Five bookings, five cancellations. What if Tony and Khabib had actually fought?

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)

What if it had actually happened?

Yeah, I'm talking fantasy here, dreaming up a world in which Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson did the impossible and stepped inside a cage and fought.

You know, just like they were scheduled to do -- but did not do -- in 2015.

And 2016. And 2017. And 2018.

And like they won't do on Saturday.

Ferguson was all set to challenge for Nurmagomedov's lightweight championship at UFC 249. But the coronavirus pandemic changed those plans and a lot of other plans around the world.

In the wake of Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson being canceled for the fifth time, it's reasonable to wonder whether these two will ever make it into the Octagon together. But why dwell on the negative? Let's instead look at their (almost) shared history from the opposite vantage point.

Imagine that the first, second, third or fourth Khabib-Tony fight happened as scheduled.

How differently would these two prizefighting careers have unfolded? Who else would have been affected?

Let's explore:

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson I

Scheduled: Dec. 11, 2015, at the Season 22 finale of "The Ultimate Fighter" at The Chelsea at The Cosmopolitan, Las Vegas

These two already were among the lightweight elite. Nurmagomedov was 22-0 with six UFC wins but had not competed in nearly two years because of a knee injury. Ferguson was riding a six-fight win streak. They were on a collision course to determine who would be the next challenger to champion Rafael dos Anjos.

Canceled: Nurmagomedov pulled out of the bout six weeks before fight night because of a rib injury. "I want to apologize to my fans," he wrote on Instagram. "I broke my ribs, and again I am out of the fight. I really wanted to come back, I'm not sure if I will ever come back. Thanks to my fans and sponsors. Praise to Allah."

What happened instead: Talk about a stylistic curveball. Nurmagomedov, a lead blanket of relentless ground-and-pound, was replaced by Edson Barboza, one of the best pure strikers in the division. It meant a big adjustment for Ferguson and a huge opportunity for Barboza. A win here could have propelled the Brazilian past both Ferguson and Nurmagomedov in the chase for a title shot. But Ferguson put a vicious end to that possibility, bloodying up Barboza with sharp elbows before finishing him with a D'Arce choke in the second round.

But what if Nurmagomedov did fight Ferguson and ...

Khabib beat Tony: Dos Anjos was set to make his first title defense exactly one week after this bout. Perfect timing for Nurmagomedov. The addition of one more notch to his unbeaten mark -- especially if that notch symbolized the red-hot Ferguson -- would have boosted the Dagestani wrestling machine to the front of the line of title contenders. RDA ended up losing his belt seven months later to Eddie Alvarez. It could have been Khabib.

Tony beat Khabib: Practically everything said above about Nurmagomedov would also have applied to Ferguson. Ruining the Dagestani's unbeaten run would have been a spectacular feather in his cap. So yeah, instead of dos Anjos having the strap taken away by Alvarez, it could have been Tony.

The rest of the chaos, in theory: If Barboza hadn't been called upon for that Ferguson fight, his career trajectory still would have zeroed in on the top of the division, and his path still would have intersected with those of Khabib and Tony. Barboza ended up losing to both. But while his alternate reality might not have looked much different from actual reality, Barboza's eventual fight with either Nurmagomedov or Ferguson could very well have had a shiny belt on the line.

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson II

Scheduled: April 16, 2016, at UFC on Fox: Teixeira vs. Evans at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida

With Nurmagomedov's rib injury healed, his date with Ferguson was rebooked -- same stakes as last time. Ferguson was even hotter now, having finished Barboza on Dec. 11, 2015, for his seventh win in a row. Dos Anjos needed a challenger for the summer, and this bout was booked to determine who would be next on the champ's dance card.

Canceled: This time it was Ferguson dropping out. Less than two weeks from the fight, he had to halt training after the discovery of blood in his lung. "I Will Heal Up," he wrote on Twitter. "I Will be Back."

What happened instead: Welcome to the UFC, Darrell Horcher. The sheet-metal worker from Pennsylvania was 12-1 and a champion in a regional promotion in the Northeast after a short run in Bellator. When he got the call to make his UFC debut, the opportunity might best have been defined by the number nine: Horcher had nine days to prepare for Nurmagomedov (good luck with that, fella), and Khabib was a 9-1 favorite. The bout played out as expected. Nurmagomedov outlanded Horcher 75-6 in significant strikes, mostly from top position on the ground, and won by TKO in the second round.

