At this point there’s enough bad blood between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor to fill the great meteor crater in the Arizona desert, and that’s a good thing if you’re looking to set up a rematch. But bad blood alone isn’t enough to forget about the one-sidedness of the first act. Nurmagomedov owned the main event at UFC 229 — essentially from horn to horn — and got a pretty clear finish. If there was one thing that stood out on Saturday night, it was that McGregor’s swagger isn’t the same when he’s fighting from his butt. He’s much better on his feet, a comfort that Nurmagomedov will never afford him.
Still, it’s understandable that McGregor, a competitor with considerable sway in the UFC’s business operations, would like a mulligan. Why wouldn’t he? Fifty million dollars and a memory-searing post-fight brawl have a way of inviting sequels. Now that he has faced Nurmagomedov once and gained first-hand experience, perhaps he thinks he can make the adjustments to change the outcome. All of that is easy to understand. He simply wouldn’t be Conor McGregor if he didn’t think that way.
But rematches work best when they become a function of necessity or — at very least — get booked in the spirit of resolution. The first fight was clear enough that a second fight would just be to appease a frustrated party, and to telegraph a shit ton of money. Besides, there are two words that endanger Khabib Nurmagomedov’s reign as the lightweight champion right now, which actually have nothing to do with the Irish.
You know, the (no longer) interim champion who shreds people like a hawkbill blade and leaves them in pools of their own blood. If the main event didn’t top off with a melee, here’s guessing the headlines would be writing themselves this week. Nurmagomedov and Ferguson — pending the any disciplinary measures the NAC might take against for former for his part in the melee — should be booked once again to do battle. The fifth time’s the charm. It’s true that it hasn’t worked in the past, but it has grown in magnitude with each booking — and it is the only logical fight where doubt would be cast on the outcome.
Ferguson proved for the 11th straight time that he is a on another level as fighter on Saturday, a slashing, never-ceasing demon of pure pressure and enmity. Anthony Pettis, a dynamic striker with sneaky good submission skills, stood in with him as long as he could. He tried to last, did his level damndest to inflict some pain, and he showed heart. They traded, they smiled through blood, they freelanced artfully with the arrays of combos and kicks. Towards the end of the second round, Pettis proved a warrior in spirit alone. He took the brunt of a sustained attack from Ferguson that would have downed a lesser man. He was getting pieced up with volume and power, and every time he returned fire it was like an SOS that he was in trouble, about to sink.
His corner was forced to throw in the towel between the second and third round, as Pettis had evidently broken his hand. Otherwise, the marks of war were all over his face. In fact, his face was like so many others who’ve crossed old “Spike and Shades” Tony Ferguson of late. Somebody posted a pastiche on Reddit showing the faces of six fighters after their run-ins with Ferguson, and it was like a double-truck horror ad in Fangoria. All of them wear crimson masks, like they’ve just gone through hell.
After Saturday night, to put Ferguson in there against Nurmagomedov would be five degrees more insane than it was the last time the UFC tried to book the bout. At this point, it’s inconceivable that either man can lose. That is the kind of thing that pumps blood through the heart of a fight fan.
The good thing about a possible McGregor-Khabib rematch is that the rivalry is etched in stone now. As the Nevada commission goes through the process of handing out punishment to each man for fomenting a near riot in Las Vegas, the bad blood will only darken. And the UFC can afford to let it boil. Whenever McGregor comes back, the trilogy fight with Nate Diaz is sitting out for the taking. Nobody’s going to complain about seeing that third fight booked now, especially if Diaz ends up stealing the show against Dustin Poirier at UFC 230 in New York.
That fight would do big numbers even if both Diaz and McGregor are coming off losses.
But the fight to make, the one that has been on the imagination for the last few years yet never been realized, is a fight between Ferguson and Nurmagomedov. The Blue Balls rivalry of the century, and the greatest collision of momentums possible in a division full of beasts. That’s the fight right there. And, if it does get booked after so many attempts to get it done before, here’s guessing that when Bruce Buffer screams “It’s time!” there will be goosebumps upon finally hear it.