Khabib Nurmagomedov was in classic form, defending his UFC lightweight championship with a third-round submission win over Dustin Poirier on Saturday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Paul Felder earned the biggest win of his career, knocking off Edson Barboza. And top contenders Joanne Calderwood and Curtis Blaydes also shined.
Our panel is here to break down the biggest moments of UFC 242.
Khabib Nurmagomedov retained the UFC lightweight title, improving to 28-0. Is "The Eagle" the most dominant fighter in history?
Ariel Helwani: Yes. I have been saying this for almost two years now. Khabib Nurmagomedov is the most dominant athlete this sport has ever seen. Hands down. He now is 28-0 and has only lost one round in his UFC career (Round 3 versus Conor McGregor). He doesn't just beat you, he mauls you. Dare I say, he smashes you. Yes, I know Jon Jones has a case here, but he has lost rounds and has seemed a lot more vincible than Nurmagomedov has throughout his career.
Gilbert Melendez: That's a tough question. I don't know quite yet. As of now, he has a recipe, and until someone figures out how to sprawl and ball or someone knows how to fight off their back, he is the best 155er in the world.
Marc Raimondi: It's very hard to say for certain, because the criteria is subjective. Is he that right now? Without a doubt. Nurmagomedov has lost exactly one round in the UFC, the third against Conor McGregor at UFC 229. And that was in a fight he finished and was winning comprehensively. Nurmagomedov dominated the extremely rugged, skillful Dustin Poirier on Saturday in every round. Anderson Silva won 16 straight to start his UFC career and didn't often lose rounds in that stretch. Jon Jones has 20 fights in the UFC with a loss and a no contest on his record, but he has never been truly challenged. However, Jones does lose rounds from time to time. Nurmagomedov is 12-0 so far in the UFC. Right now, I'd say Silva was the most dominant in history, but Nurmagomedov is in the conversation.
Chael Sonnen: Oh yeah, Khabib is the most dominant. I can't think of anyone more dominant or in control. He has never lost a fight. He finishes everybody. Guys he doesn't finish, you wish they waved it off. It's almost unmerciful in the way he is beating guys. He also is kind of a throwback where he is showing us that one elite skill can be very successful. You don't have to know everything equally.
Jeff Wagenheim: Nurmagomedov is 12-0 in the UFC, and no one has ever started a run in the promotion like that. But I'll hold off until Khabib has more than two title defenses before anointing him the most dominant ever. Ronda Rousey was the most dominant ever until she wasn't; after finishing consecutive title defenses in 58, 66, 16, 14 and 34 seconds, she was KO'd, and that was the end of that. Anderson Silva toyed with most of his middleweight challengers as well as the light heavyweights he stepped up against. Demetrious Johnson made 11 title defenses and Georges St-Pierre made nine, and there's also this fellow named Jon Jones. So let's see a little bit more from Khabib, like maybe a title defense against clear No. 1 contender Tony Ferguson. If he does to "El Cucuy" what he did to Dustin Poirier and all who came before, then we can talk dominance.
What went wrong with Dustin Poirier's game plan?
Helwani: I don't think anything, really. Nurmagomedov is just that good. I believe Poirier was game and ready to go. He had some of the best coaches in the game in his corner, but Nurmagomedov is just so dominant and stifling, it's hard to inflict any kind of damage on him. Nurmagomedov suffocated Poirier in the first round. In the beginning of the second round, Poirier found some success on the feet, but then it was more of the same. The guillotine in the third looked close, but in the end, it was all for naught. The story here isn't what Poirier didn't do, it's what Nurmagomedov did. He is just that darn good.
Melendez: Poirier did a great job trying his best on his feet, but he just couldn't neutralize the takedown. His takedown defenses were threatening the guillotine choke. He had one that was close, but you just can't finish Khabib on that. Another challenge in approach was him trying to build to his base when he was taken down and tried to hit a switch; he went 0-for-2 on those. Even when Poirier did those switches, Khabib countered and ended up in a more superior position -- like almost to mount -- a very high half guard in which he was able to do some punishment with a full-body lock on top of Poirier.
Raimondi: Nothing really went wrong. It's just impossible to prepare for Nurmagomedov's wrestling. Poirier has plenty of great wrestling training partners. American Top Team is filled with some of the most richly talented fighters on the planet. But Nurmagomedov's MMA chain wrestling is on another level. It has not been stopped yet, and few have even come close. Poirier weathered the storm in the first round. His shot was in the second when he had Nurmagomedov on his heels. It nearly became a stand-up brawl, which Poirier could win. But Poirier seemed to tire, and Nurmagomedov put him on his back again. It must be frustrating for Poirier, but he got beaten by the better fighter -- an all-time great. It wasn't for a poor game plan or execution. It was just an eye-of-the-needle-sized margin for error.
