<
>

The best UFC fights that never were, including Khabib Nurmagomedov-Tony Ferguson

play
The saga of Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson (2:24)

Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov have been scheduled to fight five different times, but the fight still hasn't happened. (2:24)

Throughout the history of combat sports there have been must-see, can't-miss fights that were on the precipice of happening, but for one reason or another never came to fruition. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the volume of close calls and last-minute cancellations greatly over the past two years, along with the injuries and failures to make deals that have long been an unfortunate part of boxing and MMA alike.

Former UFC bantamweight champion Holly Holm was scheduled to fight this weekend in a featherweight matchup against Norma Dumont at UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas. Unfortunately, Holm suffered an injury and was forced to withdraw.

Holm, 39, is one of, if not the most accomplished athlete in female combat sports, and history will remember her career for much, much more than one incredible night against Ronda Rousey back in 2015. But at the same time, that performance against a previously unbeatable foe will always serve as one of Holm's top career highlights.

As we approach the six-year anniversary of Holm's upset over Rousey on Nov. 14, we wonder, "What if?" What if Holm and Rousey had fought a second time?

That's what the UFC wanted. The UFC wanted Holm to wait for Rousey to fight again, and to run that back immediately. Holm elected not to wait and lost her belt to Miesha Tate in her first attempted defense. Rousey eventually did return in 2016, lost to Amanda Nunes, then retired, and a potential rematch with Holm disappeared forever.

It's one of those fights that's fun to consider. Debate. Ask the "What ifs." So what other fights are like that in UFC history? What do we wish could have happened, that never did? Everyone's list is different, I'm sure, but here are my top five.

1. Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson

Don't even read this matchup aloud. Who knows what misfortune might befall you.

Five times the UFC tried to stage this fight. Five different times. This will forever go down as the most cursed fight in UFC history. And the fact Ferguson has had a very down year since the fifth attempt at booking this fight fell through doesn't make me feel any better about missing it.

Yeah, maybe Nurmagomedov would have made it look easy against Ferguson, as he did against every other lightweight. But maybe not. And either way, Ferguson, more than anyone, earned his opportunity to test Nurmagomedov, and I feel bad that he was robbed of that.

The sport was robbed of Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson, but more importantly, Ferguson was robbed of Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson -- and that will always be unfortunate.

play
1:12

Reliving Conor McGregor's lightning KO of Jose Aldo

Five years later, relive the buildup and knockout that helped propel Conor McGregor to superstardom at UFC 194.

2. Conor McGregor vs. Jose Aldo 2

These two are still active, but I feel confident saying this rematch will never happen. Both have moved on so significantly from the other. McGregor is fighting at lightweight or welterweight. Aldo is trying to chase a championship two weight classes down at bantamweight. There is no bad blood left over from 2015, when they fought for Aldo's featherweight title.

And while it's kind of heartwarming to see these two support each other, the fight fan in me can't help but wish it was the exact opposite. I kind of wish Aldo was obsessed with getting even with McGregor. I kind of wish he harbored this long-standing resentment toward McGregor, for everything that was said leading up to that fight and for everything McGregor took from him in that KO victory.

Before there was Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Conor McGregor, or Nate Diaz vs. Conor McGregor, there was Jose Aldo vs. Conor McGregor. That was one of the most hyped fights in the history of the UFC, and it lasted 13 damn seconds. I wish we could have seen it again.

play
1:05

Amanda Nunes' precise power leads to highlight-reel finishes

In this excerpt from Unlocking Victory on ESPN+, Dominick Cruz and Gilbert Melendez break down Amanda Nunes' knockout of Cris Cyborg.

3. Amanda Nunes vs. Cris 'Cyborg' Justino 2

Much like Aldo vs. McGregor, this fight just went so quick. All the credit in the world to Nunes. She knocked out Justino in just 51 seconds in 2018, and she did so convincingly -- like, just ran straight through a woman who was considered one of the most feared figures in the sport. It was a remarkable performance by Nunes.

But it certainly left us -- or me, at least -- wanting to know how/if Justino would bounce back. We're talking about one of the most dominant athletes in MMA history getting demolished in one of the biggest fights of her career in less than one minute. That was Justino's only loss in the span of 13 years. I wanted to see how she'd return in an immediate rematch against Nunes.

Unfortunately, even though these two are also still active, we'll most likely never see it. Justino left the UFC after this title fight against Nunes, and honestly, as I said at the time, it was probably for the best for the people directly involved. The relationship between the UFC and Justino had grown toxic. Still, the fight fan in me wonders what intrigue would have come to pass in this rematch.

4. Fedor Emelianenko vs. Brock Lesnar

This is UFC president Dana White's white whale. The one fight in all his years as a promoter he badly wanted to make, and never could.

And it really would have been a perfect storm. Two complete opposites in terms of public persona. Emelianenko barely talked. Barely looked awake, frankly, during most media engagements. But he was widely renowned as the best heavyweight of all time, and possibly the greatest MMA fighter of all time, period. Lesnar was ... Lesnar. WWE star turned UFC heavyweight champion.

As the story goes, White actually flew to an island off of Venezuela to meet with Emelianenko in person in 2009, with the hope of booking Emelianenko vs. Lesnar at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The two sides could never strike a deal, and Emelianenko never fought once in the UFC.

I personally have this ranked at No. 4, but one can see why it's the one that got away for White. A heavyweight megafight at an 80,000-seat football stadium in Texas? What a scene that would have been.

5. Anderson Silva vs. Georges St-Pierre

This is the obvious answer. The constantly teased superfight that never came together, even though Silva and St-Pierre both seemed open to it at various stages as they dominated their respective weight classes. Two of the sport's all-time greats. Their greatness happened simultaneously. They should have fought.

Yes, and no. The one thing that really did never make sense about this matchup was the size. St-Pierre wasn't even a big welterweight, and we saw in 2017 he struggled to maintain the weight he felt was necessary to compete as a middleweight at 185 pounds against Michael Bisping. Silva was massive in comparison, a guy who could comfortably fight at 205 pounds during his prime.

So, in one very real, very important aspect, this fight never made sense at all. But ... what would have happened? Don't tell me St-Pierre wouldn't have had a shot. With his fighting IQ and MMA wrestling ability, no one can tell me St-Pierre wasn't at least capable of winning that fight. And if he would have actually gone up and done it, I don't think we'd ever have a debate about the greatest fighter of all time.