While the rematch between Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson for the welterweight title headlines March 4's UFC 209 card from Las Vegas, the co-main event pitting Khabib Nurmagomedov against Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight strap might just be the better fight.
Ferguson and Nurmagomedov have combined to go 20-1 in their UFC careers. That's a ridiculous run of dominance from both men, who have blown through the stacked lightweight ranks on their way to the top.
With Conor McGregor currently missing action from his perch atop the division, this could be a matchup between the two best fighters residing in the division. Whether McGregor ever returns to defend his belt or not, the winner of this bout will be a worthy champion in the UFC's best weight class.
Ferguson, the winner of The Ultimate Fighter 13 in 2011, has taken nine straight fights since his lone UFC loss to Michael Johnson, including a decision win over former champion Rafael Dos Anjos and submissions against Lando Vannata and Edson Barboza.
Nurmagomedov has been slowed by injuries since debuting in 2012 but has been no less impressive when he has managed to get into the Octagon. Johnson had some success at UFC 205, but he still fell to Nurmagomedov by third-round submission. A victory over Dos Anjos just prior to the Brazilian's title-winning run remains Nurmagomedov's signature win.
This is a fantastic fight no matter how you slice it, so let's dig in.
Record: 22-3 (9 KO, 8 SUB, 5 DEC)
The 33-year-old Ferguson is one of the most dangerous and creative fighters in the game. He can finish his opponent on the feet or on the ground with a diverse array of techniques, and while he's unorthodox and wild, his style builds on a strong technical foundation in every phase.
Aggressiveness is the hallmark of Ferguson's game, and given a choice, he prefers to stalk and pressure his opponent to the fence. Ferguson is more of a linear fighter (than a circular one) who relies on his sharp round kicks to cut off his opponent's lateral movement. Ferguson is quick and athletic to begin with, and his tendency to switch stances mid-combination accentuates how fast he can force his opponent backward.
Although he throws a high volume of round and front kicks, smooth, technical boxing is the heart and soul of Ferguson's striking game. His jab is crisp and potent from both orthodox and southpaw stances, and he throws it constantly to set his preferred long distance, force his opponent back and set his wild, unorthodox rhythm.
While it's hard to quantify or explain, that tricky rhythm is one of the real strengths of Ferguson's approach. He mixes up his speed and location and likes to pause a split second here and there mid-combination, all of which makes it difficult to predict where his next shot will come from and when he'll throw it. His crazy strike selection, combining punches, kicks, knees and elbows, accentuates that unpredictability.
When he finds his rhythm and flow, something that takes him about one round to accomplish, Ferguson puts together some of the most clever and creative combinations in the game. He might start in orthodox with a jab-cross sequence, step into southpaw, fire off a left kick, step back to orthodox and then try a counter elbow or a spinning backfist when his opponent tries to respond. He rarely throws the same thing twice.
Ferguson's pace is one of the fastest in the sport. No matter how much he throws or how grueling the fight, he never seems to tire, routinely throwing 20 or more strikes in a minute. He's not a bad defensive fighter, especially once he gets into his flow and starts moving his head and rolling with shots, but that pace ensures that he'll eat a fair number of shots.
Striking is Ferguson's wheelhouse, and if that were all he had to offer, he'd still be one of the best fighters in the division. What makes him special is the soundness of the rest of his game.
A lifelong wrestler, Ferguson is difficult to take down. He rarely shoots for takedowns of his own, but he excels at turning his opponent's shots into fight-ending offense through two tools: the funk roll and the front headlock.
The funk roll is a product of a style of wrestling that uses the opponent's momentum against him, rolling through and turning the opponent's shot into a dominant position rather than meeting force with force to stop it. The headlock is more straightforward: In addition to snagging it from failed shots, Ferguson's long limbs mean that he's capable of grabbing it from the clinch and then using the snapdown to drag his opponent down to the mat.
Once he's secured the front headlock or has funk rolled, Ferguson is lethal. He has a knack for hitting d'Arce chokes and guillotines, but he also has a lightning-quick move to the back and a nasty rear-naked choke. Leg locks add some variety to his submission game. On the downside, Ferguson's guard isn't as dangerous as he thinks it is, and he can be baited into wasting time playing from his back.
