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Conor McGregor may be champ, but Khabib Nurmagomedov is class of UFC's lightweight division

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

LAS VEGAS – Since all of the talk at the post-fight news conference was whether Khabib Nurmagomedov preferred to fight lightweight champion Conor McGregor or interim champion Tony Ferguson next, Nurmagomedov came up with a compromise: How about both in one night?

“I can fight with Tony, and if the UFC gives me a couple of hours rest, I could fight with Conor,” Nurmagomedov said after dismantling Edson Barboza on Saturday in their lightweight bout at UFC 219 at T-Mobile Arena that ran his record to 25-0 and left many experienced observers wondering whether anyone in the talent-rich division would be able to stop him.

Despite entering the bout in phenomenal shape and fighting with extraordinary courage and passion, Barboza wasn’t even close. Judges scored it 30-25 twice and 30-24, and no one would have complained had referee John McCarthy stopped the fight late in the first round.

Nurmaogomedov’s grappling is next-level, and few ever in the UFC have been able to do what he’s been able to do when healthy. After the first round, he had a fun conversation with UFC president Dana White, who was seated just to the right of his corner.

When Nurmagomedov dominated the second round as well, he asked White what he wanted him to do next.

Khabib Nurmagomedov hits Edson Barboza during a lightweight mixed martial arts bout at UFC 219, Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

It was that kind of domination for Nurmagomedov, whose only weakness has been injury. He was visibly annoyed all week about questions about his weight, since he had issues during his weight cut for a planned bout against Ferguson in March at UFC 209 that had to be canceled when he was taken to the hospital.

“You know guys, I’ve never had a problem with a weight cut,” Nurmagomedov said when he was asked about it one last time. “My problem, and my No. 1 enemy, is injuries. I train so hard. I’m not training like other UFC fighters. My training partners know. My close people know about this. The last couple of years, I tried to change some things.

“I’ve never had problems making weight. This camp, I was healthy and when I’m healthy, I always make weight.”

And when he makes it to the post, he more often than not delivers a frightful beating. In that way, he’s a lot like his idol, former boxing heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, who was at ringside to watch him.

Tyson dominated his foes with punching power and Nurmagomedov dominates with arguably the best grappling in MMA and a slate of other skills.

Before the fight, Nurmagomedov trainer Javier Mendez said, “There is no one quite like this guy, and I think you’ll see him deliver in a big way.” With Tyson watching, Nurmagomedov put Barboza down for long stretches and pummeled him with punches and elbows that left the Brazilian’s face a swollen, bloody mess.

Nurmagomedov spoke of how Tyson and Muhammad Ali, another ex-boxing champion, were idols and he recalled getting up early in the morning to watch a Tyson fight against Cliff Etienne on Feb. 22, 2003, when Nurmagomedov was 15. It was Tyson’s final win, that first-round knockout.

“The first time I saw Tyson fight was in 2003 when he fought Clifford Etienne,” Nurmagomedov said. “I watched this fight at something like 6 o’clock or 5 o’clock in the morning Moscow time. You know, I could never have imagined that in 15 years, I would be going to fight in Vegas in the biggest event in the UFC and give the best performance of the night and Tyson would be there to watch my fight.”

He put on a mind-blowing performance against Barboza and is confident the outcome would be the same against either McGregor or Ferguson.

He said, “My time has come,” and was clearly pleased with the development of all aspects of his game. McGregor has done the unthinkable numerous times in his career, and has had the last word on many skeptics who doubted his ability as he made his run to the title.

But if he is going to beat a well-rounded fighter with the grappling skills that Nurmagomedov has, it’s going to take the performance of a lifetime.

And Nurmagomedov has a bit of a bone to pick with both men, giving him even more incentive.

“You hear these guys, when I’m injured, they talk too much,” Nurmagomedov said. “When I’m here, I don’t see those guys. … I’m here to stay humble and here to stay focused, but these guys talk too much when I’m injured.”

Nurmagomedov didn’t have to talk much. His performance spoke volumes.

More UFC 219 coverage from Yahoo Sports:
Cyborg prevails despite Holm’s grueling test
Unbeaten Khabib dominates Barboza in violent win
What’s next for Cyborg after defeating Holm?