Khabib "The Eagle" Nurmagomedov (18-0) has rightfully earned the reputation as one of the young talents with the potential to be a future superstar. At just 26-years-old, the undefeated Russian flaunts 2-time accolades as a Russian Combat Sambo champion and a Sambo World champion. That background is unique in that Nurmagomedov has become highly proficient and excelled in the three main categories of MMA (striking, clinching/takedowns, grappling), leaving him among the rare breed who've trained MMA as a whole from the onset.
Nurmagomedov made waves in his Octagon debut by shredding staunch veteran Kamal Shalorus with a scorching set of looping punches, and also imposed his pace and physicality en route to a 3rd-round rear-naked choke. It was his sophomore effort that really turned heads, as Nurmagomedov drew a massive and experienced lightweight in Brazilian Gleison Tibau and was awarded every round by all three judges for a 30-27 sweep on the scorecards.
The fight was much more competitive than the decision reflects -- commentator Joe Rogan thought Tibau had it in the bag -- but the fact that Nurmagomedov was able to tangle up with Tibau, force him into constantly defending and walk away with the win was extremely authenticating nonetheless.
Thiago Tavares (17-4) will stand in his way this Saturday, a smaller lightweight who compensates for his stature by pressuring incessantly with a blistering pace. A submission grappler at heart, Tavares has grown to threaten with wild but attention-grabbing boxing and has improved his wrestling acumen in order to apply his strengths on the mat (11 career submission wins). Tavares has won 4 of his last 6 with a surprising knockout loss to Shane Roller and a draw with Nik Lentz accounting for the downsides.
This match up should be a case of a hefty-sized lightweight with legit 3-dimensional skills against a fairly under-sized grappling specialist. At 5'7" tall, Tavares is familiar with facing a height/reach disadvantage, but I'm not sure his boxing and wrestling are up to par for the challenge Nurmagomedov presents. While Shalorus and Tibau aren't what I'd call elite wrestlers, they are highly formidable in that aspect and, by my estimation, more so than Tavares. Additionally, I can't help but think that Nurmagomedov will be quite aware that Tavares' best path to victory lies in securing takedowns, and fully prepared to stifle them as well.
Once he's on the canvas, Tavares is nothing short of frenzied with his guard passing, positional dominance and downpour of ground strikes, and he's also adept at attacking the neck with choke attempts after his opponent stuffs his takedown attempts with underhooks. His wins over Spencer Fisher and Pat Audinwood testify to those attributes. However, the way Tavares typically closes range is rather basic: it generally consists of exploding forward in a straight line and drenching his opponent with a blazing flurry of wide-sailing punches, then clinching up and working takedowns when they hold ground and defend.
That M.O. has been productive for Tavares in his past wins, but also stands as a point of concern in his losses, especially against adversaries who negated his takedowns and forced him to stand for the bulk of the fight (Roller, Matt Wiman, Kurt Pellegrino, Tyson Griffin). The rock-solid stability with wrestling and takedown defense that Nurmagomedov showed against Shalorus and Tibau would indicate that Tavares will be relegated to rely heavily on his striking game, which is a facet that should strongly favor Nurmagomedov.
The Russian shows signs of the looping, corkscrew punches of European boxing, but balances those tendencies with more traditional punches that are clean, crisp, and straight down the pocket. Overall, Nurmagomedov has the longer, heavier and more polished striking acumen, and should also have the clear edge in wrestling and control. The X-factor in what seems a poor match up for Tavares is his pace: Nurmagomedov's frenetic pace, when combined with his offensive diversity, has been a major factor in each of his UFC wins, and Tavares has the speed, tenacity and cardio to push him to new limits in the realm of fight tempo.
To me, this seems all Nurmagomedov, who I expect to withstand the early blitz of Tavares by establishing his clinch game before poking holes through his porous defense with his artful kickboxing.
My Prediction: Khabib Nurmagomedov by TKO.