Notes from the Combat Underground: Max Holloway versus Khabib Murgmagomedov

Initially, it seemed like an April Fool’s gag. Days before their long-awaited contest, the fourth time the two have been scheduled to meet, news breaks that Tony Ferguson is injured and his fight against Khabib Murgmagomedov for the lightweight title has been called off. The punchline never came and UFC president Dana White announced that Tony Ferguson was indeed withdrawn from the fight due to a knee injury sustained not during training but during a press obligation where he tripped over an electrical cord. Ironically, Nurmagomedov has been the injury-prone fighter, notorious for knee injuries and weight cutting issues.

Going into the fight, Ferguson was the interim champ with the official absentee champion Conor McGregor M.I.A in the division. The bought between Ferguson and Nurmagomedov would, in one fell swoop, strip McGregor of his title and bestow the championship laurel to the winner.

Enter featherweight champion Max Holloway who, on six days notice, is stepping in to face Khabib for the lightweight title. It seems like a suicide mission but if Holloway wins, he stands to be the second two-division champion in UFC history. The big question is what are Holloway’s chances against Nurmagomedov. Holloway is a large featherweight, often getting as heavy as 180 pounds outside of fight camp. He struggles to make 145; at this point, making 155 will be an ordeal. In addition to the weight cut, Holloway is recovering from an ankle injury which caused him to drop out of his title fight with Frankie Edgar a few weeks ago. A fight between the two would be great if Holloway were able to get a full camp in; it would have been awesome to see this as a champion-versus-champion fight six months from now.

According to White, “[Holloway is] the type of guy that steps up for opportunities like this. And when you think about it, if he wins this fight, other than Conor McGregor, he will be the only guy to hold two belts at the same time.”

That brings up the question of Conor McGregor. The argument could be made that since he is the official lightweight champion, it would make a lot of sense for him to step in and fight Nurmagomedov. According to White, the UFC did not hit up McGregor.

“Conor is not the guy I want to throw in as a late replacement fighter,” the president said. “He’s a guy I want to make a fight with and have the right amount of time to promote the fight.”

On McGregor’s well-crafted ascent up the rankings, many have stepped in to face him on short notice. Fighters such as Chad Mendes and Nate Diaz were called in under similar situations to save the card; it would have been an offering of goodwill to McGregor’s fans who have not seen him compete in the UFC since November of 2016.

There are some cool storylines that accompany this little drama. If Max is able to win, it sets up McGregor’s rematch for the title. It’s unlikely that McGregor will return to the Octagon for a fight where he is not the favorite to win. If Khabib wins, McGregor is not compelled to fight him and is free to pursue “money fights” such as his rubber match with Nate Diaz.

Official prediction: Khabib Nurmagomedov wins via third-round submission. It’s likely that McGregor will be in attendance to support his teammate Artem Lobov, who is facing Alex Cacares on the undercard. There will be a dramatic call-out of McGregor by Nurmagomedov.

The rest of the card is stacked! The co-main event is the rematch between champion Rose Namajunas and Joanna Jedrzejczk. There is the return of Raging Al Iaquinta against Paul “Irish Dragon” Felder which should be a barn burner. Also, don’t sleep on former champ Anthony Pettit versus the salty dog, Michael Chiesa.