its basest form, the thesis was this: with nothing to gain and everything to lose, it's no wonder Diaz doesn't want anything to do with the Russian upstart.

There's a real chance Diaz would lose that fight and if he did it would basically be the end of the line for him as a top contender. That's quite a gamble to take on a fight you don't want to begin with and that offers you little upside anyway.

But that theme goes well beyond Diaz and into most of the 155-pound class of the UFC. Nobody wants to fight Nurmagomedov beyond a few dudes who will either a) fight anyone, anywhere, any time, for any reason or b) who see him as a quality step at a time they're trying to make a name in their own right.

Aside from those two groups, which really only overtly include Donald Cerrone and Michael Johnson, respectively, at this point, it's a short list of guys saying "yeah, gimme the 21-0 Dagestani lunatic who's been throwing people on their heads all year. Gimme that guy."

It's quite a tangle, one that should be a serious cause of concern for fans. It may be the first time since the UFC implemented its public rankings that they've turned a division into such a mess, all because of fighters politicking over a stupid little number that appears on a graphic before they get in the cage.

Nurmagomedov is presently ranked seventh in the division. Guys ahead of him who have passed on a fight with him include Diaz and Gilbert Melendez, essentially citing nothing to gain and everything to lose—fair points, even if not in the spirit of taking on all comers.

TJ Grant is injured and Josh Thomson and Benson Henderson just fought each other. Rafael dos Anjos might make sense, but he's got his hands full with another terrifying Russian in a few weeks when he takes on Rustam Khabilov.

That basically puts Nurmagomedov's goal of fighting up the ranks—a justifiable wish for a 25-year-old trying to make a name for himself while he can—essentially out of reach for the time being. Circumstances are either conspiring against him, or fighters just outright don't see the point in risking their name against a very serious threat.

It's not entirely unlike the early days of Cain Velasquez, though on a different scale. People see an unknown talent and they don't want to provide the chance for him to become known. The result is that he just can't get fights.

Well he can, but he can't get the fights he wants. That's kind of where he differs from Velasquez, whom opponents literally fled from upon seeing him in the early days of his career.

Nurmagomedov can fight down and get a Cerrone, because Cerrone just wants to fight a bunch and get paid.

He can fight down and get a Michael Johnson because Johnson is playing the same game Nurmagomedov is, trying to fight up the divisional ladder and show people he can hang with the big boys.

Those are basically the options right now because no one else is stepping up.


Jim Miller or Joe Lauzon might be nice because they're household names to UFC fans, but there's no guarantee Nurmagomedov wants anything to do with them for the same reasons no one wants anything to do with him.

It's a true headache for fans and the UFC, this merry-go-round of fighters trying to pair up with opponents who fit the exact balance of ranking and star power they want to see across the cage.

The days of taking on all comers and letting the rest sort itself out are done, or at least dying, and that's absolutely horrible for the sport. Sure, it's begun with Khabib Nurmagomedov and the ongoing tug-of-war between two halves of a division that he's come to represent, but it's not likely to stop there.

Get used to it folks. You're watching a dangerous precedent unfold here.


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