Khabib Nurmagomedov appears ready for a unification title clash with Justin Gaethje after being impressed by the latter's superb victory against Tony Ferguson at UFC 249 on Sunday.
Gaethje, who took the headline bout in Jacksonville, Florida, only after Nurmagomedov withdrew from its original event last month, entered as a slight underdog, but stopped Ferguson by TKO in the fifth round to cap a hugely dominant performance.
In sealing the lightweight interim title, the American inflicted Ferguson’s first defeat in 13 fights – a run dating back eight years.
Gaethje, 31, was quick to then call out Nurmagomedov, with a unification bout against the undefeated lightweight champion almost certain to come next. Abu Dhabi has even been suggested as a possible location.
Asked afterwards if there was a chance he could in fact first face controversial Irishman Conor McGregor, Gaethje said: “No, I want the biggest challenge in the world, and that’s Khabib Nurmagomedov. USA versus Dagestan. And then I’ll go to Ireland and do what I have to do.
“You get one life and I'm living a crazy one and it's so awesome. I can't wait for that challenge [against Nurmagomedov]. Win or lose, don't care – I'm going to give it 100 per cent. That's all I ever do. And I’m going to have one hell of a time.”
Nurmagomedov, currently in Dagestan observing Ramadan, took to social media immediately after the fight, saying: “It was so impressive. Congratulation. Very smart fight."
In another post, which included a picture of the unbeaten champion at a press conference with Gaethje sitting behind him, Nurmagomedov added in Russian: “In this sport, and especially in this weight, there will always be hungry lions that will breathe at your back.
“If you relax, then you will end. Some leave and others come; there is nothing to be surprised. But I won’t fall before the shot. We will still fight.”
Gaethje’s win against Ferguson was undoubtedly the best of his career thus far, moving him to 22-2 in mixed martial arts (MMA). His dominance was evident on Ferguson’s face, with the former No 1-ranked challenger departing the octagon significantly bloodied and bruised. Gaethje was awarded bonuses for both fight of the night and performance of the night, increasing his record to a barely believable nine bonuses in seven fights in UFC.
“[Nurmagomedov’s] the best in the world,” Gaethje said. “I’m going to need a couple months to get back. My legs are sore. I would say August or September sounds fun.”
He later added: “I’m going to enjoy tonight, go home to Safford, Arizona, enjoy my family, enjoy my double bonus – that’s nine in seven.
“I can’t think of myself as the champion because, for one, I’m not. And for two, Khabib’s still there. Again, I can’t become complacent. It’s always the first fight; people think they’re infallible – that’s what kills you in this sport.
“You get what you ask for. All is ask for is a say in my destiny. It would’ve hurt so bad to get passed up because of politics. That’s all I was arguing against. I have to go to war for myself and thankfully I put myself in a position to be here and I capitalised on it."
Nurmagomedov, also 31, last fought in September, when he defeated Dustin Poirier in Abu Dhabi to lift his record in MMA to 28-0. He was slated to take on Ferguson at the initial UFC 249 on April 18, but had to eventually pull out because of travel restrictions enforced by the coronavirus crisis.
Speaking in Sunday’s post-fight conference, UFC president Dana White said: “Khabib tweeted [last week] that he’s ready to go this summer, so we’ll get back home next week and figure what’s next and get this fight together as soon as possible.”