The secret is out. All the bad blood between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor was just that, bad blood. But in terms of a pure sporting rival to threaten Khabib's legacy, it was always about one man – Tony Ferguson.
The duo clashed at the UFC 249 press conference in Las Vegas on Friday and, after a discreet start to Khabib's proceedings, Tony Ferguson was irritated when referring to "street fights". Khabib then became more restless and started addressing Ferguson directly, while the two became involved in anger from side to side.
I say angry – the anger really did seem to come from one side, and it was not the challenger.
Ferguson switched from insolent bites to respectful comments, sometimes in the space of the same response. But for the most part, he had a smile on his face. He knew what he was doing. People expected "El Cucuy" to be crazy and unpredictable, so he brought both.
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Revive Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson face off at the UFC 249 press conference in Las Vegas (VIDEO)
But when he realized he had come under Khabib's skin, he appeared. He talked about the champion's responses, scoffed at the Russian's responses and targeted his manager, Ali Abdelaziz.
Clearly, the two men had plenty of time to think about each other, having been hired to fight four times previously. During this period, the pair's winning streak increased, their skills improved and the clamor for him to fight. Now, with the world title colliding in Brooklyn, just over a month ago, tensions are starting to arise, and what we discovered at the press conference was particularly interesting.
Khabib's rivalry with Conor was all about personality, but when it comes to what really matters to Khabib's legacy – his unbeaten record and his best light weight status on the planet – the real rivalry is with Ferguson, whom he clearly sees as the most legitimate threat to his reign.
And if Khabib's angry and more frustrated behavior on the dais didn't make things clear enough, his actions during the ensuing confrontation certainly did. More angry words were exchanged before the Russian kicked Ferguson's former UFC interim belt off the stage.
It was a moment of anger, a moment of disrespect and a moment that showed something that should excite the fight fans before the confrontation at the Barclays Center on April 18 – Ferguson is under Khabib's skin.
Nurmagomedov has 12 consecutive victories in the UFC. Ferguson too. Nurmagomedov won a number of candidates. Ferguson too. But unlike Khabib, whose fight-based attack has been consistent since day one, Ferguson has beaten his opponents in a variety of ways – submissions, knockouts, doctors' interruptions, corner interruptions.
Ferguson also has a habit of attacking his opponents in a bloody manner, something that Khabib had never experienced before inside the cage. The champion has never been cut in his career, but you would have to look for a fair way to find an opponent of Ferguson who didn't blow his cage apart after a fight with "El Cucuy".
And at the press conference, Ferguson, for all his peculiarities and unpredictability, had clearly arrived with two goals in mind. He was there to sell a fight and get into his opponent's head. Based on what we saw on Friday night, I would say that he got both sides.
Ferguson is a clear and present danger to Khabib's UFC lightweight title, his undefeated record and his status as the best lightweight fighter on the planet – and Khabib knows it.
Bring a week of struggle.
By Simon Head