Comparing Khabib-Ferguson 4 years ago to now
Josh Hedges / UFC / Getty

Aug. 21, 2015.

That's the first time it was announced Khabib Nurmagomedov would be fighting Tony Ferguson. Since then, a fight has been scheduled three more times - in 2016, 2017, and 2018 - yet they've never actually stepped into the Octagon against each other.

Two injuries on Ferguson's side and an injury and weight issues on Nurmagomedov's have stopped the fight from happening. Regardless of these issues, the promotion keeps pairing them up, and both fighters signed their contract once again this week, making the lightweight title fight official for UFC 246 this April in Brooklyn.

The hope is that the fifth time's a charm, that Nurmagomedov versus Ferguson, one of the most cursed - and perhaps as a result, most anticipated - bouts in UFC history will go down once and for all.

A lot has changed since 2015

Nurmagomedov was ranked No. 3 and Ferguson No. 9 the first time they were matched up against each other. Despite his high ranking, "The Eagle" had little to no momentum; he'd been sitting on the sidelines for more than a year due to a knee injury. Meanwhile, Ferguson, who'd already fought twice in 2015, had just cracked the division's top 10 with what was then the biggest win of his career over Josh Thomson.

Nurmagomedov versus Ferguson was a good fight, but it wasn't the kind of bout that makes fans do a double-take when it's announced. It wasn't that good. It was a fight between two guys on impressive winning streaks that would move one of them closer to a shot at UFC gold.

This was long before Nurmagomedov eventually captured the vacant UFC lightweight title in early 2018 and before he sat No. 2 on the pound-for-pound list. Nurmagomedov was certainly already on a path to greatness, but he wasn't there yet.

It was also before Ferguson made a name for himself in the division as one of the scrappiest, most gangster fighters in the promotion; before he won the interim title or defeated Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone in nasty fashion. Ferguson, too, was on a fast track toward the top, but "El Cucuy" hadn't arrived in his entirety just yet.

Nurmagomedov versus Ferguson already had pretty big implications back in 2015, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Worth the wait for UFC

Four canceled fights in as many years probably wasn't the best-case scenario. The bout could have happened as planned in 2017 or 2018 - when it was already considered a giant fight - and fans would have been more than happy. But now the UFC can capitalize on the matchup at its peak, and that greatly outweighs the harm done by the delays.

Since the last time the fight was scheduled in April 2018, Nurmagomedov has done quite well for himself: He captured the undisputed belt and defeated Conor McGregor in an incredibly lucrative fight. Nurmagomedov versus McGregor broke the UFC's pay-per-view record, topping out at 2.4-million buys. Nurmagomedov's fame inside and outside the mixed martial arts sphere has risen substantially since that fight.

Bulldozing a superstar turned Nurmagomedov into one himself. In turn, this makes the Ferguson fight as big as it's ever been.

Though Ferguson hasn't seen the same rise in fame over the past year that Nurmagomedov has, he's managed to stay active and further cement himself as either the No. 1 or No. 2 lightweight in the UFC - exactly which one is what the Nurmagomedov bout will determine.

Fans should have lost interest and accepted the fight will never happen years ago. But they did the opposite. The cancellations have made people want to see the fight more. Each time the fight's been teased, only to get scrapped weeks or even days before it's scheduled to happen, the interest level has gone up.

Not the best time for Ferguson

While the UFC may be OK with the timing of the fight, unfortunately for Ferguson, he's catching Nurmagomedov at a bad time. Nurmagomedov continues to get better and better - which, at this point, seems almost impossible. He's more dominant than ever before, and he's using more tools in the cage than ever before.

In his earlier fights, Nurmagomedov used to just grind his opponents, content to win on the scorecards. He used to use his ability to control an opponent on the ground to win. Now, he merely sets up attacks with his brutal ground-and-pound or submissions. He's turned the violence up a notch in his past two fights especially, scoring submissions over McGregor and most recently, Dustin Poirier. Nurmagomedov has always dominated, but now he dominates and makes his opponents quit.

Boasting a 12-fight winning streak, Ferguson is unarguably at his best as well. But over the past four years, Ferguson has simply refined his game; Nurmagomedov has evolved his.

The oddsmakers indicate Ferguson had a better shot at beating Nurmagomedov in the past than he does now. For both their 2017 and 2018 matchups, Nurmagomedov opened as a -200 betting favorite. Ahead of April's bout at UFC 246, Nurmagomedov opened as a larger, -250 favorite. That's not an enormous change, but the odds are trending in Nurmagomedov's direction.

Nurmagomedov is seemingly unstoppable at this point. But as they say, anything can happen in MMA - especially when Ferguson is involved. He's one of the most unorthodox fighters in the promotion, and he seems to up his creativity every time he steps into the cage.

With his aggressive style both on the feet and the ground, his expert submission game from the bottom, and his overall willingness to engage, if there's anyone who can stop the train that is Nurmagomedov, it's "El Cucuy." It'll just take a perfect night to do so.

Comparing Khabib-Ferguson 4 years ago to now
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