Khabib Nurmagomedov is determined to make sure 2017 isn’t a lost year.
Finally healthy and back to training, the undefeated Dagestani lightweight appeared Monday on The MMA Hour and revealed that there is an “80 percent” chance he makes his long-awaited return on Dec. 30 at UFC 219 in Las Vegas, Nev. And despite the UFC lightweight title picture currently being muddled by two belts, Nurmagomedov has his sights set squarely on Tony Ferguson — the UFC’s new interim lightweight champion — rather than the UFC’s reigning 155-pound king, Conor McGregor.
“We have almost 12 weeks, 11 weeks before UFC 219,” Nurmagomedov said on The MMA Hour. “And now is the beginning a very interesting moment in my life. I hope UFC gives me a championship fight. End of the year, I want to take everything back. Attention, belts; I want to take everything. End of the year, I want to fix everything. And we’ll see what happens. But first of all, I think UFC has to make the fight, Conor versus Nate Diaz 3, and after, me and Tony.
“Because, my opinion, I think Tony Ferguson is the real champion. That’s why. I don’t think, if I fight versus Tony Ferguson, this is an interim belt. Officially, yes. But people want to see me versus Tony Ferguson. I think this is a much better fight, for everything. If I beat Tony Ferguson and take the interim championship belt — Conor’s the official champion, but he’s not the people’s champion.”
Nurmagomedov, 29, spoke straight to the heart of the debate currently raging at 155 pounds and the decision UFC officials — or really, McGregor — will be forced to make about the Irishman’s first UFC title defense. As it stands, the UFC can either book what Nurmagomedov called the “money fight” trilogy match between McGregor and Nate Diaz, or it can book a title unification bout between McGregor and Ferguson.
And to put it simply, Nurmagomedov hopes the UFC elects to book the former, so he can then challenge Ferguson in the “real fight” for the 155-pound strap.
“My opinion, I have to fight with Tony,” Nurmagomedov said. “All of my fans, everybody wants this fight.
“For me, everything isn’t about money. For me, it’s what my father wants, my team, my management team, my friends. This is more important for me.”
For Nurmagomedov, the decision to chase Ferguson over McGregor is a personal one.
Nurmagomedov and Ferguson have been slated to fight three separate times since 2015, however each time the matchup has inevitably fallen apart. The most egregious of those instances happened this past March at UFC 209, when the contest was cancelled the day before the event after Nurmagomedov was transported to the hospital due to complications cutting weight. Nurmagomedov hasn’t competed since, and actually underwent additional back surgery not long after UFC 209, which has contributed to his inactivity in 2017.
But now Nurmagomedov is confident that his issues are fixed. He said he feels 100 percent healthy for the first time since his dominant 2014 win over Rafael dos Anjos. He also understands if fans are hesitant to believe him, considering all the many stops and starts to his MMA career that he’s battled over the past few years.
“I don’t feel [people have abandoned me]. This is what I feel. I understand a lot of fans. They treated me like, ‘Hey, you have to fight,’ but I agree with this,” Nurmagomedov said. “It’s why I tried to come back. It’s why I’m going to hospital, having surgeries. People think I love surgery? I don’t think somebody loves surgery.
“Trying to come back, training every day — every day, training full-time — this is not easy. I agree with fans, I have to fight. I have to make weight. I have to stay professional. I agree with this. But when I fight, I all the time smash my opponents. All the time, when I fight. Now I have one goal, and by the end of the year, one dream fight: This is fight versus Tony Ferguson. This is what I want.”
When he is healthy enough to compete, there is no doubting that Nurmagomedov is one of the most talented lightweight fighters in the world. “The Eagle” has won all eight of his UFC contests and looked like an absolute demon in his most recent appearance, a lopsided outing against Michael Johnson that ended in a third-round submission for Nurmagomedov in Nov. 2016 at UFC 205.
And although Ferguson has publicly moved on from Nurmagomedov since claiming the interim title, turning his sights instead to McGregor, Nurmagomedov said he felt confident that Ferguson’s opinion matters little when it comes to the selection of McGregor’s next opponent.
“I don’t think he makes the decision,” Nurmagomedov said of Ferguson. “What happens if UFC tells him, ‘Hey, Conor is going to fight with Diaz. You have to fight with Khabib.’ What happens? He has to take this fight.
“And I want to send a message: Enjoy this belt. He deserves this, 10 (fight) win streak. My opinion, he’s the real champ, and he has to fight with me. We have to fight, and we have to do this fight for all the fans. Now I am ready, now I am healthy. Last time, I made the problem. This is my fault, last time. I know this. But before, he pulled out too. You have to remember this. Now he’s the real champ. Enjoy this. See you at the end of the year.”