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Nothing Settled in UFC Lightweight Title Picture

April 9, 2018 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
UFC 223 Khabib Nurmagomedov Khabib Nurmagomedov's

After a wild week, the UFC is back to having one lightweight champion. Despite that, we’re no closer to any sense of clarity at the top of the division.

Capping a week that saw Khabib Nurmagomedov’s opponent changed from Tony Ferguson to Max Holloway to Anthony Pettis before finally arriving at Al Iaquinta, Nurmagomedov dominated Iaquinta and had the lightweight belt strapped around his waist. With Nurmagomedov’s victory, both Conor McGregor, who took the lightweight title in November 2016 and never defended it, and Tony Ferguson, who won the interim lightweight title in October 2017, were stripped of their belts.

Stripping McGregor was the right call. Without a deal in place for his return, it was time to move on. Stripping Ferguson is silly, even if he only became interim champion due to UFC’s perversion for creating titles out of thin air to headline pay-per-views when the promotion has no actual title fights. However, it’s apparent UFC decided months ago that they would leave Brooklyn this weekend with only one lightweight champion. That’s why we ended up with Nurmagomedov vs. Iaquinta with the title on the line (for Nurmagomedov at least).

Nurmagomedov dominated the fight from bell to bell. Rounds one and two were typical Nurmagomedov, with takedowns, control, submission threats, and ground and pound. Two judges scored both of those rounds 10-8. In the ensuing rounds, Nurmagomedov was largely content to strike with Iaquinta. His standup left a lot to be desired, but he was very comfortable there, and displayed major improvements compared his early UFC bouts. Although Iaquinta is more reputed as a striker, Nurmagomedov busted him up on the feet and won every round.

Surprisingly, Nurmagomedov’s takedown efforts in the final rounds were largely ineffective. In these rounds, we didn’t see the relentless takedown attempts that have led Nurmagomedov to so much success. Perhaps he was too tired for such aggression, or maybe it was a testament to his comfort on the feet.

While Nurmagomedov was never in danger and always dominant, it was not the grab-and-smash performance most expected. During and after the fight, there were questions about how Saturday’s Nurmagomedov would have fared against Ferguson or Holloway. I wouldn’t reach much into it. After a week like the one Nurmagomedov went through with the opponent changes and general chaos, almost no fighter is going to perform at his or her best. Two years ago, Anderson Silva stepped in on almost no notice to fight reigning light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier. There is no debate that that version of Cormier was far superior to that 41-year-old version of Silva. But while Cormier dominated, it was one of his least impressive performances.

However, in part because of Nurmagomedov’s less-destructive-than-anticipated performance, I have more interest than ever in seeing him fight McGregor, Ferguson, and even Holloway.

With the exceptions of McGregor vs. Nate Diaz III and McGregor vs. Georges St-Pierre, Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor is the biggest fight the UFC can make. If it happens, UFC will benefit from McGregor’s rampage on Thursday when he tried to fight a bus. However, it shouldn’t be the next fight for Nurmagomedov.

McGregor should face some kind of sanction from the UFC for the bus attack. Obviously, the UFC isn’t going to release him. However, there will be some slap on the wrist that will likely delay his return (assuming he was planning to return in the fall). As long as Nurmagomedov can return before the year is over, the fight to make is Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson.

Maybe it’s fated to never occur, but as long as Nurmagomedov and Ferguson remain the top two active lightweights in the UFC, what can UFC do but keep trying to make the fight? It’s the most interesting lightweight clash in MMA history, and there will always be unfinished business as long as the two are left apart.

When Ferguson fell out of the fight on April 1, which marked the fourth time the fight has fallen part after being announced, UFC President Dana White stated he would never make the fight again. That in itself should give away their next move. At that time, the UFC’s idea was probably to book the Nurmagomedov vs. Holloway winner against Conor McGregor, but Thursday’s chaos puts Ferguson firmly back in place as the next fight for Nurmagomedov.

After Max Holloway’s failed weight cut last week, he falls down Nurmagomedov’s list of potential opponents, but who wouldn’t want to see if Nurmagomedov can withstand Holloway’s pace for five rounds?

These are all fights that will tell us a lot about Nurmagomedov. He is obviously a great fighter—his perfect 26-0 record is a testament to that—but he still has some work to do to prove himself against elite opponents. Beating one of them will be a statement. Beating two of them, or all of them, would be legendary.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.