After playing coy for months about the status of the UFC lightweight championship, company president Dana White finally made a clear declaration in the wake of Khabib Nurmagomedov’s dominant win at UFC 223.
“That’s it,” he said in the event’s post-fight press conference. “That’s the only belt.”
That seems unequivocal. So did the words of the UFC announce team, and of Octagon announcer Bruce Buffer, both of whom called Nurmagomedov the “undisputed” UFC lightweight champion.
While the promotion has finally cemented its official stance on the matter, Nurmagomedov’s belt is hardly without questioners to its legitimacy. Chief among them are Ireland’s most famous son, Conor McGregor, and the American bogeyman, Tony Ferguson. In the fairly recent past, both of them wore gold and earned consideration as the best 155-pounder in the world. Nurmagomedov’s win, though impressive, erases none of what either of those two have done. It’s more like 1A, 1B and 1C. In the words of Nurmagomedov, a “big drama show” indeed.
To be clear, this is a great problem for the UFC to have. An absence of contenders is a nightmare; a surplus is a gift. Better still are multiple, credible claims to throne that come with heaping dollops of personality.
Perhaps the top beneficiary of this is Nurmagomedov, who now has two ready-made fights with worthy adversaries. But the debate will also reach further than that. It will lift the profiles of both Nurmagomedov and Ferugson, add eyeballs to a Russian market the UFC has been keen to explore, and generate interest in a time where compelling divisional situations have been slow to develop. It’s a win for all sides.
This development does not absolve the UFC of bungling the whole situation in the first place. It was absurd they let McGregor hold on to the lightweight belt for over 500 days within stripping him, and ridiculous that they’re stripping Ferguson for getting injured while helping them promote an event. It only means we can make delicious lemonade out of all these ripe lemons.
Nurmagomedov certainly shouldn’t be discounted for what happened. All he’s done is become a riveting character in the fight world. He has a stoic demeanor which pairs well with his propensity to utter terrifying things and to display an aura of unbreakable invincibility inside the cage. Against late replacement Al Iaquinta, he scored six takedowns and landed 172 strikes, per FightMetric, besting his opponent by 129 in the latter category.
That kind of lopsided tally is becoming more norm than aberration for him. All of his last four fights have been complete routs, and in them, he’s landed 573 strikes to his opponents’ 106. Those are numbers matched only by the likes of longtime flyweight kingpin Demetrious Johnson at a championship level. Yet obviously there is a large difference between the two. While Johnson is entrenched at the top and universally viewed as the greatest flyweight walking the planet, Nurmagomedov is still a walking Rorschach test; what you see while staring at him remains quite subjective.
There are those who look at him and see a generational talent with a mauling, elite ground game, and there are others who see a still-developing resume and defensive holes there to be exploited by the division’s very best.
Determining which of those viewpoints is the correct one is a money proposition for the UFC, and for each of the fighters claiming lightweight supremacy.
The kicker to this is the complication added on Thursday by the boneheaded and possibly felonious actions of McGregor, who claims a brilliant mind for business yet put in peril his own multi-millions as well as the opportunity to make more by throwing a steel hand truck through a bus window.
His target was Nurmagomedov. To reach him, all he had to do was wait until the end of Saturday night and challenge him any which way—at the venue, through Twitter, even with smoke signals—and he almost certainly would have had his wish granted. Instead, he and the UFC will have to sort their way through this McGregor-made mess before determining how to professionally proceed.
In the interim—pun intended—Ferguson may step into the void. While the prospect of attempting to match him with Nurmagomedov for the fifth time may give White and the MMA universe the shakes, Ferguson and his 10-fight win streak deserve nothing less than a title match upon his return, regardless of when that may be, and who is holding the belt at the time.
The pairing may seem to be snake-bitten, but as any teacher of drama will tell you, the longer an antagonist and protagonist build conflict, the more intense the resulting clash between them will be.
UFC 223 was supposed to crate clarity. It failed to do that, but in some ways, what it created is potentially better. There is opportunity, and there is interest, stoked by fans around the world.
There is nothing undisputed about Nurmagomedov’s claim to No. 1, even if you believe he’s the best lightweight in the world. The same holds true for Ferguson and McGregor. Whether you favor Nurmagomedov’s papakha, Ferguson’s sunglasses, or McGregor’s pinstripe “F**k you” suit, there is a legitimate case to be made for each man. That may make things a bit confusing, but it also makes things compelling, exciting and fun, like a big drama show.