Sonnen: I don't think anything went wrong with Poirier's game plan. Khabib is not the takedown master that people keep trying to say he is. His takedowns happen against the fence, which is unique. When an opponent is against the fence, it's a pretty good place for a natural defense and hard to take guys down -- and there's where Khabib wants to be. And that's just unusual. If you're fighting Khabib and you can keep your back off the fence, your ability to defend the takedown goes up about 98%.
Wagenheim: What was wrong with Poirier's game plan was that he was fighting Khabib Nurmagomedov. That was all. You could see that Poirier was well-prepared. A couple of times, he nearly reversed position on the ground, but Khabib is simply better than anyone Dustin trains with. Poirier also landed a solid punch early in Round 2 and put Nurmagomedov in retreat briefly; but when you let your hands go, you open yourself to a takedown, and Khabib doesn't need much of an opening. The heat made the fighters sweatier than usual, and that helped both of them to escape from submission tries. But eventually, Nurmagomedov got him, and that was no fault of Poirier's plan.
Felder and Barboza go back and forth in slug fest
Edson Barboza slips out of a submission from Paul Felder and the two exchange strikes on the feet in the co-main event of UFC 242. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.
Paul Felder won a split decision over Edson Barboza. Did you agree with the result?
Helwani: I agree with the decision, but I don't agree with the scorecards. The two opposite 30-27s are beyond wacky. There's no way those are right. I had it 29-28 for Felder, with him winning the second and third rounds ever so slightly, but it was certainly close. I won't hate you if you had it 29-28 for Barboza. It was a hard fight to score. But to suggest either guy won all three rounds is categorically false. Absurd, really.
Melendez: The decision did surprise me in the way that the judge said 30-27 Paul Felder. That made it a little harder to accept. I think the second round was close. I'd give the fight two rounds to one to Barboza; maybe that second round was debatable. But it came down to that last card, and I don't agree with 30-27 Felder.
Raimondi: I do, and I know I'm probably in the minority. I understand the arguments for Barboza. It was a very, very close fight, and a decision either way would have been OK. But I had Felder winning the second and third rounds. Judges are looking for the most impactful, significant things in every round, and Felder opening up a cut and doing damage with elbows from the bottom in the second round was important. Felder pretty clearly won the third round, landing harder shots, and I thought Barboza clearly won the first. I will add this: The 30-27 scorecard for Felder from judge Maria Makhmutiva was not good.
Sonnen: Felder did not win that match. It was a fun fight. He protected himself well on the bottom, and one time he ended up able to cut Barboza by surprise. Felder was able to secure a catch; he locked in an arm bar. Felder also pressured Barboza well. That was the good news for Felder, but he did not win that fight.
Wagenheim: The correct guy had his hand raised, in my opinion, but the decision still is a prime example of the folly of MMA judging. How two trained officials can watch a three-round fight and each call it a clean sweep for a different fighter indicates that the folks at cageside with pencils in their hands are not watching for the same things. And that's a problem for fighters, who are left with no idea what they have to do to impress the judges. "Don't leave it in the hands of the judges" is the Dana White mantra, and it is pure wisdom.
Blaydes overpowers Willis for win
Curtis Blaydes dominates Justin Willis throughout the fight, including slamming his opponent repeatedly en route to a win via unanimous decision.
Who, outside of the main event and co-main event, most impressed you?
Helwani: Curtis Blaydes. Truth be told, I was a little worried when I saw the big boys walking out in that heat. I had flashbacks to Mark Hunt and Ben Rothwell at UFC 135, but to Blaydes' credit, he looked phenomenal at UFC 242. His ground-and-pound was on point, and it really has become one of the sport's most vicious forms of attacking. Heck, he even said after the fight that he had five full rounds in him. Impressive stuff from Blaydes, who has now won two in a row.
Melendez: Belal Muhammad is the master of pressure. He set a good pace and was aggressive and found some openings -- with a straight right to the body and a left hook to the head -- against his opponent Takashi Sato that kept landing. He landed some beautiful double legs and ultimately took the back of Sato and just stuck to that game plan -- pressure, pressure, pressure. Muhammad timed his straight lefts and countered well and eventually got Sato's back and choked him.
