After Khabib Nurmagomedov dominated Dustin Poirier to defend his UFC lightweight title at UFC 242 on Saturday night, thoughts turned to the question that people have been asking after every one of the Russian superstar’s recent fights: Who on earth can beat this guy?
So far, 28 have tried and 28 have failed, as Nurmagomedov’s irresistible combination of relentless pace and smothering ground skills smother the life out of his opponent’s attacks before he either finishes them or claims landslide decision victories on the scorecards.
Poirier seemed in a good place to challenge, but was simply unable to make a dent in “The Eagle”. So, if not him, who can possibly beat Khabib? Here’s our list of the five men with the best shot…
Yes, he’s retired, but GSP is quite simply the best all-round MMA fighter to ever grace the planet and has the all-encompassing game to give the reigning champion all he can handle.
His combination of slick, economical striking and powerful wrestling has seen him capture UFC world titles at both welterweight and middleweight, and the Canadian has said on multiple occasions that he would love to test himself against Khabib, but the UFC isn’t keen on seeing him potentially ruining their investment in the Russian star.
It was a very gentle piece of goading from the modest Montreal native, who almost dared the UFC to show their confidence in their man and put him up to face the currently-retired Canadian.
If anyone could do it, it’s GSP, but with the Canadian superstar showing no desire to come back and be an active world champion again, it’s unlikely the UFC would book him in a title fight – and that would be a huge shame.
Khabib has shown his ability to dominate fighters of all styles, but nobody has a style quite like Tony Ferguson. Like Khabib, Ferguson is riding a 12-fight undefeated streak in the UFC, and he is a former interim champion who lost his belt through injury and inactivity, rather than in the cage.
He’s been booked to face Khabib FOUR times before, too. But injuries to both men, and a weight-cut issue for Khabib, helped prevent the pair from ever actually meeting inside the cage. But now, following Khabib’s win over Poirier, the time seems right for the UFC to book the fight for a fifth time and make this bout happen.
It’s the fight that makes the most sense, it’s a fight between the two most in-form lightweights in the world, and it’s a fight that the fans are now clamouring to see.
Will Khabib’s smothering style dominate Ferguson, just as it has everybody else, or will “El Cucuy’s” unique fighting style prove to be Khabib’s Kryptonite. It’s time to find out.
How can you defeat Nurmagomedov? It’s over-simplifying it to suggest that if you can keep the Russian from taking you down, and if you can land big shots on him, that’s your best chance of victory. But if you follow that theory and look at the man with the skillset best equipped to follow that gameplan, you come up with Gaethje.
You don’t often see his wrestling, but the American is an NCAA Division I All-American wrestler from his college days, so he has that ability in his locker for a fight against a takedown artist like Khabib.
And he certainly has power. He probably has more power than almost any other fighter in the UFCs’ Top 10. His sledgehammer hands and devastating leg kicks have broken down a host of opponents, while his seemingly unbreakable fighting spirit would mean that unless Khabib managed to knock him out, Gaethje would be in there with a real chance of winning.
He’s probably one big win away from calling for a shot at the title, and he can get that win this coming weekend when he faces Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone at UFC Vancouver.
He may not be the biggest name in the UFC’s lightweight division, but if you’re looking for a fighter with the closest equivalent style to Khabib, it’s Gillespie. The American’s wrestling skills are propelling him up the UFC’s 155-pound division in a similar way to Nurmagomedov’s rise, as he uses his dominant top game gives him a real edge over his opponents.
A battle between the two would pit American wrestling against Russian sambo in a fascinating grappling contest that would give Khabib a test unlike anything he’s faced inside the octagon before.
It’s highly unlikely we’ll see the fight happen, as Gillespie isn’t quite in the very top level of the division yet, and it’s not a big box-office matchup that demands attention. But in terms of a bona-fide wrestling-based clash, it’s hard to think of a fighter better equipped to face the Russian.
You didn’t think we’d leave Conor off the list, did you?
With his ability to gameplan smartly, and with a cannon of a left hand, McGregor would certainly have a puncher’s chance to defeat Khabib if the pair ever met again in a rematch. But the reason he’s the last man on our list is because he was so clearly dominated in their first meeting, and it seems unlikely that McGregor’s wrestling could be brought up to a level capable of preventing the relentless Russian from dragging him to the mat again.
If he fought him again, he would have to catch him early. But based on his decisive loss to Khabib last time, plus the fact he hasn’t won a fight in the UFC since 2016, McGregor is at the bottom of our list because there are more deserving – and arguably better matched – options above him.
We suspect he’s right near the top of Dana White’s list, however, so don’t be surprised if we see Khabib vs Conor II sometime next year.