The scene was set for Zabit Magomedsharipov to soar to the starry status that long has been expected of him. All he had to do to hold up his end, it seemed, was win on Saturday in Moscow, and he did so by unanimous decision. But the lasting impression left by this UFC Fight Night main event was of the Dagestani featherweight fading late and Calvin Kattar stalking him around the cage and dishing out damaging shots.
Magomedsharipov (18-2) held on to win his 14th straight fight on the strength of his control of the first two rounds. He had the flashier techniques, and while everything in his vast arsenal was not landing, the variety of his attack kept Kattar (20-4) at distance for much of those opening 10 minutes. It wasn't so much that Kattar's punches were missing, but rather that they were falling short of their mark because, until the final round, he was unable to consistently get close enough to pose a threat.
All three judges scored the bout 29-28 for the 28-year-old Magomedsharipov, who is No. 6 in the ESPN rankings at 145 pounds.
"Kattar is extremely tough," Magomedsharipov said through a translator right after the decision was announced, sounding so exhausted that he could barely get the words out. "I wasn't expecting him to pressure me that hard in the third."
The fight in Russia was a rare three-round main event because it was a rescheduled three-rounder from three weeks ago, a move made after Magomedsharipov had to pull out with a staph infection. He and Kattar originally were scheduled to meet in Boston, 30 miles from Kattar's Massachusetts hometown, but the fight was postponed until this weekend and moved 4,466 miles to CSKA Arena in Moscow. That's a good 1,000 miles from Magomedsharipov's home in Dagestan, but it still played out like a home game for him.
A "Zabit! Zabit!" chant broke out in the fight's opening seconds, and Magomedsharipov got right in rhythm, his array of kicks and spinning punches complemented by his boxing basics. Kattar was all meat-and-potatoes boxing, and when he landed, Zabit felt it. But for the most part, the Dagestani steered clear of trouble.
The momentum shifted in the third round, however, as Kattar closed in. Midway through the round, he landed a left hook that sent Magomedsharipov into retreat. The Dagestani looked up at the clock. There still was more than two minutes left. A small contingent of Kattar supporters in the building started a "Cal-vin Kat-tar! Cal-vin Kat-tar!" chant, which drew boos from the majority of the crowd.
Kattar, a 31-year-old who came in having won two straight and 12 of his past 13, remained in pursuit for much of the remaining time. He further sapped Magomedsharipov's energy with body shots and landed some blows to the head. But when Kattar went with a Zabit-style flying knee attempt in the final minute, Magomedsharipov countered with a takedown and was able to ride out the final seconds in top position on the canvas.
Was this victory enough to earn Magomedsharipov a shot at the winner of Max Holloway's Dec. 14 featherweight title defense against Alexander Volkanovski?
"I'm 6-0 in the UFC and obviously I would like to face the winner of Holloway vs. Volkanovski," Magomedsharipov said. "And I promise if I get that fight, I will be ready for five rounds. I wasn't able to prepare for this fight fully because I had a staph infection. But I promise I'll be better next time."