Khabib Nurmagomedov has now run through 28 professional fighters and faced very little opposition while doing so. His most recent outing, a third-round submission over Dustin Poirier, was as impressive as title defenses go. Poirier attempted to lock in a guillotine choke and landed a solid right hand at one point, but most of the bout was another domination by Nurmagomedov.
That’s just how Nurmagomedov fights have gone thus far. “The Eagle” uses various trips, tricks, and takedowns to force his opponents to the mat and works his crushing top pressure to slowly chip away at them. It’s an exhausting and nightmarish style for many but nobody is unbeatable.
There is a chance that Nurmagomedov wins a couple more fights and retires at 30-0 as he’s claimed he’d like to do, but that all depends on who he faces. There aren’t many who match up particularly well with him at 155-pounds but there are a few interesting fights for him lurking in the division.
So aside from Nurmagomedov going up to welterweight which he’s stated he doesn’t want to do, who has the best chance to give the unblemished fighter a run for his money at lightweight?
Gregor Gillespie (13-0)
Gregor Gillespie is still somewhat of a sleeper in the division. He’s had and won six fights since joining the UFC and earned victories via stoppage in five of them. The thing is, if you’re a casual viewer of MMA, it’s likely you’ve never heard of Gilespie.
One would think that a four-time NCAA Division-1 wrestler that’s always looking for a finish would be one on a lot more radars. The thing is, he’s so inactive. Since January of 2018, Gillespie has only stepped into the Octagon three times.
Undefeated in MMA, Gillespie has some solid wins over the likes of Yancy Meidros and Vinc Pichel but has yet to stand across from someone in the top ten. It’s likely he’d need a couple of signature wins before he is in the title conversation but that doesn’t take away from the fact that his wrestling pedigree is possibly the only one that on is on par with or better than Nurmagomedov’s at lightweight.
Gillespie did recently call for a fight with Anthony Pettis at Madison Square Garden this November, but Pettis’ last two bouts have taken place in the welterweight division and it’s unlikely that he’s in a rush to drop down to face such a high-risk, low-reward opponent.
But the callout means Gillespie is ready to get back to action. Should he get someone in the top 10 and put on a dominant performance, we could be talking about him against Khabib Nurmagomedov sooner than we thought.
Georges St-Pierre (26-2)
Georges St-Pierre spent the entirety of his historic title run at welterweight. He retired and came back four years later to take home a belt in a second division when he beat Michael Bisping for the middleweight title at UFC 217 two years ago. “GSP” then relinquished the title and once again stepped out of the limelight.
Since then, the future UFC Hall of Famer has expressed interest in not only fighting in the lightweight division but facing off against Khabib Nurmagomedov. First, the 38-year-old former champion would have to deal with what one would think would be a drastic weight cut. He won his last belt thirty pounds up from lightweight.
St-Pierre is confident that he could make the weight as he has stated in the past that he could make 155 and said that some lightweights walked around heavier than he did at welterweight.
In a recent interview with DAZN, St-Pierre indulged that while he was interested in a fight with Nurmagomedov the UFC has refused to book it due him vacating his middleweight title. He also claimed that the UFC is wary of making the fight with all the money they’ve invested in promoting “The Eagle.”
Should St-Pierre beat the lightweight champion and then step away from the sport once again, the promotion would be out a lot on their investment.
In the same interview, “GSP” also stated that while it’s unlikely he comes back there is still a chance. UFC President Dana White seemed at least open to the idea at the UFC 242 post-fight press conference but wouldn’t give the fans much on the topic.
That pause… pic.twitter.com/ETmwim9t5N
— Jed I. Goodman (@jedigoodman) September 7, 2019
The matchup would pit two grand wrestlers and general greats of the sport against one another. “GSP,” though not from a wrestling background, dominated many fighters who were throughout his reign over the welterweight division with his own grappling. He often uses a pinpoint jab to keep opponents at bay when he wants and has powerful kicks that would make for a stern test against the Dagestani.
Justin Gaethje (20-2)
One of the major knocks against Justin Gaethje is that he never uses his wrestling. If you’re unaware of Gaethje’s life outside of the Octagon, you’d have no idea that he has spent his entire life on the wrestling mats.
Starting the oldest sport in the world at four years old, Gaethje won two state championships and was an NCAA Division-1 All American. After wrestling with guys like the aforementioned St-Pierre, Clay Guida, and Cub Swanson to help them prepare for fights, Gaethje gave MMA a try himself. That grappling background likely means he wouldn’t be afraid to let his heavy hands fly against someone like Nurmagomedov.
After his loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov, Conor McGregor was open about the fact that he trained to be defensive in their bout at UFC 229. He wanted to stop the takedown and be able to get up but he didn’t train to “fight.”
Poirier seemed like he may have met a similar fate at UFC 242. After being put on the ground a few times, a frustrated Poirier let his hands go less and less. Guys like Poirier and McGregor have been training wrestling for years but they don’t have decades in the sport like a Nurmagomedov or Gaethje.
Coming from that background would give Gaethje the confidence to move forward on Nurmagomedov.
He would probably have faith that his reactive wrestling would be quick enough to stifle his opponent as he shot. Gaethje fights everyone with an insane pressure and lands some of the heaviest leg kicks in the game.
It would be interesting to see if Gaethje could back up a fighter like a Nurmagomedov, who is used to dictating the dance in the cage, and take him out of his comfort zone while putting some heavy leather on him.
Tony Ferguson (25-3)
As soon as Nurmagomedov had the choke locked in at UFC 242, fans were already storming social media to call for the matchup we’ve all been pining for.
They want to see the cursed bout that has been booked and fallen through a staggering four times in the last four years, they want to see “The Eagle” step into the cage with “El Cucuy.”
They want… no, they must see Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson.
Besides the fact that both men are on 12 fight win streaks in arguably the toughest division in the sport, it’s the style clash that excites and intrigues.
Ferguson is one of the most unorthodox fighters in modern MMA. He strikes in bizarre ways that confuse opponents. Ferguson always pushes forward while unloading his lead uppercuts, spinning back elbows, and teep kicks to the torso of his adversaries. While Ferguson halts 75 percent of the takedowns attempted on him, should he go to the ground, the 10th Planet BJJ black belt doesn’t seem to mind at all.
“El Cucuy” is constantly attacking with submissions from the bottom. He often welcomes a grappling contest in many of his fights by Imanari rolling into his opponent’s legs to engage in a leglock contest and diving for submissions from the clinch on the feet.
In the post-fight presser of UFC 242, Dana White claimed that Ferguson would indeed be next for Khabib Nurmagomedov. But if there’s anything that fight fans know, it’s how fickle the MMA gods can be…
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Brandon is a long-time combat sports fan who has covered fights since 2017. His work can be found at The Scrap News, The Body Lock, and Fansided MMA. Follow Brandon on Twitter (@B_S_Sibcy).