The following is written from the fairy fantasy world wherein Khabib ‘You must give up’ Nurmagomedov has never missed a fight due to a poor weight cut. Is it the coffee-based desserts, or all that raw bear meat, or is it just that he’s made up of nails and barbed wire and chunks of permafrost? We’ll never know. Whatever the reason, he’d better be in top form as he’s up against one of the most devastating kickers in the entire universe, Edson ‘Shins of Steel’ Barboza, a Brazilian assassin who can kick the arse-end off a fly while standing on a dime.
Eagle vs. Sniper: A clash of legends
This is a fight fan’s dream. A classic match-up of styles that pits sweaty grinding ground-fighting against flashy fluid striking from the outside. On the one hand, you have an angry Russian mauler, and on the other, a bronzed Adonis who looks equally at home in an underwear catalog as he does booting people back to the Renaissance. Which style will prevail, and which will come up short? The stakes couldn’t be higher in a division heaving with talent. One fighter’s trajectory to the top will become beleaguered, while the other will be shunted into the bright lights of possible title contention. In UFC 219’s co-main event, all will be revealed.
Styles make fights, as they say
Weight cut aside, there are a couple of factors to consider when talking about Khabib Nurmagomedov. One is his litany of injuries and the straight savagery of his training, which naturally leads on to the second. He has fought just twice in 44 months. That’s only one more time than once. Ring rust may indeed play a leading role in the outcome of this tilt. Take his last outing against Michael Johnson at UFC 205, for example, which in terms of recent precedent is all we can judge him by. While he may be a wolf on the ground, his striking oft leaves him looking like a blind man swatting flies in the dark. Johnson was able to clip him several times before Nurmagomedov gobbled him up. Edson has two sniper rifles instead of legs; it is easy, then, to envision the Russian diving for a double-leg straight onto the business end of a flying knee, ala the Dariush finish.
So, in order for Nurmagomedov to execute his gameplan, which surely must be takedowns and hurtful remarks until his opponent gets fed up and quits, he’s going to need to weather a storm of scything limbs to get his paws around his foe. However, let’s assume that he does succeed in taking Barboza to the snowy wastes of the mat. Being Brazilian and trained from birth to choke people’s heads off, probably, Barboza is no slouch. He’s strong, he’s slippery, and he’ll have an unyielding desire to get back on his feet. Given the Russian’s utter annihilation of just about everyone he’s ever fought, it is easy to give him the advantage on the ground. And should it go there, what will Nurmagomedov have to say to Barboza during proceedings? Surely something along the lines of, “You kick hard and you have big muscles, but I must become champion. It is destiny.” And you can bet Dana White will be in the front row listening in with his ear-horn, “What’s that? Title shot you say? We’re interested.”
The man with iron in his shins
Edson Barboza is a killer, that much can’t be disputed. He is the first person in UFC history to kick a man into Narnia. Hyperbole? Maybe a little. Still, the fact remains that he is one of the most dangerous strikers in the sport, not just his weight class. Heads, livers, legs, performance bonuses, you name it and Barboza’s kicked it; and having spent time training under Mark Henry, his hands are just as lethal.
Where’s the knock, you ask? Surely a man with such a pedigree should be the proud owner of a ridiculously oversized golden belt, right? Well, as furious as his legs undoubtedly are, he has struggled in the past against certain styles and attacks. Distance is where he feels most comfortable. Give him room and he’s free to initialize his laser-guided missile systems, pew pew, but as soon as pressure starts going the other way, he becomes hesitant, flustered. He puts on his raincoat, gets on his bike and goes home. We saw this in his bloodbath with Tony Ferguson. Ferguson threw everything but the bathroom vanity at Barboza, effectively cutting him off from executing his best work before eventually submitting him.
It’s hard to see Nurmagomedov employing the same striking diversity, or doing so at the same clip; rather, it’ll be the takedown threat that may stifle Barboza’s bright ideas. Much like forgotten food left on the dinner table, the Russian only needs a second to snatch a takedown in his jaws and drag it into the corner. However, the same could be said for Barboza’s fiendish kicking speed. Arcane arts? Until anyone comes up with any other plausible explanations, yes.
We can only hope that all these ingredients combined will make a delicious action curry full of spicy kicks and tender hammer-fists, rather than a bland casserole with watery clinch-cuddling and chunks of overcooked takedowns. Let’s stay positive, shall we? When these two meet in the cage, we could be looking at a first-minute highlight-reel finish or a fifteen-minute mauling. Either way, 2018’s lightweight title saga looks set to become a fascinating one.