The lightweight division is one of the deepest collectives under the UFC banner and Khabib Nurmagomedov has carved out his place as a major player.
The undefeated Dagestan native had a solid amount of buzz surrounding his promotional debut back in 2012 and has spent the past two years turning that hype into a legitimate case for title contention. The 25-year-old has found victory in all six of his showings inside the Octagon and put on impressive—and in most cases dominant—performances against a cast of seasoned veterans.
While "The Eagle" has continued to show progress in his striking attack, it is his grappling that has given the opposition fits. Nurmagomedov's wrestling and full-out tenacity have proven to be overwhelming and a difficult puzzle to solve inside the cage, and those skills have been directly responsible for his three most recent wins.
The AKA-trained fighter set a UFC record for takedowns when he rag-dolled knockout artist Abel Trujillo, then defeated Strikeforce veteran Pat Healy and rising contender Rafael dos Anjos, respectively. Nurmagomedov outworked "RDA" when the two met last month at UFC on Fox 11, and the lopsided unanimous-decision victory has him on the cusp of much bigger things in the 155-pound fold.
That said, the upper tier of the lightweight division is currently in the midst of a "stop and go" phase where traffic toward a title shot is concerned, and the talented young Russian is most likely going to have to play the "wait and see" game in order to determine who his next challenger will be.
Nevertheless, Nurmagomedov is certainly within striking distance of earning a title opportunity, but he will need at least one more big win before a title shot materializes.
Let's take a look at the potential options for Nurmagomedov's net bout.
Winner of Benson Henderson vs. Rustam Khabilov
The lightweight title won't come into play until the end of the year and that has left a lot of room for the next title challenger to emerge. Champion Anthony Pettis will attempt to defend his strap against Gilbert Melendez in December, and that has created a huge lane for one of the fighters at the elite level of the division to prove they are more deserving than the rest of the pack.
The current scenario is such that it is going to take a few solid victories to earn the coveted title opportunity. The upcoming matchup between Benson Henderson and Rustam Khabilov will certainly play a crucial role in that picture. The former lightweight champion and the surging Russian talent will square off in the main event of Fight Night 42 when the UFC visits Albuquerque for the first time on June 7.
The MMA Lab fighter has been one of the most prominent fighters on the lightweight roster since the WEC merged into the UFC in 2011.
"Smooth" has been successful in eight of his nine showings inside the Octagon and put together a seven-fight winning streak that saw him earn the lightweight title and successfully defend his belt on several occasions throughout that run. His only setback under the UFC banner came against Anthony Pettis last August at UFC 164, where "Showtime" earned the first-round submission victory.
The 30-year-old Colorado native was eager to get things back on track and did so by edging out Josh Thomson in a controversial split decision in the main event at UFC on Fox 10 back in January.
His victory over "The Punk" kept him in the title mix, but the circumstances at hand in the lightweight division and his recent loss to Pettis meant Henderson was going to need a few strong showings before he would be considered for another championship opportunity.
He will face Khabilov next month in New Mexico, and if he is successful against "The Tiger," a title eliminator bout against Nurmagomedov would make a tremendous amount of sense.
Things are a bit trickier on the Khabilov's side of the table. The Russian suplex machine has certainly been a force to be reckoned with inside the cage and has looked more impressive with each showing inside the Octagon.
The 27-year-old Albuquerque transplant has been victorious in all three of his showings under the UFC banner and has built a solid amount of buzz in the process. There is no doubt his upcoming bout against Henderson could yield a very big reward, the likelihood of him facing Nurmagomedov in his next outing is unlikely.
The two men are friends and former training partners from their time spent in Dagestan, and their relationship could very well throw a wrench into making that fight a reality.
While money and the type of prestige that comes with a high-profile bout has the potential to change any circumstance, it would be a long shot to get the two Russian fighters into the Octagon without a title on the line. The business of MMA is certainly unpredictable, but the chances of Nurmagomedov vs. Khabilov are grim.
Winner of Donald Cerrone vs. Jim Miller
In a division with as much high-powered talent as there is at 155 pounds, there is little room for error where wins and losses are concerned. Once a fighter crosses over into the elite tier of the weight class, every bout comes with crucial importance.