Record: 24-0 (8 KO, 8 SUB, 8 DEC)
Nurmagomedov, a native of the Dagestan region of Russia in the North Caucasus, is one of the most dominant wrestlers and grapplers ever in the Octagon. When he gets his hands on his opponent, the fight is almost certain to end up on the ground, and when that happens, the round or even the fight is as good as over.
Striking isn't Nurmagomedov's strong suit, but he knows what he's trying to do and how working on the feet gets him there. He tends to circle a bit early and get the timing and range before settling into pressure, using crisp cage-cutting footwork to force his opponent back toward the fence. While he could stand to throw a bit more volume, Nurmagomedov has power and good timing when he lets his hands go.
Distance is a serious problem for Nurmagomedov, though. He doesn't kick much and only rarely jabs, relying instead on his aggressiveness and footwork to bring him into punching range. Long, active opponents have had some success sticking Nurmagomedov on the end of their punches and moving before he can explode forward to land punches and get into the clinch.
This is easier said than done, though. Nurmagomedov does a good job of moving his head and gauging distance as he pressures, which makes him hard to hit cleanly. Durability hasn't been an issue thus far.
More than anything, Nurmagomedov is relentless. He simply doesn't stop coming forward, even if his opponent can avoid his attempts to shoot a takedown or get into the clinch.
Once Nurmagomedov gets into his preferred range, his opponent is in trouble. Uppercuts and hooks set up his level changes and clinch entries, and Nurmagomedov's takedown chains are creative and technically sound. He might enter with a single leg and then immediately transition to a trip or hip toss before finishing a double against the fence.
Clinching or wrestling with Nurmagomedov is like playing chess with a master. He's always a step or two ahead of his opponent, using one takedown to draw out the defensive response he wants before switching up to finish something different. It's a creative and sound approach that even the best defensive wrestlers have struggled to shut down.
Things don't improve for Nurmagomedov's opponents once the fight hits the ground. If his takedown game is like playing chess, grappling against Nurmagomedov is more akin to drowning in quicksand.
It's hard to overstate how dangerous and sound Nurmagomedov is on the mat. He passes quickly and smoothly to dominant positions and maintains effortless control even when he postures up to deliver thunderous head-body combinations of punches and elbows. Submissions aren't Nurmagomedov's first choice, generally preferring to pound his opponent's head in the canvas, but he'll snatch a limb or choke if it's available.
After 24 professional fights, it seems odd to say we still have some questions about Nurmagomedov, but here we are. It's uncertain how his explosive yet grinding style will hold up over five rounds, and he's never been forced to exclusively strike against elite opposition. His chin has been tested only in short bursts as well.
Nurmagomedov -175 (bet $175 to win $100), Ferguson +155
It's surprising that Nurmagomedov is that substantial a favorite. Ferguson is on an incredible run and, on paper, has the skills to make it a long night for the Russian: rangy striking, exceptional cardio and a great counter-wrestling game that capitalizes on any sloppy shot with a lethal submission.
In open space, this is Ferguson's fight. He has the skills to stick Nurmagomedov on the end of his jab even if he leaves his kicks in the bag for fear of the takedown. Whether Ferguson decides to stick and move when Nurmagomedov comes to him or actively pressure, his length and ability to throw volume will be a serious problem for the native of Dagestan.
With that said, Nurmagomedov still has paths to victory. Ferguson can be baited into exchanging, and when he does, the opportunities will be there for Nurmagomedov to slide into the clinch or duck under for a takedown. Ferguson's willingness to scramble and hunt for submissions on the mat likewise plays in Nurmagomedov's favor.
With those serious caveats, the pick is Nurmagomedov by back-and-forth decision.
Odds courtesy of OddsShark and current on Tuesday, February 28.
Patrick Wyman is a Senior MMA Analyst for Bleacher Report and the co-host of the Heavy Hands podcast, your source for the finer points of face-punching. For the history enthusiasts out there, he also hosts The Fall of Rome Podcast on the end of the Roman Empire. He can be found on Twitter and on Facebook.