The UFC’s 2017 schedule comes to an end on Saturday, with UFC 219 in Las Vegas.
ESPN Cheat Sheets are here to tell you everything you need to know about the year-end event.
Khabib Nurmagomedov (24-0) vs. Edson Barboza (19-4), Lightweight
Odds: Nurmagomedov -280; Barboza +240
Forget McGregor, Nurmagomedov and Barboza have sights on Ferguson
It’s a major fight week in the lives of Khabib Nurmagomedov and Edson Barboza — but the mere mention of a certain Irish superstar is enough to make both look exhausted.
It’s only natural for a pair of lightweight contenders to field questions about the lightweight champion, but neither Nurmagomedov nor Barboza harbor any ideas of facing McGregor in the near future.
Both have said they view interim titleholder Tony Ferguson — winner of 10 in a row — as the “real” UFC champion. Nurmagomedov especially has his eye on Ferguson, as several scheduled fights between the two have fallen through.
Barboza, 31, feels similar. And although he hasn’t received the same attention as Nurmagomedov in this division, he has a very strong case for a title shot with a win on Saturday.
“In my mind, the division is more clear than it’s been before,” Barboza said. “We have a champion in Ferguson. He’s the true champion in my opinion. People keep talking about this guy [McGregor], but he’s been out for more than a year.
“He’s fought in another sport. In my opinion, he’s out. I don’t think about him.”
Barboza lost to Ferguson via second-round submission in 2015 — a result that changed his entire life.
Originally from Brazil, Barboza trains out of Toms River, New Jersey, alongside former UFC champions Frankie Edgar and Eddie Alvarez. He used to live in Florida and only travel to New Jersey for fight camp, but after the Ferguson loss, he uprooted his life.
“My career was up and down before then,” Barboza said. “I opened a gym in Florida and half the year I was a coach, the other half I was a fighter. After that loss, I said, ‘I have to decide if I’m a fighter or a coach.’ I chose to be a fighter.
“If you watch my last three fights, I’m better and better. I used to only stay in New Jersey for eight weeks at a time. Now, I fight on Saturday and the next week, I’m in the gym, learning new things. This is the best Edson Barboza.”
Barboza is a significant underdog to Nurmagomedov this weekend — and even with a win, he’s considered a longshot to draw the attention of McGregor.
It’s a good thing for him then, he’s not thinking about McGregor.
“Ferguson, that’s the goal,” Barboza said. “I want my rematch with Ferguson.”
There seems to be a theory on how to fight Edson Barboza. The challenge, of course, is successfully executing it.
Barboza tends to get the most aggressive version of his opponents — which makes sense, because to stand stationary in front of this man is to buy a one-way ticket to Highlights-ville.
The last two opponents to beat Barboza — Ferguson and Michael Johnson — committed to ultra-aggressive game plans. Beneil Dariush, who fought him 10 months ago, was (effectively) employing a similar strategy, until he got caught by a knee.
The idea is to get Barboza backing up. Stalk him around the cage, and when he stops, attack. Barboza likes to move around, but he’s a power puncher. He’s not offensively active in motion. He moves, bounces around, and then plants before he throws.
Some opponents have had success moving with Barboza as he circles, then crowding and beating him to the punch when he stops and throws. It’s best to fight Barboza in tight, because in space, his kicks are lethal. Opponents have to take those kicks away.
Thus far, on paper, all of this would seem to favor Nurmagomedov. He is the king of pressure. He’s dominant in top position, which is always in his opponents’ mind. They have to respect his shot — and still usually end up on their backs.
Barboza’s takedown defense in the UFC is a superb 86 percent though, and his daily work with active, boxer-wrestlers in Edgar and Alvarez certainly can’t hurt. Nurmagomedov’s grappling is foreign to everyone, but Barboza shouldn’t be totally shell-shocked.
And there is the very real aspect of ring rust for Nurmagomedov. He seems immune to it, but it exists for everyone. Takedowns often rely on timing, and Nurmagomedov might take a second to find his after a year off.
If and when Nurmagomedov does take Barboza down, however, he’s in a world of trouble. He’s a premium athlete which has aided that high takedown defense percentage — but his overall ground skills are well behind Nurmagomedov’s.
Prediction: Nurmagomedov via decision.