Is Bo Nickal the LeBron James of MMA? UFC may have won the lottery with newest signing

LAS VEGAS — There are first overall draft picks, and then there are guys like LeBron James, Peyton Manning and Sidney Crosby. They are the greats among the great, guys who aren’t only stars but change the fortunes of the franchise and the city that lands them.

"Dana White’s Contender Series" has essentially turned into the draft for the UFC, and on Tuesday, in the finale of Season 6, it looks like the UFC may have nabbed the next James, Manning or Crosby.

Bo Nickal is so talented, so confident and so impressive that after finishing Donovan Beard in just 52 seconds with a triangle choke Tuesday at Apex to finally earn a UFC contract, he casually called out Khamzat Chimaev.

That’s what the greats do, because they believe in themselves so thoroughly.

Of course, White shot that idea down in his post-fight news conference, but if Nickal turns out to be who he appears to be, it won’t be long before a fight of that caliber is actually made for him.

James was one of the NBA’s best players before his rookie season was 2 months old. The same was true of guys like Manning and Crosby, as well.

Nickal gives every indication that he’s not going to just be your garden variety first-round pick, but an impact performer of that caliber.

White didn’t give Nickal a contract when he won his first Contender Series fight in 1:02 of the first round in the opening week of Season 6, but brought him back for another go. He was clearly vindicated by Nickal’s performance, but also blown away by it.

“My God,” White said. “Incredible, man. The kid’s incredible. He looks great. Obviously, this was a big step up in competition. He fought someone 7-1, reach advantage, height advantage. The kid’s confidence in himself is unbelievable. His game is amazingly well-rounded. Yeah, he was impressive.”

Nickal was the 2019 Hodge Trophy winner at Penn State after a collegiate wrestling career in which he won three NCAA championships and was a four-time All-American. He’s made the world’s most difficult sport look easy, winning his three MMA fights in 33, 62 and 52 seconds, respectively.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - SEPTEMBER 27: Bo Nickal reacts after his submission victory over Donovan Beard in a middleweight fight during Dana White's Contender Series season six, week ten at UFC APEX on September 27, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Bo Nickal needed just 52 seconds to secure a win and a UFC contract Tuesday during "Dana White's Contender Series." (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC) (Chris Unger via Getty Images)

He comes from a highly athletic family, so he’s got the genes that could help him go a long way in the sport. His grandfather and father were wrestling coaches, his father played college football and his mother not only played college basketball, she also did some amateur boxing. They were all quickly on board when he said he wanted to fight, and it’s proving to be a shrewd choice.

White said he’ll move him like he does any other prospect though Nickal isn’t like any other prospect. He’s a guy that is going to be making noise at the highest level very soon.

“Everyone I’m close with knows what I’m capable of and knows what I can do, but when the time comes, more and more people will continue to jump on the bandwagon,” Nickal said. “It’s about developing and getting better and sharpening all my skills.

“I’m always going to have a better wrestling base than anybody I fight. But at the end of the day, that’s not going to be enough to become UFC champion and No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, which is my goal. So I need to sharpen my wrestling and all of my other skills.”

His other skills were on display Tuesday right from the get-go. There was a joke among reporters at Octagonside about how quickly Nickal would shoot for the takedown. Instead, he dropped Beard with a crunching left and rolled to his back to be able to slap on the fight-ending triangle choke.

On a night of brilliant performances — Mateus Mendonca looked amazing and he and Rafael Estevam, Jack Jennkins and Sam Patterson all earned contracts — Nickal stood head and shoulders above the rest. And no, he wasn’t joking about facing Chimaev.

“I feel that’s a good matchup,” Nickal said of Chimaev. “Obviously, he’s a high-level grappler and a high-level fighter. He’s one of the top fighters not only in the division, but also in the UFC. I have a lot of respect for his skills, but I also know what I’m about.”

What he seems to be about is being one of the most talented fighters in the company’s history. He has to turn that potential into performance, clearly, but he’s off to a good start at this stage.