Ariel Helwani's MMA thoughts: Fame hasn't cost Nurmagomedov his fire

Cruz: Khabib's opponents have to grapple to compete (0:55)

Dominick Cruz says based on what he's seen from Khabib Nurmagomedov, opponents need a deep knowledge of grappling to compete. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc. (0:55)

The UFC is back in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia, this weekend.

When the UFC visits Canada, the card is usually filled up with a bunch of Canadians. However, this one features only three Canucks, which is tied for the least amount of Canadians on a UFC card in the history of the promotion's 30 trips to the Great White North. Usually this would make me, a proud Canadian, a bit sad, but when you consider UFC 240 was in Edmonton less than two months ago and that card featured seven Canadians, I get it, and I accept it.

Nonetheless, there's a lot to like on this card: Of course, the Donald Cerrone vs. Justin Gaethje fight is phenomenal, but I'm also intrigued by Michel Pererira's potential second UFC appearance (I note potential because he is currently without an opponent after his original foe, Sergey Khandozhko, was forced to withdraw due to visa issues), Todd Duffee's first fight in more than four years and the return of up-and-comer Brad Katona.

In addition to that card, we've also got KSW 50 this weekend, which, knowing how the Polish-based promotion loves the pomp and circumstance of a big event, should be a great scene.

But before we get to all that, here are some thoughts on a memorable week in mixed martial arts:

The Lede

Khabib Nurmagomedov is the most dominant fighter in the history of MMA.

Yes, I know we in the media have a tendency to overhype things immediately after a fight. I know we often get caught up in the moment. I have been guilty of that.

In my defense, I have been saying this for almost two years. And when you consider Nurmagomedov's perfect 28-0 pro record (12-0 in the UFC) and that he has lost only one round in those 12 UFC fights (Round 3 versus Conor McGregor), I feel confident making this bold statement. And it's not just about the record, of course. It's about the fact that he absolutely mauls his opponents. He suffocates them. He stifles them. And that dominance was on display Saturday afternoon against Dustin Poirier.

Sure, Poirier had his moments -- the beginning of the second round and that guillotine in the third -- but you never truly got the sense Nurmagomedov was ever in trouble.

Truth be told, I had some doubts about Nurmagomedov heading into this fight. The pressure of fighting in front of the partisan Abu Dhabi crowd was immense. The newfound fame after the McGregor win was profound. A lot had changed since his previous fight 11 months ago, and I was wondering if it would affect him negatively. I wondered if he had lost his killer instinct.

I was reminded of that famous Marvin Hagler quote going into this fight: "It's tough to get out of bed to do roadwork at 5 a.m. when you've been sleeping in silk pajamas."

You get the point, right? Life has forever changed for Nurmagomedov and we've seen countless fighters lose that fire once they become multimillionaires. Look no further than McGregor himself for a recent example.

In the end, Nurmagomedov was just as impressive as ever. Just as dominant as ever. The most dominant ever, in fact.

And yes, I have heard of Jon Jones. He's really good, too. But, lest we forget, Jones has had some moments of vulnerability. He has lost plenty of rounds. He has gotten beat up. That has never happened to Nurmagomedov.

Is the Dagestani the greatest ever? Too soon. Current pound-for-pound king? Very possible. Most dominant ever? No doubt.

Fifth time's a charm

Sometimes when a champ wins, there's a debate about who should be next for him or her.

This is not one of those cases.

Next for Nurmagomedov has to be Tony Ferguson. It just has to be. Ferguson has won 12 in a row and Nurmagomedov has won 12 straight in the UFC. They've been booked to fight each other four times, but a fifth attempt must be made.

This is the fight. No doubt about it. End of story.

What about Conor?

I appreciate the fact that McGregor called for the rematch in Moscow on social media following UFC 242. I have no doubt he's being serious, too.

But if you ask me, he should get the winner of this weekend's Gaethje vs. Cerrone fight. I don't think it would be wise to jump back in versus Nurmagomedov. Get a win, get your mojo back and then fight for the belt. A fight against either Gaethje or Cerrone would be favorable for McGregor. That should be the game plan.

More than W's and L's

It was hard to watch a heartbroken Poirier talk about the loss in the cage. I hope he doesn't really believe he let anyone down. Poirier has never taken or asked for a shortcut. He took the long road to get to that fight and he simply fell short against one of the best ever.

I remember interviewing him backstage after his loss to Chan Sung Jung in 2012. The general consensus was a win would get him a title shot versus then-featherweight champion Jose Aldo. Unfortunately for Poirier, he lost that fight, and when he came to talk to us he couldn't stop crying. He was devastated. Just like he was Saturday night. I feel like a lot of us have a stronger emotional connection to his journey because we were privy to his humble beginnings thanks to the documentary "Fightville" I wrote about last week. I think that's why those moments hit some of us a little harder. Or maybe it's because we know Poirier represents the best MMA has to offer in and out of the cage and it stings to see him hurting like that.

You've surely heard about the Poirier family's Good Fight Foundation. It's a remarkable labor of love that continues to help the less fortunate. So it was really nice to see Nurmagomedov swap shirts with him and say he would sell the one he was wearing and donate all the proceeds to Poirier's charity. Considering how ugly the conclusion of Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor was, this was a beautiful way to end UFC 242.


After UFC 242 was over, I was reminded of an interview I did with Nurmagomedov immediately after UFC 181 in December 2014. This was right after then-lightweight champion Anthony Pettis beat Gilbert Melendez. I remember seeing Nurmagomedov backstage at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas with one other member of his team. There was no big entourage around, no media following him.

At the time, Nurmagomedov, who was 6-0 in the UFC, was nursing a torn ACL he suffered months prior. The injury scrapped a big fight against Cerrone and left his future somewhat in doubt. In fact, that injury led to a two-year layoff for Nurmagomedov and three canceled fights due to a string of bad luck and injuries. It's easy to forget about those days now as we see him evolve into one of the biggest megastars this sport has ever seen. But not that long ago, Nurmagomedov was labeled as injury-prone and unreliable. The fans had begun to turn on him due to the constant injuries. It felt like he was headed down the "never was" path rather than realizing his true potential.

During that interview, Nurmagomedov called for a title fight against Anthony Pettis. He said Pettis was scared of him. I felt bad for Nurmagomedov that night. He was trying hard to pick a fight with a guy who has never been labeled as scared. He seemed desperate. Five years later, those days feel like an afterthought. I'm glad the injuries are behind him and we've been able to learn just how good he really is.

Other 242 thoughts

I thought Paul Felder beat Edson Barboza 29-28, but I definitely don't agree with those two 30-27 scorecards. Beyond wacky. ... Curtis Blaydes' ground and pound is really scary. Like, really, really scary. ... How did Joanne Calderwood follow up a disappointing performance against Katlyn Chookagian back in June? With what I thought was a solid victory over Andrea Lee, who had won seven fights in a row. I thought Calderwood looked very good in that fight and reasserted herself as a player at 125 pounds. She could very well be next for champion Valentina Shevchenko. ... Belal Muhammad, Muslim Salikhov and newcomer Ottman Azaitar also impressed.

One more 'hot' take

I wasn't in attendance, but from talking to people all week and those who covered the event, it's impossible to deny that the extreme heat played a factor. Several fighters noted how much it affected them, and I also noticed many were huffing and puffing in their postfight interviews. The bigger question now is how does the UFC avoid this for their future events in Abu Dhabi? They are scheduled to return at least four more times in the next four years, so how do they learn from this? As you may have heard, they built this makeshift "arena" in two months and were working around the clock to finish it in the hours before the event. According to multiple sources, the ventilation and cooling wasn't on point in the days leading up to the event. So, either they build the stadium well in advance next time and make sure this is all buttoned up or they find a better solution? I don't know. These are issues that are well above my pay grade, but if this issue isn't addressed I suspect the UFC will have a hard time convincing fighters to fight on these cards in the future.

The making of a superfight

The road to making Nate Diaz vs. Jorge Masvidal was a wild one. It has been a while since there's been a match-making story like this, so allow me to explain:

Days after Diaz's win over Pettis last month, the UFC reached out to his team to make the Masvidal fight for Madison Square Garden on Nov. 2. As you may recall, Diaz called out Masvidal after his win, so there was a desire to get it done as soon as possible.

However, it seemed early on that it might be hard to come to terms with Diaz on a deal for this fight, so the UFC decided to turn its attention to UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington as the UFC 244 main event. UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones vs. Jan Blachowicz was also on the table, but Jones didn't want to fight so soon, sources say.

Problem is, it became apparent around nine or so days ago that it was going to be hard to make a deal with Covington for this fight. So, the UFC turned its attention to Masvidal for Usman. Somewhat surprisingly, Masvidal jumped on that opportunity relatively quickly. However, the next problem was Usman and the UFC suddenly were far apart on a deal, too. This angered the UFC brass to the point that they even threatened to strip Usman and pulled him from all of his guest fighter duties in Abu Dhabi, according to multiple sources. So, the UFC then turned its attention to booking Masvidal vs. Leon Edwards for the vacant title, however, in the midst of all that a Hail Mary was thrown Diaz's way to salvage all of this. Guess what? It worked.

Come Thursday, talks were going well with Diaz and Masvidal, and all of a sudden Usman, Covington and Edwards were in the rearview mirror. The UFC was determined to get this fight done. It was the fight the people wanted, after all. By Thursday night, they were in a good spot.

That's why come Friday morning Usman started tweeting about fighting at MSG, as did Covington. They were seeing their big fight, on the biggest stage, slip away. Unfortunately for them, it was too late.

UFC came to terms with Diaz and Masvidal on Friday night and both fighters signed their bout agreements shortly thereafter. Diaz historically delays signing his bout agreement because he views that as the beginning of his fight camp, but wouldn't ya know it, I'm told he's so focused on this fight that he actually started his camp on Thursday. A day before the fight was even finalized.

So it's on. Diaz vs. Masvidal. Nov. 2. Madison Square Garden. Main event. Five rounds. Arguably the biggest fight of the year is actually happening.

The UFC has always made a point to headline cards with a title fight, so kudos to them for recognizing some fights and fighters are bigger than a belt. This one is definitely bigger than any title. This is the right call.

In fact, it's the first non-title PPV main event since Diaz vs. McGregor 2 in August 2016. It proves that Diaz can be a massive draw without McGregor, once and for all.

Which brings me to the Baddest (expletive) title everyone keeps talking about.

I'm all for either Diaz or Masvidal making a title. That makes it cool and fun. But I really hope the UFC doesn't actually make a BMF title. I think that would devalue their current belts. What's next? The Daddest Man on the Planet belt? Or how about The Best Hair in the Division belt? You get the point. Once the promotion makes it, it's not as cool. It reminds me of when Bellator decided to market the heck out of the Fedor Sweater. Remember that? That instantly turned a cool internet joke into a lame dad joke. Don't do it, UFC. Let the fighters handle that one. Thank me later.

And I know what you're thinking: lighten up, Helwani. It's just cage fighting. You're right. I appreciate pro wrestling (because make no mistake about it, this is as pro wrasslin' as it gets) as much as the next guy. I love the fact that the UFC is loosening up its collar a bit here. I love that they even used the term on the promo to announce the fight. That's all good. I'm just a stickler for nuance and subtlety, I guess. I'm old-school. The belts should mean something. And remember, the nWo belt was cool because Hulk Hogan spray painted it. Not because WCW handed it over (I know that might be going over some of your heads, but just trust me on this one, please.)

What about the actual title fight?

Believe it or not, this is all a blessing in disguise for Usman and Covington. The UFC didn't want to negotiate with them for MSG anymore, and they were about to kill two fights the fans wanted to see to prove a point. They were also about to kill two fights to make one that had no heat behind it.

You see, no one was clamoring for Masvidal vs. Usman. Everyone wanted Usman vs. Covington and Diaz vs. Masvidal. That was very clear. So, now that the latter is a done deal, it gives everyone a chance to reset and catch their breath. Talks should restart with the Usman and Covington teams and the UFC should try to make that fight for December.

But if you ask me, don't put it on the last pay-per-view of the year on Dec. 14. That one has enough title fights on it. Right now, it could have at least three (Amanda Nunes vs. Germaine de Randamie, Max Holloway vs. Alexander Volkanovski and Jones vs. Blachowicz). Make Usman vs. Covington in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 7. What a spot for that fight, right? Yes, I know that card already has a main event -- Alistair Overeem vs. Walt Harris -- but this is a way bigger fight, and I doubt the big boys will mind going from five rounds to three. This would set up a massive end of the year for the company.

I see a lot of fans criticizing Usman and Covington for overplaying their hands last week. I have no issues with how they handled their business. They didn't take to the media to make demands (they only popped up on social media once it was too late) and they shot their shot. In the end, the UFC didn't think they were worth what they were asking. Hopefully they can figure it out soon because I think it would be a shame if that fight doesn't get done next.

And while we're figuring out the entire top of the welterweight division, I would go ahead and book Tyron Woodley vs. Leon Edwards on the Dec. 14 card. Winner gets the title shot next. Perfect.

Oh, one last thing on the welterweights: There's a misconception out there that Covington and Masvidal are close friends. As I mentioned in this space weeks ago, that is not true. They used to be friends but had a falling out recently. So when Covington attacked Masvidal on Twitter late last week, I saw a bunch of people -- journalists, too -- online claiming their beef was fake. It is not. I suspect more will come out on this story in the coming weeks, but trust me, the beef is real. I know it's hard to make sense of what is real and what is not with Covington these days, but this one is legit.

What's next for a legend?

