UFC 242: Is Khabib Nurmagomedov really as good as we think he is?

Sporting News

On paper, Khabib Nurmagomedov is the best fighter in the UFC.

Heading into his title unification bout vs. interim titleholder Dustin Poirier at Saturday's UFC 242, the lightweight champion sports a 27-0 record. Of those 27 wins, 16 have come inside the distance (eight by knockout, eight by submission) and five of those finishes have occurred in the UFC.

When you look at Nurmagomedov's performances inside the Octagon, it's apparent why he remains undefeated when that cage door shuts. His wrestling is impeccable and has often resulted in opponents crumbling beneath the power of his grappling and top game. As evidenced by previous encounters, once Khabib gains top position, his opponent won't be able to escape unless Khabib pounds him out or taps him, out or the bell sounds for the conclusion to the round.

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Nurmagomedov averages a little less than five takedowns per 15 minutes and has secured 49 takedowns in 116 attempts, a 45 percent success rate. He also averages 4.29 significant strikes a minute and only 1.70 significant strikes absorbed.

Few MMA fighters have been this deep into a career with a flawless record. It's a sight to behold.

But if you dig deeper, there are questions about Nurmagomedov that suggest he may not be as good as he's proclaimed to be.

The combined record of his UFC opponents is 231-105-4 with two no-contests, a .675 winning percentage. Two of his wins have been against former UFC champions (Rafael dos Anjos and Conor McGregor), two wins have come against "Ultimate Fighter" runners-up (Al Iaquinta and Michael Johnson), and five of his victories have come against opponents who have since been released from the organization.

Looking at those numbers, you can draw the conclusion that he has been exceptional against above-average competition, but if you really look at the caliber of opponents, that's not the case. Kamal Shalorus is 9-5-2, Pat Healy was 34-24 with one no-contest, Thiago Tavares is 22-10-1, Gleison Tibau is 34-14 and Michael Johnson is 20-14. Nurmagomedov stopped three of them.

That is an excellent finishing rate, but if a fighter wants to be considered the pound-for-pound best, he has to finish every one of those guys because their records are mediocre. They were considered to be average at best during their primes and never came close to winning a major world championship, and they never will.

Another prime example was the fight against Iaquinta at UFC 223 in April 2018. Nurmagomedov had been scheduled to face Max Holloway in the headliner while Iaquinta was on the undercard. Holloway got pulled from the card and Iaquinta was inserted into the spot on less than a week's notice.

An opportunity to cement himself as MMA's most dominant force came against a late replacement who isn't close to his skill level, and Nurmagomedov failed to deliver the goods. Yes, he won a wide decision and controlled the majority of the fight, but he was unable to put Iaquinta away. He was content to ride out a decision, but he could have finished the job, as he did another short-notice opponent, Darrell Horcher, in 2016. Iaquinta tagged him more than others ever had to that point and he stuffed takedowns in the last half of the fight, which took a toll on Nurmagomedov's cardio.

The McGregor clash at UFC 229 vaulted the native of Dagestan into a megastar. Sandwiched between the dolly-through-the-bus-window incident and nearly causing a riot inside T-Mobile Arena, Nurmagomedov handily submitted the biggest star in the sport. Nurmagomedov showed he could rise to the occasion when the lights are the brightest.

Even though he dominated McGregor, you can make the argument that he beat someone who hadn't fought in nearly two years. How would the Irish star have fared if he'd been an active competitor?

Nurmagomedov can erase all doubts about himself Saturday afternoon in Abu Dhabi. For the first time, Nurmagomedov is facing an opponent who is in the prime of their career and at the top of the food chain.

Poirier is 25-5 with one no-contest. He's 16-4 with one no-contest in the UFC, and since returning to 155 pounds, "The Diamond" is 9-1 with one no-contest, including four wins over former world champions. Three of those wins have come by stoppage.

Can "The Eagle" soar when it matters the most, because a win over Poirier will make him the best fighter in the world and put him in the conversation as one of the sport's all-time best?

We are about to find out.

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