Two rising lightweights who've recently barged into the top-ten rankings square off on Saturday's UFC 165 main card in the Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Pat Healy bout. The contest will spark off the pay-per-view and is one of five slated for the featured lineup, which is captained by Jon Jones vs. Alexander Gustafsson and begins at 10:00 p.m. ET after the preliminary cards cycle through on Fox Sports 1 (8:00 p.m. ET) and Facebook (est. 6:00 p.m. ET).
Khabib Nurmagomedov But that wasn't all -- like any mortal breaching the UFC's walls for the first time, the young Russian, who'll turn 25 the day before UFC 165, also carried the burden of authenticating his past accomplishments and proving he was worthy of the "hot prospect" label.
And throughout his four UFC turns, that's precisely what "The Eagle" has done. His arrival, a calculating dismantling of rugged vet Kamal Shalorus (3rd-round rear-naked choke), was a compelling statement. The question of how the two-time Combat Sambo champ would conduct himself against A-list competition was answered in the frenetic pressure, undeniable aura of gameness and the spidery, almost corkscrew-like punches Nurmagomedov unrolled. Though the final tallies (30-27 across the board) didn't reflect the fight's competitiveness, Nurmagomedov's unanimous decision over lightweight sentinel Gleison Tibau cemented that a new contender had arrived, as did his dominant performances over Thiago Tavares (1st-round TKO) and Abel Trujillo (one-sided decision).
On the heels of a 2009 loss to UFC welterweight T.J. Waldburger, Healy toppled 10 of his next 11 foes with top-ranked lightweight Josh Thomson standing as his only defeat -- though his most recent victory, an astounding 3rd-round submission over Jim Miller, was overturned to a No Contest after Healy whizzed hot for marijuana metabolites.
Nurmagomedov's wrestling was established against Shalorus and Trujillo, the latter fostering a UFC record for most takedowns in a fight (21), as were his striking and scrambling skills against Tibau and Tavares. The only facet of his game yet unproven is his guard game, which Healy will undoubtedly endeavor to test. "Bam Bam" is a submission wrestler by trade, synchronizing his size, takedowns and crafty grappling to form a technical monstrosity on the mat. Healy is the type to not just gain ground in the top position, but one who'll drastically shift the complexion of the fight by capitalizing on just one single takedown. When Healy is on top, it's a safe bet that he'll win the rest of the round handily if not finish the fight entirely.
The concern with Healy is his striking, defense and entries. Though enhanced by his stretchy height and length for a lightweight, Healy's boxing is altogether basic. His advances generally consist of predictable, straight-line attacks, he dangerously keeps his head on centerline and opponents are fully aware that his strikes stand as a mere smokescreen to veil his takedown attempts. However, Healy is so adept at his known specialty that it's rarely mattered whether his opponent knows what's coming or not -- it might be less than graceful or downright ugly, but, perhaps through sheer willpower and determination alone, Healy's consistently found a way to lock horns, ground his opponent and work his magic.
The size advantage Healy usually enjoys will be amiss here, as Nurmagomedov is a like-size lightweight. The striking facet is a clear notch in the Russian's column, and his edges in footwork, movement, quickness and agility will exponentially amplify his clout on the feet. While Nurmagomedov's sprawl and brawl was laudably intact against Tibau and Shalorus, both sound wrestlers, he'll have to adjust to Healy's atypical approach. Rather than dupe his foe with blinding outbursts of leather and catch them off-guard by changing levels for a blast double, Healy is more steady with his endlessly methodical stalking, marching forward in an almost Zombie-esque fashion with relentless intent.
Healy's striking has come a long way -- he's started to impose his length with a long, spearing jab and the vague semblance of angles when he's within range, both of which facilitate his takedown acumen. He'll tack on a decent straight right and uppercuts when he's in the pocket, but only under the rare circumstances in which he's not inclined to tie up and steal his opponent's footing. His submission prowess is his clear core competency but Healy's iron will, perseverance and unbreakable determination are his most valuable assets in regards to enforcing his submission swagger.
This poses the mechanics of range and distance, as Nurmagomedov will be well served to stay on the fringe of striking range, poke holes in Healy's porous defense as he's advancing and skate free of his grasp with elusive motion. The sensible path to undermine a complex grappler is to avoid that proficiency entirely, forcing his fate to hinge upon the efficacy of his less pronounced capabilities.
By all accounts, Nurmagomedov has shown the Fight I.Q. and ability to adhere to a wisely structured gameplan that he'll need to surpass Healy. The kicker is that even if Healy is able to impose his strength, Nurmagomedov has also displayed the grappling chops to at least survive if not negate Healy's ground assault. The likelihood of Healy cornering, containing and forcing Nurmagomedov to the ground would seem to be lesser than Nurmagomedov's chances to keep the fight upright and exploit Healy's Achilles Heel.
My Prediction: Khabib Nurmagomedov by decision.