Dana White told ESPN's Brett Okamoto last week that BJ Penn won't fight for the promotion again. While late, that is the right call. The question is: Will the UFC release him? Will they help him get help? I am genuinely concerned about Penn's well-being and afraid if he's left unemployed he will continue to get in trouble. Hopefully he has the right people around him who are helping him transition, and hopefully there isn't a promoter out there who is going to try to capitalize on his name. Problem is, I believe there are many out there who will choose to do so. That's when things can get really bad.

Penn's demise reminds me a lot of what happened to Jason "Mayhem" Miller. For the longest time, Miller was one of the most charismatic and entertaining fighters in the sport. Unfortunately, his life spiraled out of control as of late and he has repeatedly found himself in trouble with the law.

In a somewhat strange coincidence, Miller ended his two-year social media silence last week. I was pleased to see that he recognizes he lost control and hope he's able to figure things out before it's too late.

Cyborg moves on

No surprise Cris Cyborg signed with Bellator. Given her relationship with Scott Coker from the Strikeforce days, I would have been surprised if she signed with anyone other than Bellator. I like that she signed with the promotion that is home to the most competitive featherweight division in the sport. Potential fights with champion Julia Budd and prospect Janay Harding are interesting. And if Bellator can sign Cat Zingano, too, (they are talking) that would definitely be another interesting fight for her. I do have questions surrounding Bellator's claim that her deal is now the most lucrative in women's MMA history, what with Ronda Rousey fighting for seven figures not that long ago. But hey, promoters gonna promote, right? Hopefully Cyborg is happy now and can put the ugly conclusion to her UFC run behind her.

Classic Kongo

The ending of the Ryan Bader vs. Cheick Kongo Bellator heavyweight title fight was weird. Kongo claimed he couldn't see out of his left eye because he was poked. However, all the replays seemed to suggest there wasn't a poke. So, the fight ended in a no contest. Bader was well on his way to winning, so I don't see a need to run it back. The fight summed up Kongo's career, which has been filled with strange moments. The ending got even weirder when Bader and Kongo's buddy Quinton Jackson got into an altercation in the cage. Jackson has never liked Bader since he lost to him at UFC 144 in 2012. Luckily, it didn't get ugly in there. And no, I don't think Bellator will now consider booking Bader vs. Jackson 2. Last I heard, the plan was Jackson vs. Fedor Emelianenko in Japan at the end of the year.

On my mind

Anyone else notice Bellator's Emmanuel Sanchez paying homage to the old JacksonWink fighters, then doing the Wanderlei Silva hand roll before his featherweight tournament fight on Saturday? I loved that. ... Speaking of the tournament, I thought it got off to a solid start Saturday, though I feel like the MMA community was burnt out after UFC 242 and hardly paid attention to that card. ... Irish prospect Ian Garry improved to 2-0 with a beautiful knockout at Cage Warriors on Friday. Remember his name. ... Boy, it didn't take long for Alexander Gustafsson to reconsider his retirement, eh? ... Congrats to Eddie Alvarez on receiving his black belt from Ricardo Almeida last week. ... UFC announced that Junior dos Santos vs. Alexander Volkov will headline the Moscow event on Nov. 9. Solid heavyweight fight, but I'm surprised they didn't book it for the following week's show in São Paulo considering JDS has never had a UFC fight in Brazil, believe it or not, and is currently on the Brazilian version of Dancing With the Stars. ...

One more thing

I asked Georges St-Pierre on Saturday night if he watched the Nurmagomedov vs. Poirier fight. He did. "Great performance," he said. "He is a very, very good fighter and no one has been able to find his weakness. Great champion, too." I also asked if he heard UFC president Dana White's coy "sure" response when asked about a potential Nurmagomedov vs. St-Pierre fight. He read about it, but he's not holding his breath. Neither am I. For now.

Monday's Helwani Show lineup:

1:00 p.m. ET: Weekend recap

1:10 p.m.: Joanne Calderwood will recap her win over Andrea Lee.

1:25 p.m.: Javier Mendez, Khabib Nurmagomedov's coach, will discuss the win over Dustin Poirier.

1:40 p.m.: Colby Covington will explain why the Kamaru Usman negotiations broke down and where he goes from here.

2:00 p.m.: Cris Cyborg will talk about why she signed with Bellator.

2:25 p.m.: Cain Velasquez will join us in studio to talk about his budding lucha libre career and his MMA future.

3:10 p.m.: Todd Duffee will talk about his return after a four-year layoff this weekend in Vancouver.

3:30 p.m.: Tony Ferguson will react to Nurmagomedov's win and discuss what's next for him.

3:45 p.m.: Ryan Bader, the two-division Bellator champion, will discuss the controversial ending to his heavyweight title defense this past weekend.

4:05 p.m.: Jorge Masvidal will preview his Nov. 2 fight against Nate Diaz.