To say it’s been a whirlwind 24 hours-plus for Khabib Nurmagomedov would be an understatement.
The undefeated Dagestan fighter was all set to finally – finally – fight longtime rival Tony Ferguson for the undisputed lightweight title at UFC 223. And then it happened, on April Fool’s Day no less: Their booking was called off for the fourth time after Ferguson was forced to pull out with an injury suffered in a freak accident late last week.
Enter featherweight champion Max Holloway, who was announced as Ferguson’s replacement on just six days’ notice. And now Holloway (19-3 MMA, 15-3 UFC) and Nurmagomedov (25-0 MMA, 9-0 UFC) will square off for the 155-pound title in Saturday’s main event at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., which airs on pay-per-view.
Nurmagomedov is grateful he’s still competing for the title belt at UFC 223, because that’s what’s most important to him.
“Please stop giving me regular fights,” Holloway said today on “The MMA Hour.” “Because I deserve to fight for the title. … Now my time is coming. I need to fight for the title.”
With that in mind, after digesting the news of Ferguson’s withdrawal, Nurmagomedov immediately thought about not-yet-stripped lightweight champion Conor McGregor and conveyed that to UFC President Dana White.
“I told first, ‘Hey, where is this Burger King? Take this Burger King here. I need this guy,” “Because he put a tweet couple weeks ago, ‘Stay ready.’”
— Conor McGregor (@TheNotoriousMMA) March 24, 2018
“Now, where is this guy?” Nurmagomedov continued. “Six days for make weight, it’s good days. It’s not two or three. It’s six days. He can make weight. Bring this guy. But Dana said he has to look nice – like face, everything – because now he has good sponsorships.”
Without McGregor as an option, Nurmagomedov thought about several names – Dustin Poirier, Eddie Alvarez, even Michael Chiesa or Anthony Pettis, who face each other on the same UFC 223 lineup.
But Holloway? Holloway never crossed Nurmagomedov’s mind as a replacement opponent. Aside from being the champion of another division, Holloway also is dealing with an ankle injury, which kept him from competing in his own scheduled main event last month at UFC 222. Just 12 days ago, “Blessed” said he was still waiting for medical clearance and that surgery could still be an option.
So how could Holloway be fighting so soon and on such short notice?
“I do not understand,” Nurmagomedov said. “If Dana called me and said you have to fight after one month (of being injured), I would never take this. Because I care about my legacy. I don’t want to fight for the money. But every person is different.”
Nurmagomedov believes a potentially big payday served as motivation for Holloway to put himself at risk.
“I think the UFC told him, ‘Hey, we’re going to give you good money. You have to come here.’ And he said of course,” Nurmagomedov said. “This is a very big pay-per-view show, and he’s part of the pay-per-view, so of course he’s going to take this fight. He’s going to fight for the money.
“I respect him. Aloha, Max. But, you know, he’s champion for a reason at 145.”
Nurmagomedov said if Holloway can’t make weight, he’ll still fight him – provided he, too, makes weight and is eligible to win the title. He respects Holloway as the featherweight champion and is impressed by his overall resume, which includes 12-fight streak with wins over the likes of Jose Aldo (twice), Pettis, Ricardo Lamas, Cub Swanson, and Jeremy Stephens.
But be that as it may, Nurmagomedov also knows Holloway hasn’t faced anyone like him.
“No one’s like me. Nobody wrestled with him,” Nurmagomedov said. “But now he’s in different territory, different weight class, different animal. Everything is different. And he has an opponent young like him. If he fights before (like he did) against Pettis and Aldo, these guys are already finished.
“Now, he has a different opponent – young, hungry, bigger than him, stronger than him, who has more good wrestling pressure, undefeated. I think it’s going to be a long night for him.”