Experts weigh in: Will Ferguson be the one to end Khabib’s unbeaten streak?

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Khabib Nurmagomedov has lost just one round while racking up a 12-0 record in the UFC.

It’s the second-best start in UFC history behind Anderson Silva, who won his first 16. Nurmagomedov’s 28-0 overall record is the best in MMA. Among lightweights, he has the most takedowns landed and highest strike differential, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Unbeatable, right?

Maybe not.

When Nurmagomedov faces Tony Ferguson on April 18 in Brooklyn, he’ll be facing someone who is also on a 12-fight UFC win streak. Ferguson hasn’t been stopped in 16 UFC fights — fourth-best streak in history — and has won 21 of his 26 overall by stoppage.

Many are already looking forward to a Khabib rematch with Conor McGregor — who won the third round before being choked out in the fourth in their Oct. 6, 2018 bout. But Ferguson is not someone who should be overlooked.

ESPN’s MMA panel of Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim break down the matchup.

What would a Ferguson win look like?

Helwani: Nurmagomedov is the most dominant fighter in UFC history, and I have a hard time believing Ferguson will stop Nurmagomedov. I think Ferguson will have to go the distance and out-tough him. Easier said than done, of course.

Okamoto: Ferguson is one of the most entertaining fighters in the world, because he’s all action. Nurmagomedov is entertaining in his own right, but for a very different reason. It’s entertaining to watch Nurmagomedov’s dominance on the floor. “Action” is not one of the first words you’d use to describe a Nurmagomedov fight. He gets his prey to the ground and he doesn’t let them back up. So, a Ferguson win would look like a Ferguson fight: He would defend Nurmagomedov’s takedowns, and beat him standing. If he does get taken down, he’d pull out some kind of somersault, round off, triple axel reverse to get back up. And if he were held down for any real amount of time, he’d throw elbows from the bottom like they’re going out of style. Action is Ferguson’s friend. A grapple-fest is not.

Raimondi: Chaotic. Ferguson excels in a non-linear type of fight — lots of scrambles, lots of unique positions. He’d likely use several aspects of MMA to get it done, not just striking or wrestling. There would almost certainly be some kind of combination of the two. Nurmagomedov is one of the best wrestlers in the world, but Ferguson is dangerous off his back. Ferguson is also a dynamic and fearless striker. He’s unpredictable, which works to his advantage. Plus, Ferguson has cardio for days. There’s a reason he hasn’t lost since 2012.

Wagenheim: Ferguson’s cornermen need to whisper in his ear that the UFC has electrified the Octagon fencing and, if he wants to avoid electrocution, he needs to stay away from the cage. By remaining in open space, Tony will be giving himself his best shot at keeping the fight standing. That way he can utilize his unpredictable attacks to try to put Nurmagomedov on the defensive. We haven’t seen anyone succeed at doing this against Khabib, so maybe it’s fantasy. But it’s less outlandish fantasy than the notion that Ferguson can pull off a submission from underneath a Dagestani lead blanket.

How does Ferguson’s grappling ability compare to Khabib’s?

Helwani: Ferguson is very unorthodox in all facets of the game. He’s as unconventional as it gets in training, striking and grappling. Nurmagomedov is more of a conventional Russian grappler/wrestler. He is tough, durable and relentless. The latter trait might be his most impressive one. I mean, did you see the way he was cupping Dustin Poirier’s mouth during their fight in September? You don’t see that kind of technique often.

Okamoto: Ferguson has a strong wrestling background that includes success at the high school and collegiate levels. Ferguson has never really fought like a traditional, American collegiate wrestler in MMA, though. He has a style that is uniquely his own, which he has crafted mostly on his own. He’s also a black belt in Eddie Bravo’s 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu system. Now, that said, there’s not a lightweight on the planet who owns an advantage over Nurmagomedov’s grappling. Nurmagomedov is the best in the world at taking an opponent down and keeping him there. What makes this matchup interesting is Ferguson’s gas tank and his unorthodox style. The cardio can’t be overstated. Nurmagomedov prides himself in making opponents tired. Ferguson doesn’t get tired.

Raimondi: Nurmagomedov is an oppressive wrestler with several ways to put opponents on their backs. Once there, Nurmagomedov has options. He can ground and pound from the top or he can get foes into a leg-ride type of position against the fence, which is where he cinched that jaw crank on McGregor at UFC 229. Nurmagomedov is hard to shake off once he has that kind of position. While Nurmagomedov is suffocating, Ferguson is dynamic. He’s rolling for legs, being aggressive, going for submissions. Both men are excellent grapplers, but they couldn’t be any more different in their approach.

Wagenheim: Khabib is going to maneuver you against the cage, trap you there, lock up your body and take you down, then wrap his legs around yours to immobilize you while he works his body into top position, from where he beats you up. He is as methodical as he is unstoppable. Ferguson, on the other hand, is all about the scramble and the scrap, his martial arts expressed in the chaotic abstract. He is Jackson Pollock impetuousness, while Khabib is as coldly resolute as, say, Edward Hopper. Sorry, champ, but I don’t know enough art history to cite a Russian master of harsh realism.

Is Ferguson a more dangerous opponent for Khabib than Conor?

Helwani: Right now, yes. Because Nurmagomedov has never fought Ferguson. So, off the bat, Ferguson presents questions Nurmagomedov has never answered. Ferguson is also a tad craftier on the ground, so that will be interesting, but lest we forget McGregor was the first and only person to win a round against Nurmagomedov.