But what if Nurmagomedov did fight Ferguson and ...

Tony beat Khabib: One day before the Nurmagomedov-Horcher late-replacement fight, the UFC announced that dos Anjos' next title defense would be against Eddie Alvarez. No chance Alvarez, who was on a more modest roll, would have been granted that shot if Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson was still on. And if Ferguson handed Nurmagomedov his first career defeat while running his own winning streak to eight, the chance at a championship would have been Tony's.

Khabib beat Tony: In the real world, it wasn't until April 2018 that Nurmagomedov became champion when he beat Al Iaquinta. Had he fought and defeated Ferguson on this night to run his record to 23-0, he could have pushed up his championship timetable significantly.

The rest of the chaos, in theory: If Alvarez didn't get his title shot, and instead it was Nurmagomedov or Ferguson dethroning RDA -- a man whom both defeated -- then it would have been one of those guys holding the lightweight belt on Nov. 12, 2016, when featherweight king Conor McGregor came looking to add a second strap to his collection. Under those circumstances, would there ever have been a champ-champ? If "The Notorious" was unable to get past Khabib or Tony to become the trailblazer for holding titles in two weight classes simultaneously, would the UFC have been as open to the concept when Daniel Cormier, Henry Cejudo or Amanda Nunes proposed such a division-clogging pursuit? It had never been done before McGregor tried it.

And if McGregor had fought Nurmagomedov or Ferguson for the title in late 2016, it's almost certain there never would have been a bus attack or a postfight melee. Nurmagomedov wouldn't have called McGregor a chicken for not fighting him. McGregor teammate Artem Lobov wouldn't have responded with an insult of his own, so Nurmagomedov wouldn't have slapped Lobov and McGregor wouldn't have responded with the bus attack like he did on April 5, 2018. Then Nurmagomedov wouldn't have started a melee after beating McGregor on Nov. 6, 2018, so no suspensions for Nurmagomedov or McGregor.

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson III

Scheduled: March 4, 2017, at UFC 209 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas

At stake was an interim title, put in play by the UFC because its real champion, McGregor, was off chasing a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather.

Canceled: They were this close to getting to the cage this time. One day before fight night, Nurmagomedov was hospitalized because of a weight cut gone bad. It was too late to book a replacement foe for Ferguson, so the fight was canceled altogether. Tony took the news remarkably well, tweeting, "I Hope U Feel Better Khabib, I Pray For Your Recovery, I Mean It, Get Better."

What happened instead: Ferguson choked out Kevin Lee on Oct. 7, 2017, for an interim title. Nurmagomedov made his return two months later and showed no ill effects from being out for over a year. He smothered and bludgeoned Barboza for the better part of three rounds. But with McGregor still in possession of the title and Ferguson now the interim champ, Khabib was back in a familiar position, playing a waiting game.

But what if Nurmagomedov did fight Ferguson and ...

Khabib beat Tony: Given what we now know about McGregor's title reigns -- he was into winning belts, not defending them -- it might not have made a lot of difference if this night's fight had gone ahead as planned and Nurmagomedov had captured the interim championship. Then again, a challenge the size of a 23-0 Khabib might have intrigued Conor to the point where he set aside his boxing aspirations and instead signed up for a champ vs. interim champ showdown.

And even if the Irishman still preferred to cash in with the Mayweather spectacle, it's possible the UFC would have been so drawn in by the magnitude of Conor vs. Khabib that the promotion would not have given McGregor the necessary go-ahead for his sweet science detour, which ended up taking place that August.

Tony beat Khabib: I don't think Ferguson -- even on a 10-fight winning streak, the last victory giving Nurmagomedov his first career loss -- would have enticed McGregor away from his pursuit of a Floyd fight. So that likely would have left Ferguson as an interim champ waiting for the UFC to strip Conor so Tony could go for the real belt. And that's pretty much where Ferguson ended up seven months later, when he beat Lee for the faux strap. The difference: While in reality Tony's fight for the real title was to be against Khabib (see Nurmagomedov-Ferguson IV, below), he presumably would have had to do it against someone else in this scenario, having already gotten past Khabib.

