The UFC has a blockbuster lightweight title fight set up for UFC 223. The only problem is no one knows which belt will be on the line.
Lightweight champion Conor McGregor hasn’t defended since winning the crown from Eddie Alvarez in late 2016. His absence from MMA to pursue a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather ended up putting the division in disarray momentarily.
But things finally have some clarity – at least when it comes to the division’s top contenders. Tony Ferguson came to the UFC by winning the Ultimate Fighter reality show as a welterweight. He dropped to lightweight, a division he’d fought in early in his career, and won the interim title from Kevin Lee. Ferguson has not lost a fight since 2012. He’s currently 23-3 and is on a ten-fight winning streak.
His opponent is a man who is undefeated in the sport and has arguably never lost a single round. Khabib Nurmagomedov has emerged as one of MMA’s most prolific talents, using his high-level grappling background to dominate opponent after opponent. Nurmagomedov was originally supposed to face Ferguson for the interim title instead of Lee, but a bad weight cut put him in the hospital. Now healthy and with a new nutritionist on his team, his sights are now set on the title.
While the fight has all the makings of a marquee clash and should logically be for the undisputed title, UFC president Dana White has continued to avoid the subject of stripping McGregor.
White said: “I said in the last press conference (in Boston): That fight will be for the title. It’s not for the interim title. That fight is for the real title.” When pressured about whether that statement meant McGregor would be officially stripped, White replied with only a meek “right.”
The passive approach is unusual for White, who is known for his outspoken demeanor and his business-first attitude. However, his resistance to stripping McGregor may have some strategy behind it. McGregor is a massive draw for the UFC, and White may want to keep the title on him in hopes of speeding up his return.
There’s also the fact that the clash between Ferguson and Nurmagomedov seems to be cursed. The fight has been scheduled three times and has fallen through on as many occasions. Their first fight was scheduled in 2015, but Nurmagomedov was forced to withdraw due to an injury. Ferguson suffered the same fate when the bout was rescheduled in 2016, and last year saw Nurmagomedov’s unsuccessful weight cut derail the fight once more.
While Nurmagomedov has looked incredibly dominant in his fights, Ferguson’s style presents some interesting problems. He’s great with elbow strikes and submissions from his back, giving him arguably the perfect style to counter Nurmagomedov’s grappling prowess.
White has openly stated he knows McGregor may never return after pocketing the type of payday he got from boxing Floyd Mayweather. But he also said if McGregor did return, he’d like to see him face the winner of Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson.