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Russian lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov returns to UFC octagon in December match in Las Vegas

Khabib Nurmagomedov speaks during a news conference on March 2 in Las Vegas.
Khabib Nurmagomedov speaks during a news conference on March 2 in Las Vegas.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

Unbeaten Russian lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov is scheduled to make his first appearance in a UFC octagon in more than 13 months when he meets Edson Barboza in the co-main event of UFC 219 on Dec. 30 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

Nurmagomedov (24-0) is one of the UFC’s most gifted — and enigmatic — athletes.

The No. 2-rated lightweight seemed headed for certain stardom after dominating top-10 lightweight Michael Johnson by third-round submission in November 2016 at Madison Square Garden.

Nurmagomedov had backstage words with Conor McGregor during the event, and was on the short list of possible opponents for the popular Irishman.

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McGregor announced after winning the lightweight belt that night that he was taking a break to await the May birth of his son, so that led the UFC to arrange an interim lightweight title fight between Nurmagomedov and Orange County’s Tony Ferguson.

But Nurmagomedov fell ill before his March weigh-in and withdrew from the fight, leaving Ferguson to return in October to claim the interim lightweight belt while McGregor remained sidelined after losing his lucrative boxing match against Floyd Mayweather Jr.

Now, the UFC’s expectation is McGregor and Ferguson will fight March 3 in Las Vegas, with Nurmagomedov positioned to be in line for a summer title shot should he defeat Barboza.

“He’s in the best shape of his life,” said Ali Abdelaziz, Nurmagomedov’s manager.

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But Abdelaziz remains skeptical on McGregor.

“I don’t think Conor will fight [Nurmagomedov], but Khabib will fight Ferguson if he wins. … It’s supposed to be Conor versus Ferguson March 3, but I don’t think he and the UFC are on the same page now. I can see Conor choosing Justin Gaethje if he wins,” over former champion Eddie Alvarez at Saturday’s UFC 218 card in Detroit.

Brazil’s Barboza (19-4) has won three consecutive fights dating to a December 2015 second-round submission loss to Ferguson.

The Nurmagomedov-Barboza fight will serve as a co-main event under the first women’s featherweight title defense by Orange County’s Cris “Cyborg” Justino versus former bantamweight champion Holly Holm.

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lance.pugmire@latimes.com

@latimespugmire

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