Raimondi: There are a few good choices here, but I'll go with Diego Ferreira. He was the underdog coming in against the explosive Mairbek Taisumov, and after the first round, Ferreira completely controlled the fight on the feet. Mind you, Ferreira is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and known for his grappling. Taisumov is a knockout artist. Yet, Ferreira was the better man in the striking department, which is a credit to the work he has done under coach Sayif Saud at Fortis MMA in Dallas. Quietly, Ferreira has won five in a row in the stacked lightweight division, and it's time for him to be taken seriously.
Sonnen: Joanne Calderwood. She wanted to keep this fight standing up, and she largely had success doing that because Andrea "KGB" Lee is so good on the ground but also is so good at getting fights to the ground. Lee just wasn't able to. Calderwood found a way to keep the distance every time KGB came in; Calderwood would give her some kind of distraction, whether it was an uppercut or an elbow or a hit to the body. And Calderwood just wanted to fight the fight in her realm. It was very competitive, but it was very clear that it went to Calderwood.
Wagenheim: Curtis Blaydes basically won in 10 seconds. The Octagon door had barely closed before he took Shamil Abdurakhimov to the canvas; by the end of the first round, Blaydes had four takedowns and was in full mount, delivering a vicious beating. Blaydes did what he has done to every heavyweight he has faced -- except Francis Ngannou, who handed Blaydes his two career losses. That's significant, because Ngannou is next in line for a title shot, unless Daniel Cormier opts to complete the Stipe Miocic trilogy. If DC retires, Blaydes should wait for the winner of Miocic-Ngannou II -- no other contender would be as deserving. If "Razor" ends up third in line, however, he might need to go dominate another poor, unfortunate heavyweight.
What was the highlight of UFC 242?
Helwani: Joanne Calderwood talking about how hot she was and not in a good-looking kind of way after her win over Andrea Lee was great fun. Her manager, Danny Rubenstein, told me afterward that she was so hot that she considered taking off her rash guard in the middle of the fight. The heat seemed to affect a lot of people all night, and that was a fun way of addressing it in classic Calderwood fashion. Calderwood, of Scotland, chose to wear a rash guard to respect the United Arab Emirates culture, by the way, so that was a really thoughtful gesture on her part. I also loved seeing Nurmagomedov wearing Poirier's shirt after the fight and saying he would sell it and donate all the proceeds to Poirier's Good Fight Foundation. Great gesture on the champ's part.
Melendez: To see Khabib Nurmagomedov neutralize the switch by Dustin Poirier. I've never seen someone advance to mount when Poirier tried to hit that switch. It seemed it must have been working for Poirier in training camp, since he went for it twice, but both times it was stuffed and in fact Khabib went to a more superior position with it.
Raimondi: Nurmagomedov getting treated like the superstar he is. Nurmagomedov was the B-side against Conor McGregor last year at UFC 229, let's be honest about that. McGregor is on a different level as far as mainstream attention. But Nurmagomedov, at this moment, might be the second-biggest name in the UFC, especially internationally. UFC 242 was essentially an event made for him in Abu Dhabi, a Muslim-majority country. The arena was filled with Nurmagomedov fans, many of whom were wearing his signature Dagestani papakha hat. Nurmagomedov felt like a big deal outside of the rivalry with McGregor, and it was important the UFC set it up that way.
Sonnen: I think that Curtis Blaydes' win was very meaningful. That division really lacks parity right now. We have rumors that Brock Lesnar was going to come out. There were rumors that Jon Jones was going to move. We have Fabricio Werdum suspended for another few months. The division is just a mess right now. Blaydes fits the bill. He checks a lot of boxes. He is 26 years young. He has a good shelf life. And as far as putting the punches, kicks and grappling all together, I don't think I've ever seen him look so good.
Wagenheim: Like many fans, I didn't buy the champion vs. champion hype. Nurmagomedov was the champ, Poirier a challenger who had been given a faux belt so the UFC could sell his April fight with Max Holloway as something more than just a great matchup. But on Saturday, both Khabib and Dustin conducted themselves like champions, treating each other with respect before and after doing battle. How refreshing that there was no Conor McGregor nonsense. And how refreshing that Nurmagomedov stood in the cage afterward wearing a Dustin Poirier T-shirt -- and saying he will put it up for sale, with proceeds going to Dustin's charity. That was my highlight -- two athletes acting like professionals. This is what sports are supposed to be about.