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Khabib Nurmagomedov must shine in long overdue marquee test

Rafael dos Anjos from Brazil, left, and Khabib Nurmagomedov from Russia fight in a mixed martial arts event on Saturday, April 19, 2014, at UFC Fight Night in Orlando Fla.. Nurmagomedov won. (AP Photo/Reinhold Matay)
(AP Photo/Reinhold Matay)

UFC lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov has carved out quite the reputation during his Octagon tenure as one of the most dangerous contenders in a talent-rich division. He’ll be getting a prime opportunity to strengthen his case for a future title shot this coming weekend at UFC 205. The undefeated Russian is getting a chance to prove his worth in what amounts to a long-overdue marquee assignment when he squares off against No. 6-ranked Michael Johnson in the organization’s first-ever card in New York.

“The Eagle” has reeled off 23 straight victories to start his career, including a 7-0 run of perfection during his current UFC stint. Unfortunately, whenever Nurmagomedov has gained steam as a serious title threat, he has been prone to either run into nagging injury issues or has had his opposition forced to withdraw. The last couple of years have definitely provided a wealth of frustration for the Dagestani native.

Since a dominant unanimous decision victory over former titlist Rafael dos Anjos back in 2014, Nurmagomedov’s only other appearance was a second-round stoppage of late-injury replacement Darrell Horcher at UFC on FOX 19 in Tampa. While Nurmagomedov remained unblemished in securing the victory in that catchweight clash, there were signs of cage rust in the early going. He would eventually transform into the ground-and-pound wrecking machine that fans have grown accustomed to seeing in order to produce the finish.

In the past two years, the AKA product has missed out on potential high-profile assignments against former lightweight title challenger Donald Cerrone and surging contender Tony Ferguson. He was also seemingly used as pawn recently when President Dana White indicated on Twitter that he would be next in line for current champion Eddie Alvarez.

Interestingly enough, after the news broke, the organization quickly came to financial terms with both McGregor and Alvarez on a champion vs. champion headliner for UFC 205 at Madison Square Garden. The disappointment of not getting that title shot was quickly tempered for Nurmagomedov after he was booked into a very meaningful matchup against  “The Menace.” Nurmagomedov’s smothering style has been on full display in dominant victories over dos Anjos and the likes of the hard-hitting Abel Trujillo and veteran Pat Healy.

The 28-year-old has been one of the unluckiest UFC standouts in recent memory. Major knee issues have hampered his title chase in the past but Nurmagomedov would definitely have a strong case to make for a championship fight if he’s able to get the job done against Johnson.

Khabib Nurmagomedov, from Russia, celebrates after Thiago Tavares, from Brazil, during their lightweight mixed martial arts bout at the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Khabib Nurmagomedov. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Nurmagomedov is not only in search of a victory at MSG but must shine in the process. With Nate Diaz looming as a strong possibility to face the winner of the Alvarez-McGregor battle, and with the previously No. 3-ranked Ferguson making it nine straight wins at the TUF Latin America 3 Finale, Nurmagomedov will require some significant style points to go along with a successful effort.

Johnson is coming off one of the most electrifying performances of his career when he blasted out Dustin Poirier in the first round of their main event clash at Fight Night 94. The explosive finish secured Johnson a Fight of the Night bonus and another prime opportunity to work his way up the ladder in the stacked 155-pound landscape.

The Blackzilians stalwart has excellent boxing skills that showcase his speed and volume output. He owns other notable victories over Edson Barboza, Joe Lauzon and Ferguson. Johnson has been vulnerable to submissions in the past but has improved in that area and does possess a solid takedown defense. There’s no doubt that particular aspect of his game will be put to the test against a rugged, relentless competitor in Nurmagomedov.

Nurmagomedov has produced 15 finishes in his 23 career victories with the bulk of his UFC triumphs coming in lopsided fashion. It’s been a rare occurrence for the Combat Sambo specialist to lose a round on the judges’ scorecards. Nurmagomedov is a takedown machine who employs effective ground-and-pound and submissions while completely stifling his opponent’s offense.

Nurmagomedov is accurate in the stand-up department and hasn’t taken much damage during his time with the organization. He’ll finally be facing a ranked competitor for the first time since his victory over dos Anjos in 2014. This contest will also see Nurmagomedov fight twice in a year for the first time since 2013, which is definitely a welcome development. He’s had a long road back from injury frustrations in the past but can vault to the front of the line by continuing his perfect ways against Johnson.

This shapes up as a high-profile assignment on a massive stage for Nurmagomedov to prove his mettle as the rightful No. 1 contender. While he doesn’t possess the crowd-pleasing style of other top contenders such as Diaz or Ferguson, he’s remarkably effective at what he does best.

This looms as the stiffest challenge that he’s faced in nearly two-and-a-half years and Nurmagomedov certainly has the ability to pass this upcoming test with flying colors. In a crowded title picture, it’s definitely time for “The Eagle” to soar to new heights.

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