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UFC 223 editorial – The Max-Khabib-Ferguson Scramble

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The UFC had to spin on a dime to bring in Max Holloway in as a replacement for the cursed Ferguson-Nurmagomedov bout. Phil Mackenzie looks at some of the potential outcomes.

I wonder what it’s like when a major cancellation hits the UFC. Unimaginably chaotic, I would imagine. This vast promotional machine is blasting out content getting to people to turn up to one event, and suddenly that whole apparatus needs to turn on a moment’s notice. A replacement needs to be found, negotiated into an acceptable deal, and then the UFC needs to as much as physically possible to promote the new main event.

Posters have to be remade, every tweet, Facebook group and website switched over to the new fight. There will be ticket cancellations and enraged fans. The new fighter needs to be interviewed, and video packages cut back together, and promotional blurb from talking heads (Rogan, DMX, Attenborough etc) needs to be recorded.

As disappointed as many of us are with the news that Tony Ferguson was out of his fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov, it’s hard not to also feel some sympathy for the hard-working people behind the scenes who are in crunch mode down in the bowels of the machine, stuck at the futile task of convincing the world at large that while they said Fight A was actually the greatest thing in the world, that actually, no, it’s allll about Fight B.

Max Holloway vs Khabib Nurmagomedov is, despite all that, and fortunately, a legitimately great fight. It’s a stylistically fascinating bout between two of the most confident and gifted fighters in the UFC.

In the change, there are a number of potential results:

Good outcomes:

Khabib wins – new lightweight champion. He’s promotionally wonderful: a laconic, witty Russian with a snowballing style which makes him look unbeatable in wins. A potential bout with McGregor would be a clash of near-opposite styles, which works nicely to facilitate polarized analysis and, on a wider scale, watercooler shit-talk. He has massive support in Russia. This would explode further with the win. On the down side, he doesn’t fight very often, is financially independent, and hasn’t sounded enthusiastic about the prospect of a long MMA career. In many ways, he projects many of the same promotional strengths and weaknesses as current (post-Mayweather) McGregor, just on a smaller scale. Primarily among these is the idea that the UFC could potentially offer him a new fight and he’d just say: no.

Max wins – the new champ-champ. Young, confident and historically a fearless injury replacement fighter who took on whoever, whenever. He fights a lot, but… so did McGregor, and if Khabib retains some of the issues of current McGregor, then a Holloway win brings up some of the problems which arose once the Irishman beat Eddie Alvarez.

McGregor told the UFC that if he won two belts, he’d be fighting four times a year, and defending both, and probably believed it at the time. The unfortunate fact is that promotional and relational obligations mount up in knotty ways once someone wins a belt. A champion carries a lot on their back, and it’s tremendously difficult to balance two belts. Should Holloway win, as pointed out by our own Mookie Alexander, what happens to Brian Ortega?:

Unlike McGregor, Holloway still looks physically capable of making 145, but once someone has success at a higher weight class, it’s tough to ask them to put themself through hell to go back down again, and physically ping-pong back and forth between classes.

In addition, one of the benefits of Nurmagomedov and Ferguson is that they had tremendous success which was in no way related to McGregor. In the event that he no longer came back to the UFC, they would at least have a championship lineage that was starting from scratch. That wouldn’t be the case with a Holloway win, who has lost to McGregor.

However, Holloway has undeniably attracted more attention from the absent Irish lightweight champion. In taking both of McGregor’s former belts, the younger fighter could be seen as taking everything that McGregor had worked for. A potential fight would crown the champ champ champ champ, who would would presumably be able to reach as-yet unseen levels of doing whatever the fook he wanted.

Bad outcomes:

Someone else gets injured: it’s a possibility

Scrap the fight altogether. Were it Holloway, I could conceivably see them trying to slot in something like Poirier vs Nurmagomedov, but sometimes you just have to concede that fate hates you.

Someone misses weight

The biggest worry at the moment. Khabib has done it before, but I would gauge Holloway as a bigger threat right now. Modern weight-cutting is a long and complicated process, and while 10 lbs is sizable leeway, Holloway is reportedly coming down from north of 165lbs. He will have no time to train, and will likely be bouncing back and forth between promotion and cutting weight, which sounds like hell on earth.

A weight miss is one of the worst-case scenarios. In this case, the guy who misses can’t win the vacant(?) belt. So the UFC will quickly have to figure out the following:

1) Strip McGregor, and have the lightweight belt potentially vacant. Ferguson and McGregor will be furious at their titles being consigned to the void for no reason.

2) Say that McGregor retains for the time being. This centralizes the necessity of McGregor coming back and weakens the UFC further in negotiations.

3) Go back on White’s statement and say that no, Ferguson is actually the full lightweight champ. It might be hard to get either Holloway or Nurmagomedov to sign off in this case, although there’s a significant chance that these options have been folded into the contracts that these guys have already signed. An unlikely option.

So it might look a bit like this:

Out of the four PPVs in 2018, only one of them has ended up with the headliner it started with.

This fight was (at worst) the second biggest on the list of the UFC’s fights which they’ve booked this year after Miocic-Cormier, and their chance to build a new narrative for their best weight class. That idea seems if not destroyed, then at least badly damaged. This new headliner slots into the recent strategy from the UFC, which can be roughly summed up as: make money as quickly as possible, the future be damned.

I once wrote about how Max Holloway was often used as a commodity to build other prospects (Fili, McGregor himself, Bektic). He was given an uncommonly rough path to the top, but currently the Hawaiian represents a kind of platonic ideal of what a UFC champion should be: young, exciting, willing to step up and fight anyone on a moment’s notice. It seems that the UFC still kind of views him as that expendable resource.

Holloway obviously doesn’t view himself that way, and again, this fight is about the best thing which could be salvaged from a terrible situation. But it’s also noticeable that a bunch of belts have been doing weird things in the UFC lately, and this represents yet another one which is going wandering. The UFC is getting a reputation for chasing sugar-rush highs, and it’s going to be interesting to see whether this latest injection of excitement is going to generate more problems down the road.

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