“The Eagle’s” ascent to the apex of the UFC lightweight mountain is complete. And from his perch, Khabib Nurmagomedov doesn’t lack in options upon whom to prey next.
The native of the Russian republic of Dagestan ran his record to 26-0 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Saturday night, sweeping five lopsided rounds against Long Island product Al Iaquinta.
That the New Yorker accepted the fight on one day’s notice shouldn’t take away from the continued dominance by the new champion, whose lengthy unbeaten ledger is a rarity in MMA. Nurmagomedov secured several takedowns in the early going and used most of the last three rounds to test his less-heralded striking skills. He busted up the nose of Iaquinta (13-4-1), yet the new champ looked untouched after 25 minutes of action.
Nurmagomedov, 29, is now styled as the undisputed UFC lightweight champion, but there are at least two fighters who legitimately could dispute that label. Here’s a look at the two men whom the champ must defeat to remove all doubt about who truly is the top dog at 155 pounds — plus a third viable option Nurmagomedov himself would like to face in November at the presumed Madison Square Garden event.
The former champion, whose belt was stripped this week due to inactivity, has bigger fish to fry than the Dagestani. He’s facing several charges stemming from Thursday’s violent incident caught on video at Barclays Center involving a bus full of fighters, which caused three fights to be scrapped from Saturday’s UFC 223 slate.
Assuming the top draw in MMA resumes his career without further roadblocks or incidents, Khabib vs. McGregor is a massive fight. The new champ has garnered a dedicated following — his supporters Saturday appeared to outnumber anyone else’s, including the local headliner — and his status as both the first Russian and Muslim UFC champion could attract plenty of new fans to the sport. One can expect the bus brouhaha to play into promotion of a potential pay-per-view attraction.
Nurmagomedov, who derides the 29-year-old McGregor as the “Burger King” because of the Irishman’s recent commercial for the fast-food chain, was the reported target of the ex-champ’s ire on Thursday. With a nonchalant pun, “The Eagle” noted to reporters at the post-fight news conference that the two must put an end to their rivalry.
“We have to finish this beef,” Nurmagomedov said. “… We’re going to make him humble.”
Claiming the UFC now has a lightweight champion willing to defend his crown — something McGregor neglected to do after his hallmark 2016 victory in Manhattan — Nurmagomedov threw down the gauntlet at his rival, dictating terms for meeting either in the cage and out.
“You want to fight, come here. Inside the cage, come,” Nurmagomedov said. “Outside the cage, let me know without cameras, without all this media. He comes when a lot of security here outside the bus, inside the bus. Security here don’t let me go out. He tried to, ‘Hey, come out,’ like this. Why you need to show up like [that]? Let me know. That’s it. Anytime.”
Nurmagomedov even used some of McGregor’s own past declarations against him.
“He wants to become lightweight champion, he has to fight with me,” Nurmagomedov said. “Now, no more of all these fake champions. You guys remember when he put [out a] tweet, ‘Beg me.’ Please, beg me.”
Ferguson originally was to face Nurmagomedov on Saturday as the interim champion, but a freak injury on March 30 while filming promotional material for the Brooklyn event forced him to withdraw. It’s the fourth time in as many bookings the contest failed to come to fruition.
UFC president Dana White said during the lead-up to UFC 223 that he doesn’t want to book them a fifth time, but a meeting may be inevitable. Nurmagomedov told amNewYork on Monday he still believes he must face Ferguson, 34, at some point.
That said, Nurmagomedov is in no rush. He thinks Ferguson, whose interim champ status has been removed, must follow the same path he did after weight cutting issues hospitalized him last March, scrapping a fight between the two at the last minute. The Russian had to beat elite 155er Edson Barboza in December — and did, in typically convincing fashion — to get back into a title fight.
“Now, you have injury. Please, come back and fight with somebody and deserve this,” Nurmagomedov told reporters in a message directed at Ferguson.
Nurmagomedov reveres GSP, the longtime welterweight champion who captured and vacated the middleweight crown in November at the Garden. He reminisced for reporters of watching the French Canadian’s fights with his father as a teenager, declaring him the “greatest athlete who ever competed in UFC.”
One of Nurmagomedov’s first acts as champion was to name St-Pierre his ideal opponent for a first title defense in the Big Apple. He believes the fight would do more to enhance his legacy than even a fight with more bankable star McGregor. However, GSP reportedly said he isn’t interested in taking the fight at present.
When told by a reporter that St-Pierre, who turns 37 in May, believes there’s “work to take care of” at 155 pounds, Nurmagomedov channeled Nick and Nate Diaz, the brash UFC brothers.
“Like Diaz say, ‘Where you at, boy?’ ” he said with a laugh and a grin.
The new champion acknowledged St-Pierre has no need to accept the challenge after all he’s accomplished, but clearly this is the Russian’s dream fight.