Many fighters and fans woke up on Thursday morning to a number of major UFC announcements. Khabib Nurmagomedov was finally deemed officially retired by the UFC and his lightweight title would be up for grabs between Charles Oliveira and Michael Chandler. It was also revealed that TJ Dillashaw would be returning from his two-year suspension on May 8 to fight rising star Cory Sandhagen, and former bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt is targeted to fight Rob Font on May 22.
Those three fights are all must-see, but which one sparked the most excitement from our panel of experts? Also, as one of the sport’s greatest makes his official exit once again, Dillashaw hopes to regain the glory he had entering 2019, and a new lightweight champion will finally be crowned.
Phil Murphy, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim react to the news and share their favorite memories of Nurmagomedov.
The best fight announced on Thursday was ____
Wagenheim: Am I allowed to say “All of the above”? That’s really how I feel about this blockbuster night, but OK, I’ll pick just one. Before I bestow kudos on a chosen fight, though, I want to toss a bouquet to the people who put these masterworks together. I’m often critical of UFC matchmakers, but in this case they did the fans and the fighters right. Bravo.
I’m going to shine a light on Sandhagen vs. Dillashaw for being an old-fashioned No. 1 contender fight. It might have been tempting to throw Dillashaw right into a title shot, since he’s a former champion who was not dethroned inside the cage, but that would have been wrongheaded given that the reason for his two-year absence was a PED failure. Give him a shot at redemption, but make it a rough road. Enter Sandhagen, who is on a hot run right now but could use one more signature win to earn his place across the cage from the Sterling-Yan 2 winner.
Raimondi: I’d have to go with Dillashaw vs. Sandhagen for several reasons. Chandler vs. Oliveira will obviously be great. But Dillashaw vs. Sandhagen has some ingredients that separate it. Dillashaw, the former bantamweight champion, is returning from a two-year doping suspension. Sandhagen is the hottest bantamweight in the world, coming off two Knockout of the Year candidate highlights. Then mix in this: Dillashaw and Sandhagen are actually former training partners at Elevation Fight Team in Colorado. The winner will also very likely fight next for the title. There is a lot to like here.
Chandler vs. Oliveira looks to be extremely intriguing on paper. Garbrandt vs. Font will almost certainly be all-action. But looking at the whole picture, Dillashaw vs. Sandhagen does the most for me at the moment. I reserve the right to change my mind as May approaches.
The right lightweight title fight is Oliveira-Chandler
Okamoto: No, not particularly. The right lightweight title fight would have included Dustin Poirier. But anyone up in arms about Poirier — you’re not seeing the whole picture. This was probably Poirier’s decision.
If you’re Poirier, and you have a chance to finish an extremely lucrative trilogy against Conor McGregor, or fight Chandler or Oliveira for a title, which do you pick? You pick the money fight. Now, back in January, I argued the UFC should have just made Poirier the champ, when it was clear Nurmagomedov wasn’t coming back, but in a way, this entire situation is unavoidable because of McGregor’s star power. It’s very, very clear, McGregor doesn’t deserve to fight for a title. But it’s also very, very clear why Poirier would want to fight McGregor next. When you look at it that way, Poirier has to pick one or the other. And he’s taking what I think the rest of us would: the money fight.
Murphy: Any lightweight title fight without Poirier misses the most deserving man to assume Nurmagomedov’s throne. He’s lost once over nine appearances in the UFC’s deepest division. In that time, he’s beaten former champions McGregor, Eddie Alvarez, Anthony Pettis and Max Holloway. It appears the almighty dollar will drive the Diamond toward a title-road detour and the McGregor trilogy. Despite McGregor’s strong first-round against Poirier, the Notorious One remains winless in the division since 2016 — you can’t rationalize that fight being for the belt today.
It’s not as though Oliveira or Chandler are ill-deserving. Oliveira is on fire, fresh off a career-defining dominance of Tony Ferguson. Chandler, a three-time Bellator lightweight champion, made the seamless transition to the UFC with a first-round TKO over the durable Dan Hooker. Either is a sensible B-side to Poirier. Demand for Poirier-McGregor III is virtually inelastic, unaffected by a Poirier title-fight loss or even Conor dropping a fight in the interim — though I don’t think either would have happened. I would have preferred a penciled-in trilogy for the fall or winter, perhaps then with Poirier’s belt at stake.
