The UFC’s lightweight division is in for quite an interesting 2019 following the decisions made by the NSAC during yesterday’s UFC 229 hearing.
To get a better understanding of the exact punishments given to Khabib Nurmagomedov, Conor McGregor, and the others involved, you can take a look at our original report here.
The important points that are of relevance here are the six and nine-month suspensions handed to McGregor and Nurmagomedov respectively as well as the claim by the Russian champion that he will not fight until his teammates Zubaira Tukhugov and Abubakar Nurmagomedov are also free to do so – following their pair of year-long suspensions.
Whether he decides to take the NSAC up on their offer of shortening his ban to six-months upon completing an anti-bullying PSA is quite frankly irrelevant it would seem.
According to ESPN‘s Ariel Helwani, Khabib is now looking at a return to the octagon at an event Madison Square Garden, New York in November and if he sticks to his word, will never compete on Nevada soil again.
Lightweight has been the UFC’s most stunted division in terms of its championship belt’s progress in recent years for many reasons.
The former featherweight king McGregor’s decision to skip the queue and fight then-champ Eddie Alvarez in a super-fight was a bout that saw him enter a reign of inactivity in the sport – all while holding the division up.
His fight with Floyd Mayweather was a pursuit that nobody can blame him for but following his November 2016 victory at UFC 205, it would be close to 18 months before the undisputed lightweight title was contested again.
In the time between Conor’s two most recent attempts at the 155lb strap – Khabib had been set up to take on one of the promotion’s most in-form fighters, Tony Ferguson, in a bout that would finally crown the greatest natural lightweight on the planet. We all know how that turned out.
That fight aside, with his wins over Edson Barboza, Al Iaquinta, and, of course, McGregor all falling within the space of ten months, it really did appear as though The Eagle was set to finally carve out some consistency in the UFC’s most popular and arguably most talent-rich weight-class and yet, here we are, once again, with his future completely unclear.
In Tony Ferguson, Dustin Poirier, and even Al Iaquinta you have guys who could have challenged for the title in early 2019 had the absolute madness in the UFC 229 post-fight not transpired. And quite frankly, you could have made that call for El Cucuy over two years ago considering his form.
His one interim-title bout aside, it’s pretty crazy that he has never fought for a title – although the freakish nature of his seemingly cursed rivalry with Nurmagomedov had more than a small part to play in that.
The only guys to have fought for the belt since McGregor defeated Alvarez back in 2016 are Khabib, Al Iaquinta, and McGregor again.
There’s a logjam at lightweight, folks! And by the looks of things, it won’t be unblocked any time soon.
So how should the UFC approach the next few months as far as 155lbs is concerned?
It’s not as complicated as it would appear but if we’re to assume that Khabib sticks to his word (and why wouldn’t he?) then this is how things should play out.
At the top of the pile, for a prediction that virtually nobody wants to hear, there will likely be an interim-lightweight title made. Stripping Nurmagomedov for sitting out longer than he needs to is an option, sure, but an unlikely one for the promotion to take.
It’s hard to know how much of a needle-mover the man who played a part in drawing 2.4 million buyers to October’s UFC 229 will be without McGregor by his side but the smart move here is to let him keep his title and test those waters next winter.
So who fights for the interim-belt in Khabib’s absence?
Tony Ferguson vs. Dustin Poirier is the fight to make. Both guys deserve it more than anyone in the rankings and if they time it correctly, who knows, they could well set the winner up for a unification bout against the undisputed champion by the time November comes around.
With that being said, it would not surprise me in the slightest if the UFC give Conor McGregor one of those slots.
And in truth, there are guys out there who deserve it less than Conor. Essentially a number-one contender fight, we’ve seen countless examples of former champions thrown back into the mix straight away with the guarantee of a rematch if they can bounce back against the divisional #1.
In all honesty, though, the fight that makes more sense for Conor is the fight that virtually everyone (including his noticeably-excited coach Owen Roddy) has been talking about.
The UFC absolutely need their biggest cash-cow to win his next fight.
People are very quick to mock McGregor for losing to Khabib but to anyone who knows how good the Russian is, it’s clear that there’s very little shame to be found in a defeat like that.
In the ninth-ranked Cerrone is a fighter who those that detest the Irishman can put their full backing behind.
There’s no need to delve any further into why this is a great fight – everything worth saying about it has already been said.
Khabib’s decision to vault himself into the corner of his fallen UFC 229 opponent in the immediate aftermath of the biggest and most impressive win of his career was a decision borne out of intense emotion.
And while some people were quick to breathe a sigh of relief after yesterday’s hearing – happy in the knowledge that we can collectively move on from 2018’s most infamous event – the proverbial log-jam at lightweight that has haunted the division over the course of the last two years will continue to be felt deep into this year.
It’s still going to be one helluva time at 155 though!
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena