Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Khabib Nurmagomedov famously wrestled a bear cub as a child.
Edson Barboza, Nurmagomedov’s opponent Saturday night, might as well have been fighting a full-grown grizzly Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena in the co-main event of UFC 219. The most feral monster couldn’t have possibly inflicted much more damage on the Brazilian striker than what Nurmagomedov managed.
Nurmagomedov overpowered, out-grappled and knocked Barboza around to earn one of the most lopsided unanimous decisions (30-25, 30-25, 30-24) possible for a three-round fight.
“That was my most dominant performance to date,” the 29-year-old Dagestan native said afterwards.
And it came despite less than ideal circumstances. Nurmagomedov, who improved to 25-0 in his career including 9-0 in the UFC, hadn't fought for more than a year because of injury and weight problems.
Barboza (19-5 MMA, 13-5 UFC) seemed to be one of the hardest possible return fights. He’s unanimously one of the best lightweights in the world and was riding a three-fight win streak that included easy wins over former champion Anthony Pettis and two-time top contender Gilbert Melendez.
Barboza’s last loss came to interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson, but only after he nearly secured a knockout in the first round.
When heavyweight prospect Francis Ngannou practically beheaded Alistair Overeem to earn a title shot at UFC 218 earlier this month, fans jokingly started a #PrayforStipe hashtag to express concern for heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic in their impending fight. It might be time to crank up #PrayforTony, or even #PrayforConor in reference to lineal lightweight champion Conor McGregor, after UFC 219 because no one is beating Nurmagomedov if he fights as well as he did against Barboza.
“I say I can fight with Tony, and after a couple hours if UFC gives me rest, I can fight Conor,” Nurmagomedov said. “People think I’m trash talking, but I just finished fighting with one of the best strikers in the UFC, and I fought with him wrestling, stand-up, 15-minute war and I’m still fresh.”
Nurmagomedov’s health has been far from a given, though. The biggest hurdle of his career has always been getting to fight night.
The matchup with Ferguson alone has fallen apart multiple times, including most recently a day before their scheduled interim title fight in March when Nurmagomedov had to be rushed to the hospital while attempting to cut weight. He had also previously missed weight, to the ire of UFC President Dana White.
“I’ve never had a problem with weight cut,” Nurmagomedov said. “My problem is my No. 1 enemy, injuries, because I train so hard. I’m not training like other UFC fighters… My training partners know, my close people know about this. Last couple years, I tried to change something and I think I did this very well because I changed a lot of things.”
After Nurmagomedov’s last fight, a submission victory over Michael Johnson at UFC 205, he made a spirited callout of McGregor. He pulled no such stunt Saturday, instead joking that he didn’t expect McGregor to come back until he “spends all his money.”
Nurmagomedov is eyeing Ferguson first, and would like to schedule the bout for April. Ferguson has agreed to fight Nurmagomedov so many times in the past that there’s no way he’s too intimidated to agree to another fight.
That’s probably not the case for everyone when it comes to Nurmagomedov. Someone like McGregor could be reasonably hesitant to fight Nurmagomedov given his suffocating style and track record.
The history of combat sports is littered with examples of fighters whose peers avoided them. Nurmagomedov shared the card with one of them Saturday in women's featherweight champion Cris Cyborg, who defeated Holly Holm by unanimous decision in the main event. Undefeated boxer Gennady Golovkin is another recent example.
If Nurmagomedov can maintain the pace he showed against Barboza, he’ll be soon to join their ranks. He’s gone from training with wild beasts to fighting like one.
“I don’t know about these guys, where are these guys,” Nurmagomedov asked. “When I’m injured, they talk too much, but when I’m healthy, I don’t see these guys. I want to kill somebody — Tony or Conor, it doesn’t matter.”