Both Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller are currently swimming in those waters. The two men will face off in the main event of Fight Night 45 in what is sure to be a highly anticipated showdown between two of the scrappiest fighters in the division.
"Cowboy" is no stranger to putting together winning streaks, and he's currently in the midst of another impressive run. The Jackson/Winkeljohn-trained fighter has collected three consecutive wins inside the Octagon and has finished his opponent in each of those showings.
Cerrone has started to build a strong case for a return to the contender's table at 155 pounds, and his upcoming bout with Miller will certainly determine which route—whether he jumps up into title contention or is reshuffled.
Should he defeat Miller in Atlantic City, a potential matchup with Nurmagomedov could certainly become reality. Cerrone's striking would be some of the best Nurmagomedov has ever faced, and his submission game is one of the slickest in the lightweight fold.
While the undefeated prospect-turned-contender would have a decided edge in the wrestling department, Cerrone's skills in that department are extremely underrated, and the pairing would be an interesting contrast of styles.
There is a lot of the same energy working for Miller as well. The New Jersey native has been working tirelessly to regain the standing he once held in the lightweight divisional hierarchy, and his performance against Cerrone will determine if he makes that happen.
Where Miller once notched seven consecutive wins in less than two years, a rough patch where he won two out of four bouts with one no-contest served to cool off his momentum.
That said, the AMA-trained fighter has collected back-to-back victories as of late and is poised to put himself in a position where a title shot is certainly a possibility. If he gets by Cerrone on July 16, then a bout with Nurmagomedov for his next outing would make solid sense.
In a potential matchup between two solid wrestlers, it is often the other strengths the fighters possess that ultimately determine the outcome. Nurmagomedov would have the size and strength advantage in the fight, but Miller is a dangerous submission artist when the action hits the ground and has proven power when he is able to get inside on the opposition.
When sizing up a potential matchup between Nurmagomedov and Miller, the Whippany resident's resiliency also needs to be taken into account. Miller has a gritty, blue-collar style and has the ability to remain dangerous late in the fight, keeping him in position to be a legitimate threat even if he's fallen behind on the judges' scorecards.
The Return of T.J. Grant
Another possible option for the undefeated lightweight's next fight could materialize with the return of a fighter who was once poised for a title shot of his own in T.J. Grant. The Nova Scotia native has been a nightmare since dropping down from welterweight waters back in 2011, as he's collected five consecutive victories in the lightweight division.
While any type of winning streak at the highest level of the sport is impressive, the type of destruction the Cole Harbour-based fighter has shown over his two most recent outings have catapulted him to the top of the heap at 155 pounds.
The gritty Canadian dismantled Matt Wiman at UFC on Fox 6 in January 2013, then drubbed former title challenger Gray Maynard four months later in Las Vegas. His victory over "The Bully" earned him a title shot against Benson Henderson in Milwaukee, but that is where Grant's story takes a hard turn South.
During his preparation to face Henderson, Grant suffered a severe concussion that forced him out of his scheduled title fight. While most head injuries require solid recovery time, Grant's layoff has been substantial as his time outside the Octagon is drawing close to the one-year mark.
He was supposed to get another shot at the title against new champion Anthony Pettis at UFC on Fox 9 last December, but Grant was yet to be medically cleared for the injury and was forced to remain on the sidelines. There has been a lot of shake-up in the weight class in his absence, and he will have to get at least one win before he can regain his title-challenger status.
Although there has yet to be a concrete date set for his return, a bout with Nurmagomedov is one that carries solid possibility. Where other fights on the lightweight docket have to play out in order to produce a potential opponent, booking Nurmagomedov versus Grant is one that could be made outright.
Both fighters have grappling-heavy styles, solid power and decent gas tanks in the cardio department. That said, Grant has been out of action for a while, and facing a fighter who has remained active and one who has been dominating the opposition over that stretch could be a tough pull for the Canadian.
Nevertheless, a pairing between Nurmagomedov and Grant would make sense in the grand scheme of the lightweight title picture and could be the direction the UFC decides to travel in the coming months.
Another possible option would be former title challenger Nate Diaz, but there is no telling when or where his next step will come in the lightweight mix.
Duane Finley is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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