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The UFC’s had a poor run as of late. With a long run of subpar cards, enough interim belts to melt down and gold plate a Cadillac, disappointing injuries, poor promotion and ratings seemingly in a perpetual freefall, even the hardcore fan base can be forgiven for beginning to sour on the bloodsport we know and love.
If the sport ever needed a shot in the arm, now is the time for it, and it seems UFC 223: Ferguson vs. Khabib is just what the doctor ordered.
The co-main event alone, between “Thug” Rose Namajunas and Joanna Jedrzejczyk, is enough to have any red-blooded fan of artful violence chomping at the bit to pay upwards of $65 to see two of the most talented women in combat sports disfigure each other in high definition in a rematch of one of the greatest upsets in history.
The long awaited main event, though, has fallen through so many times that it feels like a recurring prank. If, on this promising fourth attempt, both fighters walk into the cage, there is likely to be a high wind alert from the collective sigh of giddy relief from every member of the global MMA sphere. This matchup of styles is as complex as it is exciting and is virtually guaranteed to produce some of the most intriguing combat this year.
Tony “El Cucuy” Ferguson is entering the fight with an interim belt strapped around his waist, universally viewed as a poor promotional tool that has little sway. Khabib “The Eagle” Nurmagomedov, the uncrowned champion of the lightweight division, boasts a record of 25 wins and no losses, with 16 finishes split between strikes and submissions. Furthermore, he has not had one truly competitive fight inside the UFC. His dominant top control and ground and pound has sustained a reign of terror reminiscent of Ronda Rousey’s era of supposed invulnerability.
So, here we are. The million dollar question: Can “The Boogeyman” be the first to defeat the man from Dagestan?
Ferguson is, for lack of a better word–both in his public persona and fighting style–strange. A high output fighter with renowned stamina who can fight on the outside or pressure, he moves with unusual timing, uses creative footwork while moving his head off line and likes to attack with long techniques like straight rights, a highly effective jab (that works wonders when he remembers to use it), long uppercuts and flicking front kicks. When things get up close and personal, he uses a slashing elbow to deter advancing opponents.
One of the most interesting things about his game is that, unlike “The Eagle’s” most recent competition, he doesn’t tend to load up his strikes or really explode into anything. His punches are often noncommittal, fired while moving and thrown from strange angles with his hands out or down. His shots have a sort of snapping power that comes from his length and technique, but he never muscles anything he does. His grappling is also built on craftiness and composure, never on overwhelming strength.
Not to understate his technique in any fashion, but Nurmagomedov on the other hand makes constant use of his freakish strength. His boxing technique is sloppy at best, but the threat of the takedown, mixed with the unreal power he carries, makes every strike dangerous. When he gets his hands on opponents he is all but assured to wrangle them to the ground, where he floats on top of them, repeatedly mauling them with short shots bearing unreal power as they futilely attempt to scramble to their feet. If they manage to make it back up, they will have taken hard shots every moment of the way and be rewarded with another punishing takedown from which to restart the process.
Although the Dagestani has looked nigh-invincible, there are indeed chinks in his armor. Although he rarely fails to achieve his takedown (in much the same way Ronda Rousey did), through a fearless bull rush, his tendency to forego cage cutting may catch up to him. He will lunge forward on a straight line, hurling haymakers and hoping to push his man back against the cage.
When Nurmagomedov gets him there, he wastes little time pinning himself to their hips and ripping their legs out from under them. Opponents are often so afraid of making contact they continue to play keep away, and it’s only a matter of time before they are out of position. A fighter who draws out the rush and sits on a counter before stepping out on an angle might be able to begin to dissuade him from those shots. Long uppercuts, straight shots, knees and front kicks–Ferguson’s bread and butter–all can work a treat for this.
“The Eagle” is one of the purest examples of a pressure fighter in the sport, and nearly all pressure fighters share the same weakness: pressure itself. Very few fighters have attempted to pressure him, and while it may seem counterintuitive to meet the bull head on, it may be the quickest way to take control of the fight. Nurmagomedov has shown himself to be hittable on the back foot, and he prefers to hit his takedowns when you have your back against the cage. If you can halt his pressure and defend his takedowns, your chance of success climbs rapidly. This is largely a game of longevity, and Ferguson looks to have the better gas tank. If he can prevent being mauled in the early rounds, the fight should only become easier.
Playing that game will lead to contact, and when the distance is closed, it is imperative to initiate that contact. Hand fighting, or even entering the clinch or playing with bicep control, will all help to prevent the takedown. It is always quicker to react to a shot by touch than by sight, and by entering on your own terms you give yourself a better chance to remain standing. Trying to stand in the pocket will be far more dangerous, so by playing the outside game and initiating contact himself when the distance is closed, Ferguson can create a more neutral position where he can force the betting favorite to try to muscle him to the ground. Whether or not he wins the first round on the scorecard, if he isn’t being tenderized on the ground and uses less energy, he won the round.
Ferguson has claimed he would attempt to pull guard and land a submission off of his back. That seems terribly risky, but perhaps going to your back on your own terms is better than being unceremoniously slammed into side control. Nurmagomedov passes guards like I pass gas after eating too many bean burritos, but Ferguson is strong off his back and might be able to trap him in a position or at least limit effective strikes. If he can take the pop off most of the hammers thrown, he might find a diminished fighter on top of him that he can demolish in the later rounds.
Of course, nobody has been truly successful at taking the undefeated fighter’s own game to him yet or shown flaws in his conditioning. Former lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos gave it his best but came up short. The most likely outcome, it seems, is a relentless takedown and ground and pound clinic.
Regardless of the result, this is one to watch.
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