The rest of the chaos, in theory: If there's no bus attack, there's presumably no flying glass to cut up Michael Chiesa's face and get in Ray Borg's eye. That would have spun off a whole different reality. Chiesa's fight with Anthony Pettis would have gone on as scheduled. Instead, it was rebooked for five months later, Chiesa missed weight, and Pettis ended up submitting him. Chiesa announced at weigh-ins that he was moving to welterweight, and he has since gone 3-0 in that division. Would his jump up in weight have been hastened?

As for Borg, he really could have used that UFC 223 payday. His bout with Brandon Moreno already had been delayed a couple of months because of a Moreno injury. Then, after the April 7 cancellation, the two were rescheduled for a month later, but that meeting was canceled because Borg's infant son had to undergo surgery. Borg would not fight again until March 2019.

And then there's Lobov, the McGregor training partner who was removed from his UFC 223 bout with Alex Caceres because of his role in the bus attack outside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. As it turned out, Lobov would fight just once more in the UFC, a loss to Michael Johnson that October. But if there had been no Barclays incident, and Lobov got his fight with Caceres rather than spending a full year on the shelf, might Lobov's career not have fizzled to the point where he ended up in a bare-knuckle bout with Paulie Malignaggi?

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson IV

Scheduled: April 7, 2018, at UFC 223 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York

The real 155-pound belt was up for grabs, as the UFC tired of waiting for McGregor to defend a title, any title.

Canceled: A little over a week before fight night, Ferguson was at a TV studio for an interview when he tripped on a cable and tore a knee ligament, requiring surgery. "Words Can't Explain How Hurt, Frustrated, Angry And In Disbelief I Am Right Now," he tweeted.

What happened instead: Dana White went to work finding a replacement for one half of his main event -- again. Featherweight champ Max Holloway accepted the short-notice booking, and that was the plan until weigh-in day. That's when the New York State Athletic Commission shut down Holloway's weight cut, deeming him medically unfit to compete. The UFC tried to put Pettis in the fight, as he was without an opponent after Chiesa had been among those injured in McGregor's bus attack the day before. But Al Iaquinta ended up getting the call, and he took Nurmagomedov the distance. However, the judges were not so impressed with Iaquinta -- there were two 50-43 scores -- and the Dagestani was champion.

But what if Nurmagomedov did fight Ferguson and ...

Tony beat Khabib: In this scenario, presumably, the bus attack still would have happened, right? Nurmagomedov still would have been staying at the fighter hotel, after all, and still would have run across Lobov. And that mildly antagonistic interaction still would have triggered Conor and friends to fly across the Atlantic to stand up for their guy. But imagine how different things would have been, two nights later, if Ferguson were the one walking out of the Octagon after UFC 223 with the championship belt. Would the Nurmagomedov-McGregor bout still have happened six months later, except as a nontitle grudge match? Or would Conor have reset his sights on Ferguson and the belt, with an "I'll deal with you later" attitude toward Khabib? A lot of moving parts here.

Khabib beat Tony: Things probably would have unfolded much the way they actually did for Nurmagomedov. Next up would have been a title defense against McGregor, and Khabib still would have leaped over the cage and set off a melee. "It's a very bad night," Dana White said at the time. "Super duper, really super bad."

The rest of the chaos, in theory: Holloway earned a ton of respect simply by agreeing to step up against Nurmagomedov. Iaquinta showed his mettle too, especially since he did not hit 155 pounds at weigh-ins and therefore was not eligible to become champion should he have defeated Khabib. Had neither Max nor Iaquinta been called to duty at UFC 223, what would have changed? Not a whole lot, in terms of fan perception. Everyone already knew what those two fighters were made of.

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson V


Dana White: UFC 249 is not happening

UFC president Dana White tells Brett Okamoto that UFC 249 will not happen as previously scheduled.

And then came the fifth Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson booking: the main event of UFC 249, originally set for Saturday in Brooklyn but eventually moved ... to a secret location.

Once international borders closed with Khabib training at home in Dagestan, the UFC's most hotly awaited fight was off yet again ... but not forgotten.

Justin Gaethje was tabbed as a late replacement as White vowed to keep the card on schedule until he ultimately postponed the event.

No one is sure what happens next, but White did say he hasn't given up on Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson.

"It's the fight people want to see," White said. "Unfortunately, we're going to have to wait a little bit longer."