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Move aside, Conor: Nurmagomedov takes UFC’s 155-pound crown

April 8, 2018

Al Iaquinta, left, deflects a punch from Russia's Khabib Nurmagomedov during the fifth round of a lightweight title bout at UFC 223 early Sunday, April 8, 2018, in New York. Nurmagomedov won the fight. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

NEW YORK (AP) — Khabib Nurmagomedov wanted an unsanctioned brawl against Conor McGregor in a loading dock. He instead ended his long ride toward a UFC title with a championship belt to bring back to Russia.

Nurmagomedov capped one the rockiest weeks in UFC’s 25-year-history with a dominant outing over a bloodied Al Iaquinta to winn the 155-pound championship by unanimous decision in the main event of UFC 223 on Saturday night.

Move aside, McGregor. Nurmagomedov is primed for main events, not just sideshows with dollies and broken glass.

“Where’s Conor? You want to fight this bus?” Nurmagomedov said.

Nurmagomedov won a belt stripped from McGregor this week because the tempestuous Irishman — who ignited a melee when he threw a hand cart and guard railing at a bus full of UFC fighters — had not fought for UFC in 17 months.

He’s now the only fighter who can stake a claim to the lightweight title.

Nurmagomedov improved to 26-0 (10-0 in UFC) in a path to the lightweight championship much more laborious than his five rounds in the ring at Barclays Center. He won 50-43 on two scorecards and 50-44 on the third.

Nurmagomedov had four fights against interim champ Tony Ferguson fall through — the latest because of a freak knee injury that led to featherweight champ Max Holloway getting the call on six days’ notice to move up in weight. Holloway was ruled medically unfit to compete on Friday, which forced UFC to bump Iaquinta from an undercard bout against Paul Felder to a title fight.

Nurmagomedov was on the bus and said he had to be restrained by security to keep from fighting McGregor in the underbelly of the arena.

Nothing stopped him against Iaquinta.

The 29-year-old Nurmagomedov once wrestled a bear as a child and he had no trouble busting open a clearly overmatched Iaquinta. He used takedowns in the first, second and fifth rounds that led to repeated blows to the back of the head that cleared the way to his first UFC title.

“I want to say thank you to Iaquinta for stepping up and fighting. He is a real Brooklyn gangster,” Nurmagomedov said.

Nurmagomedov was the clear fan favorite — fans dotted the arena wearing papakhas, a hat that that looks like a powdered wig native to his homeland in Dagestan — and chanted “Khabib! Khabib! Khabib!”

Nurmagomedov lent his papakha to Joe Rogan and called out Georges St-Pierre for a fight later this year at Madison Square Garden.

But he was ready for a fight night doubleheader against anyone.

“Give me 30 minutes rest, little drink of water,” Nurmagomedov said. “Give me 30 minutes and I can fight with anybody. Tony, Conor it doesn’t matter.”

Rose Namajunas also was a passenger on the bus attacked by McGregor and was left so shaken she flirted with the idea of dropping out of her title fight.

She stuck with it — and kept her title.

Namajunas made it 2 for 2 against Joanna Jedrzejczyk and defended her 115-pound championship with a unanimous decision victory in the co-main event.

Namajunas (9-3) defeated Jedrzejczyk in the first round of their first match in November to win the strawweight championship. The 25-year-old Namajunas had to go the full 25 minutes to win 49-46 on all three scorecards.

“I just kept saying, ‘I’m the best,’” she said.

She wasn’t sure what to think when the dolly McGregor hurled at the bus just missed her window. McGregor faces felony charges that put his fight future in doubt.

UFC President Dana White said he had talked to McGregor about fighting in September but now everything is up in the air.

“I think there’s a mutual respect between us,” White said. “I had so many things thrown at me this week. To focus on the show was insane. We’ll get back and focus on Conor McGregor.”

McGregor’s agent, Audie Attar, wrote on Twitter that the former two-division champ “looks forward to getting back to fighting as soon as possible.”

Jedrzejczyk (14-2) and Namajunas appeared deadlocked through four rounds. Namajunas’ lead left leg absorbed so many punishing kicks it turned bright red, but she bloodied Jedrzejczyk with a series of stiff shots to the face. Jedrzejczyk’s right eye was about swollen shut in the fifth but she still landed some jabs that kept her hope alive of regaining her championship.

Namajunas took down Jedrzejczyk with 30 seconds left and the crowd roared in the waning moments of a sensational championship fight UFC needed following

Jedrzejczyk threw her arm around Namajunas for a hug at the end of the bout.

Nicknamed “Thug,” Namajunas was soundly booed as the challenger in the first fight at Madison Square Garden. But she left to cheers and a champion then and was clearly the people’s choice as she walked to the octagon five months later in Brooklyn. She shared a long embrace and a kiss with fiancee and training partner, Pat Barry.

UFC needed a fresh face in the women’s division with former champ and box office draw Ronda Rousey engaged in faux fighting in WWE. Rousey attended a WWE event Saturday night and was set to make pro wrestling debut in a bout Sunday at WrestleMania. She congratulated both Namajunas and Jedrzejczyk and said UFC was lucky to have them both.

White will be in New Orleans to root for Rousey at pro wrestling’s signature event.

Namajunas, who preaches the power of positivity over trash talking, proved her first win was no fluke.

“I’m just better, man,” she said.

UFC got the main events it needed after the entire card was thrown into disarray the past week.

After one of the UFC’s most chaotic weeks — with McGregor led from a police station in handcuffs to face several charges — the promotion got down Saturday night to what it does best: Put on a show.

Brooklyn was sold out with 17,026 fans at Barclays for a record gate of $3,007,108.12 for sporting events.

“Ridiculous considering the week we had,” White said.

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