Here’s how UFC can make Khabib Nurmagomedov’s seemingly inevitable comeback the biggest, baddest thing in all MMA

Khabib Nurmagomedov wrestling UFC 254

  • Khabib Nurmagomedov announced a shock retirement moments after submitting Justin Gaethje and weeping in the UFC Octagon at Fight Island last month.
  • In recent weeks, though, it has become increasingly apparent that Nurmagomedov could un-retire and compete in the UFC one more time.
  • While a number of opponents have been suggested, the best way to pick Nurmagomedov's next opponent is with an eight-man tournament featuring the best of UFC's stacked lightweight division.
  • Conor McGregor, Tony Ferguson, Justin Gaethje, Michael Chandler, and others could face off over the course of several months to determine the best challenger for the Russian.
  • Nurmagomedov would then fight the tournament's winner in a retirement bout for the ages.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Khabib Nurmagomedov slept Justin Gaethje in UFC's Fight Island finale in October, wept in the middle of the Octagon as he mourned the death of his father, and then stunned onlookers as he announced an abrupt retirement.

This would be the last we saw of Nurmagomedov, as the wrestler did not attend his post-event press conference at the Flash Forum in Abu Dhabi.

The UFC President Dana White told media that company executives were all shocked at Nurmagomedov's retirement speech, saying all they could do was "just stand around [and] listen."

White then added that he personally believed we'd never see the 32-year-old compete again.

Nurmagomedov had advanced his unbeaten pro MMA record to 29 wins (eight knockouts, 11 submissions, 10 decisions), and would never fight again.

It was all over … for three weeks.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that Nurmagomedov will un-retire and return to the UFC to fight once again.

Here's why:

  1. His head trainer Javier Mendez said the fighter was emotionally "all over the place" on Fight Island, and that he could fight one more time providing he got permission from his mother.
  2. White has changed his mind, saying "there's a good chance" Nurmagomedov will make a sensational comeback and fight again.
  3. Even Nurmagomedov's long-time manager Ali Abdelaziz posted a tweet saying there'll be a 30th bout.

Nurmagomedov's 30th fight is a landmark, and has to be special

Photo by Press Office of the Head of the Republic of Dagestan \TASS via Getty Images

Here's how they could do it, in Insider's opinion

A last-man-standing, eight-man tournament could decide Nurmagomedov's ultimate challenger

Here's who could compete in the 155-pound competition:

  1. Tony Ferguson (No.3) vs. Michael Chandler (New entrant) — December 12, unconfirmed
  2. Conor McGregor (No.4) vs. Dustin Poirier (No.2) — January 23, unconfirmed
  3. Justin Gaethje (No.1) vs. Rafael dos Anjos (Returning entrant)
  4. Dan Hooker (No.5) vs. Drew Dober (No.14)

Gaethje, Poirier, Ferguson, McGregor, and Hooker are the top-five lightweight contenders in the UFC's own ranking system, after the champion Nurmagomedov.

Chandler is a former Bellator MMA champion in the same division, signed to the UFC earlier this year, and will likely be given a baptism of fire in the coming weeks.

Dos Anjos is a former UFC lightweight champion, recently sliced Paul Felder's face open, and yearns for a 155-pound test.

Dober's there because, since a submission loss in 2019, he has returned a hat-trick of knockout victories — many of them savage — and could thrive with a step-up in opposition-level.

The semi-finals could look like this …

  1. The winner of Ferguson and Chandler vs. the winner of Hooker and Dober
  2. The winner of Gaethje and dos Anjos vs. the winner of McGregor and Poirier

All the fights could take place at the same event on Fight Island, the UFC's home-away-from-home for international events.

The final could then take place at a fresh Fight Island festival scheduled later in the year, with Abu Dhabi fan-favorite Nurmagomedov sitting Octagonside, ready to step into the cage and formally challenge the winner.

Much would ride on the "Ultimate Lightweight Fighter" and the UFC lightweight champion Nurmagomedov's match.

For the reigning titleholder at 155-pounds, a new challenger has been created who would have run through a lightweight gauntlet, taking with him momentum and fan and media acclaim into the championship fight.

For the tournament winner, victory over Nurmagomedov, after having already beaten three of the division's other top competitors, would represent a wipeout of 155-pound fighters.

The creation of an eight-man tournament, therefore, would make Nurmagomedov's seemingly inevitable comeback the biggest, baddest thing in all MMA in 2021.

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