What should be next for Justin Gaethje?
Murphy: We knew when the lightweight matchmaking music stopped, someone would be left without a chair. Unfortunately, it’s Gaethje, the last to have faced Nurmagomedov. Per UFC rankings, the nearest opponents in need of a dance partner are Rafael dos Anjos and Dan Hooker. While a win over former champion RDA probably does more for Gaethje’s title-shot résumé, dos Anjos seems focused on Islam Makhachev in hopes it lures Coach Khabib out of retirement.
That leaves Hooker, which would be the odds-on Fight of the Night favorite on any card. It’s a high-reward fight for Hooker, fresh off a short-lived loss against Michael Chandler. That means it’s the converse — high-risk — for Gaethje, with limited yield given the dip in Hooker’s stock. If Beneil Dariush beats Tony Ferguson at UFC 262, Dariush could see the same vault in status as Oliveira and enter the lightweight elite. Waiting two months for a slight betting favorite remains far from ideal for Gaethje.
It comes to down to how long Gaethje is willing to wait. Options will invariably open once the dust settles from Thursday’s overnight news dump, or fighters may pull out and open a door. If he wants an opponent now, Hooker may be the one.
Raimondi: It’s hard to believe Gaethje, perhaps the most exciting fighter on the UFC roster, is somehow the odd man out in these lightweight title discussions. The Highlight does not have a clear dance partner, which seems crazy to me. Poirier and McGregor are going to fight in a trilogy bout. Chander and Oliveira will face off for the title. Even Tony Ferguson and Beneil Dariush are booked against one another. So, where does this leave Gaethje?
Rafael dos Anjos, the former lightweight champion, is still out there, as is Makhachev, the training partner and close friend of Nurmagomedov. Either one of those would make sense. Then there’s the next group, guys like Hooker, Diego Ferreira, Paul Felder and Kevin Lee. All are coming off losses like Gaethje. Though, of course, Gaethje’s loss was to Nurmagomedov. Dos Anjos vs. Makhachev makes sense. They’re been booked before. Maybe the best bet for Gaethje is to wait and see how things shake out. Gaethje is usually very active and is not shy about taking damage. Perhaps a few more months off would only benefit him.
Cory Sandhagen will be too much for TJ Dillashaw in his first fight back
Raimondi: The only thing we’ve seen that was too much for Dillashaw was that weight cut down to flyweight, which proved to be disastrous. Not only did he get knocked out in the opening seconds of that title fight with Henry Cejudo, but Dillashaw admitted he took the banned substance EPO in an attempt to get down to that 125-pound weight. That decision cost him two years of his prime courtesy of a USADA suspension.
Now, Dillashaw is back and he’s attempting to beat Sandhagen, who is kind of like Dillashaw 2.0, in an effort to get back to the title he never lost in the Octagon. Sandhagen is very, very good. He knocked out contenders Marlon Moraes and Frankie Edgar in back-to-back fights in spectacular fashion. He has electric, technical striking and superlative footwork. The two have trained together in the past at Elevation Fight Team.
While I do think Sandhagen should be the favorite due to Dillashaw’s long layoff, I’d never classify him as “too much.” Dillashaw could very well come in looking better and ever and claim that title shot.
Wagenheim: Maybe, maybe not, which is what makes this matchup so wonderful. Different fighters respond to inactivity differently. But I’m here to say Sandhagen could be too much for even a fully active Dillashaw. Then again, Dillashaw could step right back into the cage and show Sandhagen that he’s the one who still has work to do. This will be a proving ground for both men. Sandhagen’s two most recent wins came against fighters who appear to be on the downside of their careers, Moraes and Edgar. Dillashaw’s entire legacy at the top of the sport is in question after a PED suspension. This is exactly what a fight at this level should be.
Okamoto: I honestly have no idea. That’s why the fight is so great. I had Dillashaw as a top 5 pound-for-pound fighter in the world going into 2019, then he lost a very quick fight against Henry Cejudo (at a weight he never should have competed at), and failed a drug test for a very, very serious offense. It’s hard to know what kind of Dillashaw we’re going to get. At his best, I considered him one of the best fighters on the planet. Sandhagen might be on that same trajectory, but he hasn’t quite proven it to the level Dillashaw has. That said, there are far less questions about Sandhagen right now, and he’s carrying all the momentum.
