And although Woodley initially expressed interest in moving on from Thompson, the two will run it back this Saturday at UFC 209 inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. This rivalry, after all, needs closure.
Also of note: The term “co-headliner” is often used in MMA, even when a co-main event is really little more than simply the second-to-last fight of the night. But at UFC 209, we’ll get a legitimate co-feature, when Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson meet for the interim lightweight title.
Yes, Irish superstar and reigning lightweight champion Conor McGregor looms large, but both Nurmagomedov and Ferguson have a legitimate claim to the title “best lightweight in the world.” This is one of the top matchups the UFC roster can currently produce, period.
ESPN.com is here to break down everything you need to know about UFC 209 with its latest edition of Cheat Sheets.
Khabib Nurmagomedov (24-0) vs. Tony Ferguson (22-3), UFC interim lightweight championship
Odds as of Feb. 28: Nurmagomedov -175; Ferguson +155
‘There will be an undisputed lightweight champion on Saturday’
When it comes to interim belts, different fighters have different takes.
When Jon Jones won the interim UFC light heavyweight title in April 2016, for example, he immediately dismissed the belt as “kinda fake.” In 2008, when Brock Lesnar told interim heavyweight champion Shane Carwin he was wearing a “make believe” belt, Carwin responded he “couldn’t agree more.”
Consider the undefeated Nurmagomedov on the other side of the fence. Heading into UFC 209, Nurmagomedov says his dream of winning a UFC championship will be 100 percent fulfilled on Saturday.
“Yes, of course,” said Nurmagomedov when asked if he’ll consider himself a true champion despite the interim tag. “This is why I train. This is everything.”
There’s a good chance that at least one Irish lightweight will view the situation quite differently. Conor McGregor (21-3) is the UFC’s official lightweight champion — and history suggests he may remind fans of that at some point after Saturday’s result. Nurmagomedov says he expects that reaction from McGregor, but he isn’t bothered by it.
“Conor has never fought in that division more than one fight,” Nurmagomedov said. “He have the belt because he’s famous. He no deserve this. What’s he going to do after Saturday, when I am undisputed champion, 9-0 in the UFC? Of course he will say ‘you wear the fake belt,’ but I don’t care about this. I don’t think about this. I’m focused on Tony.”
Earlier this week, it was reported that Nurmagomedov’s father and longtime coach, Abdulmanap, was denied a visa to the U.S. to attend the fight. Speaking to ESPN.com, Nurmagomedov acknowledged his father would not be in attendance at UFC 209, but claimed it is not out of the norm.
“I don’t know why people talk about this now, my father was never able to come to my fights for years,” Nurmagomedov said. “Of course, we train together in Russia and Dagestan, but my last eight fights I fight without my father. It’s OK.”
Think strong, keep your head
It’s been nearly six years since Ferguson appeared as a contestant on “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series (a tournament he ultimately won).
And in those six years, Ferguson says he’s never watched a single episode. He says doesn’t have an opinion on how he was portrayed or anything else to do with that season because he never watched it.
“My old coach used to say, ‘Tony! You’ve never even watched an episode?” Ferguson said. “I’d laugh and say, ‘No man, I never watched it.’ He’d tell me as long as I’m doing my own thing, I’m probably doing the right thing. I don’t belong to a big team. I’ve built my own academy. Doing my own thing has gotten me to where I’m at.”
If there can be such a thing as a quiet nine-fight win streak, Ferguson has one. His popularity has grown in recent years, but it pales in comparison to that of McGregor and even Nurmagomedov. He’s not known for picking his fights or publicly holding out for title shots. He did hold out for more money for this particular fight, the result of storming through nine lightweights in the past five years.
Ferguson can hold his own in verbal warfare — and has done so in the buildup to this fight — but it’s obvious he’s more focused on his craft. He refers to self-promotion as “outside BS.”
“Khabib has said in the past he’s looking at Conor,” Ferguson said. “In my last fight against [former champion] Rafael dos Anjos, he was talking about winning his belt back. Everybody looks past me. I look through my opponents, not past them. When Khabib sees that focus, he’s gonna say, ‘Oh s—.'”
There’s a tattoo on Ferguson’s arm that reads “TSKYH.” According to Ferguson, it stands for “Think Strong, Keep Your Head” — a mindset he developed as a kid growing up in Michigan.
It goes a long way in describing Ferguson’s approach to the fight game and his life in general.
“I’m not going to start thinking I’m the s— or focusing on Conor,” Ferguson said. “I’m going to stay grounded, humbled and keep earning my way to victory. ‘TSKYH.’ That means don’t be floating in the clouds.”
After false starts in 2015 and 2016, this glorious matchup of 155-pound elites is upon us. That it’s now scheduled for five rounds, well, I think that’s what they call destiny, folks.
Let’s talk Nurmagomedov first. There have been exceptions to this, but by and large, once he’s into your hips it’s already too late. Physically, he’s an ox. He just doesn’t let go once he’s got a grip on something, which means even when he’s not crushing his man with elbows or sinking in a choke, he’s still bound tightly to his frame. And that’s no fun.
The process by which Nurmagomedov gets into those positions can be … a little clumsy. No one would call his standup “pretty,” although that doesn’t mean it’s ineffective. Because his grappling represents such a threat, opponents tend to drop their hands against Nurmagomedov. In other words, just the threat of his ground game opens offensive chances on the feet.
And Nurmagomedov is not a light puncher. He’s a little wild and throws a lot of heat. We could discuss his standup more, but mainly it’s a means to an end — and that “end” is getting into a position to grapple. He’s looking to take you down. If he happens to paste you with a looping punch because you’re so focused on his wrestling, hey, it’s a nice bonus.
Ferguson already keeps his hands uncomfortably low. Always has. He’s gotten away with it so far due to his incredible toughness.
Getting hit in combat sports is never a good thing, and to suggest otherwise is just downright wrong. But just like Nurmagomedov’s suffocating wrestling can break opponents, Ferguson’s superpower of eating shots and seemingly getting stronger from them does the same thing.
Standing, Ferguson should have an advantage. He has a generous wingspan (6-inch reach advantage here), high work rate, an unpredictability factor that can’t be duplicated in the gym and finishing ability. His front head lock, and the chokes that come out of it, are a distinct “El Cucuy” feature. If Nurmagomedov gets lazy on any takedown attempt, that front head lock could definitely come into play.
It’s remarkable that Nurmagomedov (and his 24-0 record) is looking at a five-round fight for the very first time. Ferguson is a cardio freak and very much believes that will be a factor in this matchup. Nurmagomedov has never given us a real reason to think he can’t go 25 minutes, but you never know for sure until he proves it — and he may have to do so against a very busy opponent.
Prediction: Ferguson via rear naked choke, fifth round