Before their fight at UFC 229, I predicted that Conor McGregor had the best chance of beating Khabib Nurmagomedov. Khabib’s striking ranges from unimpressive to sloppy, a style tailor-made for counters. I would like to walk back that statement and claim something bolder.
Tony Ferguson can beat Khabib, and Conor just proved it.
Revelation in defeat to Khabib
It’s hard not to laugh at Conor after his loss.
He resorted to insulting Khabib’s family and country to break the champion’s composure. He resorted to blatant fouling (that was acknowledged but not penalized) to keep from getting taken down or rolled. Despite being the technically superior striker, Khabib scored the only knockdown on a right hand. After all that, he tapped to a choke on his chin. And then the sizable portion of MMA fans not on his bandwagon sided with Khabib post-brawl.
But for a glorious moment, Conor did something no other lightweight could; he tired Khabib out.
Some of this was Khabib’s own fault; his ground and pound flurry in round two was more show than tell. But Conor was difficult to hold down in the opening rounds, and Khabib couldn’t inflict his usual damage. Near the midpoint of the fight, Khabib struggled for takedowns while Conor boxed him on (almost) even footing. The Irishman eventually succumbed to the pressure, but we glimpsed a hitherto unseen window of opportunity.
If Al Iaquinta and Conor can resist Khabib temporarily, why shouldn’t Tony Ferguson do so for longer?
The boogeyman of lightweight
When discussing the best lightweight in the world, the camps would split between Conor and Khabib. I am the lone voice advocating for the third option, the right option:
We’ve covered in detail why Ferguson is an absolute monster before, and the analysis stands current.
At 5′ 11″ with a 77″ reach, Ferguson is a freak of a lightweight. Only Michael Chiesa came close in terms of size, but he lacks Ferguson’s wiry strength and has since moved up to welterweight. Because of this, Ferguson has a low-risk, heavy jab. Opponents who believe they are at a safe distance still get jarred by relaxed punches. Who could forget Rafael Dos Anjos, low-key lightweight GOAT contender, throwing the kitchen sink at Ferguson only to get hurt multiple times by straight punches?
He’s easy to hurt, but nearly impossible to knock out. Lando Vannata, Kevin Lee, and Anthony Pettis all put Ferguson on skates and still got worn down in the end. And this is all on top of a very active guard and fantastic submission game.
The reason I gave Conor a better chance of beating Khabib is that Ferguson gets taken down fairly easily. Even lesser fighters manage to put him on his back just by driving through his hips. He managed to beat Kevin Lee thanks to his cardio and guard, but the brash wrestler was able to inflict damage and may have inflicted more if a staph infection hadn’t slowed him down. I figured what Lee could do, Khabib could do better with lower risk. But now I’m not so sure.
Getting Ferguson down has never been the problem; keeping him there has. His long, gangling limbs are hard to pin down, and he’ll constantly throw submission attempts. Put your head on his chest and he’ll slice you with elbows from angles you wouldn’t think possible. Ferguson just has to prevent damage as well as Conor did and wear Khabib out. And with all due respect to the Irish superstar, pinning Ferguson to the ground is a more arduous task by far.
When Khabib struggled to find Conor’s hips midway through the fight, he mitigated Conor’s boxing with his jab. Because he was taller, Khabib could keep Conor on the end of his jab without getting chopped by the counter left. The distancing made it impossible for Conor to land the fight changing shot he so desperately needed. This will be impossible against Ferguson, who has an even bigger reach advantage and a much better jab. The lulls in Khabib’s offense will stretch agonizingly long as Ferguson pounds the body and head with loose, easy punches.
Khabib will have his moments; I fully expect him to win the first two rounds convincingly. But as soon as his cardio drops below Ferguson’s, the fight will snowball to the challenger’s advantage.
Be glad Dana White has ditched the tomfoolery and claimed Ferguson next in line for the title. We are about to see a battle of the gods.