Okamoto: Yes, I believe he is, for reasons we’ve already highlighted. Ferguson has more grappling experience than McGregor and better endurance. Ferguson probably doesn’t have the one-punch knockout power of McGregor, but let’s not pretend he doesn’t hit hard. He has sneaky power and more ways to finish a fight than McGregor. And again, the cardio is huge. Cardio is mandatory against Nurmagomedov.

Raimondi: People repeat the phrase “styles make fights” so many times that it has almost lost its meaning. But that truly is the case here. McGregor is a striker who is unproven against great wrestlers and grapplers, especially those at the level of Nurmagomedov. Ferguson, meanwhile, seems to have the tools to deal with Nurmagomedov’s wrestling, because the skills and offense off his back he honed under Eddie Bravo. And Ferguson is an effective, versatile, free-flowing striker on top of that. There are ways he can beat Nurmagomedov that McGregor could not.

Wagenheim: In theory, an opponent with one-punch KO power should pose the greatest peril, because Khabib is not a guy you’re going to systematically break down. McGregor has that kind of thwack, and Ferguson does not. But “El Cucuy” has a more well-rounded game, and if his wrestling ability enables him to keep the fight standing for longer than Conor could, that would afford Ferguson more opportunity to take Nurmagomedov out of his comfort zone. Tony needs to drag the fight away from methodical demolition and into hurly-burly improvisation, and he is a threat to do so.

Ferguson called Khabib’s performance against Poirier ‘lazy.’ What was your take on his win?

Helwani: I respectfully disagree with that assessment. I thought Nurmagomedov looked as dominant as ever. He was aggressive, relentless and smart. At no point did he seem in danger of losing that fight. After 11 months off, he did exactly what he had to do to win that fight, and he looked great in doing so. He even got a finish.

Okamoto: Not lazy. Convincing. Pretty dominant. I’m not entirely sure what Ferguson meant by “lazy.” Did he feel Nurmagomedov should have found a more challenging way to win, over taking Poirier down and owning him on the ground as he does everyone else? Poirier is a talented boxer with an underrated submission game, and Nurmagomedov overwhelmed him on the floor. Even though we’ve seen it many times before, it was impressive. According to UFC Stats data, he absorbed only 30 total strikes in that fight and went 7-of-8 on takedowns.

Raimondi: Not sure I buy that one. Nurmagomedov was pretty dominant against Poirier and finished the fight in the third round with a rear-naked choke. Nurmagomedov isn’t lazy, he’s methodical. That’s what got him to this 28-0 undefeated record, and that’s the game plan he executed perfectly against Poirier. Ferguson does a lot more in his victories. He’s rolling for submissions, jumping for knees. Nurmagomedov and Ferguson couldn’t be more different. But Nurmagomedov is extremely proficient in what he does. And let’s not forget how darn good Poirier is. It’s best to stick to an efficient strategy against someone as dangerous as Poirier.

Wagenheim: So we’re dissecting “El Cucuy”-speak now? Yikes, my head is spinning. Maybe what he meant was Nurmagomedov looked so comfortable in controlling Poirier from top position that it was as though Khabib were relaxing in a recliner. Or perhaps it was Ferguson’s homage to the bombast of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who once said, “Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.” Or maybe … nah, I have no idea what Tony was talking about, and I seldom do. I thought Khabib came through that fight smelling like a daisy. Which rhymes with lazy.

How do you expect the fight to play out?

Helwani: I think it will be a very fun fight. I do think their grappling will neutralize each other and a good early portion of the fight will be contested on the feet. That should be fun. Ultimately, I see it going the distance.

Okamoto: There’s a reason the fight world has been looking forward to this matchup so much. Of course, the long history of cancellations has a lot to do with it, but it’s also because this matchup, stylistically, is arguably the most intriguing fight Nurmagomedov can book. Ferguson is so unorthodox. He surprises his opponents with shots they don’t see coming, he has (maybe) the absolute best gas tank in the sport, and he’s hard to pin down for an extended amount of time. He’s big for the division. This fight is necessary to determine, beyond all shred of doubt, the best lightweight in the world. I think the fight will be competitive, and Ferguson will take Nurmagomedov closer to defeat than he’s ever been. But my early lean has to be on the champion pulling it out.

Raimondi: That’s so hard to call. Nurmagomedov’s best bet is still to take Ferguson down. Ferguson might be dangerous off his back, but Nurmagomedov is one of the best pure wrestlers in the history of MMA. You can’t get to this point and not stick with your bread and butter. I expect Nurmagomedov to take Ferguson down and for Ferguson to attempt to allow that on his own terms — into a position where he can land elbows from the bottom and attempt submissions. What happens when it hits the mat is anyone’s guess. I expect Nurmagomedov to fend off Ferguson’s attacks and grind him out. But if you tell me Ferguson might do something wild and land or get a close submission attempt, I wouldn’t be shocked, either. No matter the result, I can’t wait to see two masters of very different styles go to battle.

Wagenheim: Back in 2013, I remember looking at the skill set of unbeaten Chris Weidman, noting he seemed like a bad matchup for Anderson Silva, yet being unable to envision a result other than another victory for “The Spider,” who had won 17 in a row while casting a spell of inferiority upon the rest of the fight world. I cite that to acknowledge that my predictable forecasting of another Nurmagomedov victory here is based on my own chronic lack of vision, not on some deficiency in Ferguson’s game. Ferguson has built a six-year winning streak upon an idiosyncratic tenacity that makes him Khabib’s biggest threat yet. Still, I just can’t see the night ending with anything but the invulnerable champion squashing another declawed antagonist.

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