My favorite Khabib Nurmagomedov memory is _____
Okamoto: Man. That’s a tough one. This guy checked every box. He was dominant in the Octagon. He was respectful at times, confrontational at others. He was very entertaining outside the Octagon, in his own way. Talking to Dana White in New York, as he pummeled Michael Johnson in a non-title fight sticks out. His final appearance, the emotional response he had to winning that title — that will always stand out. Send location. No. 1 bull—-. He gave us a lot of memories.
It’s impossible to pick one, but I’d have to say the memory of him collapsing in the Octagon after he beat Gaethje in his final fight will stay with me the longest. For the last several years, I always got the impression a big part of Nurmagomedov was looking forward to life after fighting. He put himself through an amazing amount of stress to be as great as he was. And to do that final fight without his father, and then immediately know it was over, and he was free to pursue other joys in life — that’s a special moment in the history of the spot.
Wagenheim: Sept. 7, 2019. Standing at the center of the cage was the UFC 242 main event winner, wearing a Poirier T-shirt. That winner was Nurmagomedov, of course, and it said a lot about him that in his moment, Nurmagomedov was directing all attention to his opponent. Nurmagomedov devoted part of his postfight interview to saying he would be selling the shirt off his back and donating all proceeds to the Good Fight Foundation, the charity started by Poirier and his wife, Jolie, to aid neighbors in need in Lafayette, Louisiana. And now the man in the T-shirt was selflessly paying tribute to another man’s selflessness. Beautiful.
“We show what is MMA,” Nurmagomedov said of himself and Poirier. “No. 1 thing is respect. MMA is not about trash talk.”
The Poirier bout was Nurmagomedov’s first since the hateful spectacle of his grudge match with McGregor. On this night, it became clear the champ wanted to first send a message in the fight itself, then send an even more important message afterward.
Raimondi: The lasting visions of UFC 205 on Nov. 12, 2016 mainly revolve around McGregor’s incredible knockout win over Alvarez in the main event. It was one of the greatest title fight performances of all time — to headline the UFC’s first-ever trip to New York after the state lifted its longtime ban on mixed martial arts. A fairy tale finish.
I have other memories of that night, too. Long before McGregor and Nurmagomedov were blood rivals, Nurmagomedov was making a steady and dominant climb up the lightweight rankings. At UFC 205, Nurmagomedov’s star was born. He went 24-0 by beating Johnson on the prelims of the card at Madison Square Garden. It wasn’t just that he beat a dangerous opponent, it was how he beat him. Nurmagomedov took Johnson down repeatedly, grinded him against the cage and spoke to him. Nurmagomedov told Johnson, as he pummeled him, that Johnson needed to quit so Nurmagomedov could move on and fight for the title. And when Nurmagomedov took Johnson down in the corner of the cage near where UFC president Dana White was sitting, he addressed White, telling him he needed a title shot after that victory.
That was the moment when people realized Nurmagomedov wasn’t just a dominant force. He was just a flat-out different kind of dude. The kind that strikes fear into the hearts of potential foes.
Murphy: Not to go all MMA hipster on this, but my favorite Nurmagomedov memory was talking to him backstage at WSOF 20 in 2015. At the time, Nurmagomedov was scheduled to face Donald Cerrone at UFC 187 — a bout from which Nurmagomedov later withdrew. He was at Foxwoods in Connecticut to corner Islam Mamedov on the undercard. I approached Nurmagomedov to ask for an interview. While happy, polite and clearly willing to accommodate, his attention — and enthusiasm — remained toward his teammate. We waited outside the open-door warmup and watched Mamedov go through the paces. My Russian is rusty, but much of the conversation between Nurmagomedov and Mamedov appeared focused on mentality and staying loose. It was Mamedov’s first fight on foreign soil, and he seemed nervous. It was my first time seeing Nurmagomedov as a coach, and he clearly had a knack for it. Whatever he said worked — Mamedov won by first-round TKO.
Nurmagomedov came out and chatted with us for 7 minutes or so before walkouts. He was generous with his time, and it was a “good get” early in my MMA reporting career. Now Nurmagomedov’s coaching acumen is growing more widely appreciated as he closes the fighting chapter of his life. In hindsight, it was a neat privilege to get a glimpse of that passion years ahead of most.