Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Lightweight scrappers Khabib Nurmagomedov and Darrell Horcher will duel this Saturday (April 16, 2016) at UFC on FOX 19 inside Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida.
Prior to his injury and subsequent layoff, Nurmagomedov was in position to fight for the 155-pound title. It's been mentioned numerous times that Nurmagomedov took a clear victory over the current champion, Rafael dos Anjos, but the Dagestani athlete has to return successfully here in order to earn his shot.
Horcher accepted this bout on short-notice when top-ranked contender Tony Ferguson was forced out with an injury (more details here). And most fans view him as cannon fodder for the returning Sambo specialist. However, Horcher is a Bellator veteran with some big knockout power, so he does have the proverbial "puncher's chance."
Let's take a closer look at the keys to victory for both athletes:
Key Wins: Rafael dos Anjos (UFC on FOX 11), Pat Healy (UFC 165), Gleison Tibau (UFC 148)
Key Losses: None
Keys to Victory: Nurmagomedov is an incredible Sambo fighter. In short, that means he excels at springing forward with looping punches, takedowns of any kind and grappling transitions.
In this bout, the gameplan is simple for Nurmagomedov. The sole loss of Horcher's career came to the best grappler who he had faced in Phillipe Nover, and he's nowhere near as strong a wrestler as "The Eagle." With that in mind, there's little doubt that Nurmagomedov can manhandle his opponent in the clinch and put him on his back. Considering his opponent's punching power, that's the safest and smartest path available.
That said, Nurmagomedov would love to return with a bang and make a statement about his position at the top of the division. In order to accomplish that goal, Nurmagomedov doesn't need to simply stand and trade from the get-go. Instead, he can wear down his opponent -- who's likely in less than ideal shape -- and then look for the big finish late.
Key Wins: EJ Brooks (Bellator 77), Chris Liguori (Bellator 83)
Key Losses: Phillipe Nover (Bellator 95)
Keys to Victory: Horcher is an aggressive striker with some serious power. While it almost certainly is not enough to repel his opponent's takedowns, Horcher does have some solid takedown defense and grappling.
Horcher is a massive underdog, and it's because -- on paper -- he's quite outmatched. In all likelihood, Horcher's feet are going to leave the mat for a brief time until Nurmagomedov unceremoniously brings him down hard. Whenever there's such a large skill disparity between fighters, it's up to the underdog to take risks and make something dramatic happen. If Horcher tries to fight a technical battle, it simply won't go well for him.
The American needs to get creative.
There are some bright sides for Horcher. First and foremost, Horcher has some natural punching power, which is a special factor in pulling off the upset. It also doesn't hurt that Nurmagomedov has a significant amount of ring rust, which could create the opening Horcher needs to land a big shot.
Bottom Line: It's really all about Nurmagomedov's return.
Nurmagomedov was one of the absolute best Lightweight fighters in the world at the time of his injury. Furthermore, it looks pretty obvious in hindsight -- or at least, more obvious -- that Nurmagomedov was a nightmare match up for the then-champion, Anthony Pettis.
Regardless, this newcomer is now an extremely important challenge for the Dagestani. With a win, Nurmagomedov is in position to either immediately fight for the title or compete with Ferguson in a title eliminator bout. Either way, Nurmagomedov has to first remind everyone of his talent with a victory here.
On the other hand, a loss would be shocking. If Nurmagomedov looks his usual self then simply gets tagged, that's a setback, but not the end of the world. However, there's also a chance that he hasn't truly recovered from his knee injuries and will never return to the elite level he left.
For Horcher, he's won either way. With a win, Horcher will make a name for himself and suddenly become a player in the Lightweight division. More likely is that he comes up short, but even then he now has a position inside UFC, and no one will hold a short-notice loss to "The Eagle" against him.
At UFC on FOX 19, Khabib Nurmagomedov will make his return opposite Darrell Horcher. Which man will have his hand raised?