Speculation has been relentless in recent months as to what the future of the lightweight division holds.
At present, Conor McGregor is the champion. He knocked out Eddie Alvarez back at UFC 205 as the promotion made its debut in New York.
Yet, this was over 14 months ago. Since then, Tony ‘El Cucuy’ Ferguson has become the interim champion while McGregor has only competed in a boxing ring, where he fought Floyd Mayweather last August.
In normal circumstances, the Irishman would have been stripped of his strap by now, and Ferguson would have fought for the outright title.
But in the world of Conor McGregor, normal circumstances do not apply. He is the biggest star in UFC history and the organisation is loath to make any decision which might upset him and jeopardise his return.
The third major name in the lightweight division is that of Khabib ‘The Eagle’ Nurmagomedov.
He was hugely impressive when he fought recently at UFC 219 and defeated the accomplished striker Edson Barboza in devastating fashion (30-25, 30-5, 30-24 on the judges’ scorecards).
Khabib is undefeated in his professional career holding notable wins over the likes of Rafael dos Anjos and Michael Johnson. MMA is a fickle game and while Ferguson was the name on the tip of everyone’s tongue after he secured the interim belt in October, a quiet couple of months for Ferguson and a stunning performance from Nurmagomedov, and all eyes have turned towards the Russian fighter.
There have been two major factors which have helped Dana White and co preserve McGregor’s reign as champion.
Nurmagomedov needed to demonstrate that he could successfully make the weight, which he did at UFC 219, before being trusted with a title shot having pulled out of UFC 209 due to a botched weight cut.
In addition to this, Ferguson underwent elbow surgery back in December which has left him on the sidelines.
But as Ferguson regains fight fitness and Khabib has demonstrated he is ready, what’s next at 155lbs?
Conor McGregor has been posting photos of him back in training at SBG Ireland in recent days, leading to reports that he is preparing to make his return to the octagon.
A unification contest against El Cucuy would be the most likely return for the Notorious in order to legitimise the lightweight title.
Yet before McGregor returns to the UFC, he will have to come to an agreement on his compensation for doing so and Dana White will have to be prepared to offer a record contract to force this return.
Dana is a pragmatic businessman. He would not risk losing the favour of his most influential fighter lightly, but there is only so long he can hold off on stripping McGregor of the 155lb belt.
McGregor’s tenure as champion is the longest in UFC history without scheduling a defence (excluding injured fighters).
There have been no concrete indications that contract negations have been making any progress and it would appear that if this stalemate continues, the UFC will be forced to make the Ferguson vs Nurmagomedov match-up.
Most recent reports from Russia have suggested that this fight is already in discussions for UFC 223 in April with Dana White even backing up these reports when he spoke to the media after UFC Fight Night 124.
However, this is assuming Ferguson’s surgery recovery is going to plan and the 33-year-old has yet to publicly ease fans concerns and confirm this.
The most unlikely scenario would be McGregor versus Nurmagomedov next.
Yet interestingly, there have been some signs which have left fans with a hint of optimism.
Last June, McGregor vocalized his ambitions to face off against the Eagle in Russia and just last week there were reports that the UFC organisation would be hosting its maiden event in Russia next September.
In addition to this, the champion’s coach, John Kavanagh, posted to his Instagram page a video of himself watching old Khabib Nurmagomedov footage, suggesting that he was studying the mooted challenger.
This would be a very lucrative fight. Perhaps it is the undefeated tag or the image of Khabib wrestling with bears as he grew up in the Russian countryside, but despite Ferguson being a world class fighter, he does not quite capture the public’s imagination like Dagestani fighter does.
The end of 2017 and beginning of 2018 have been absolutely stacked with title fights (nine in total between November 4 and February 11).
With a limited number of champions available to headline Pay-Per-View events, the UFC will be forced into taking action on the lightweight division sooner rather than later.
Expect an announcement to be made in the coming weeks with a Ferguson vs Nurmagomedov showdown for the lightweight strap the most likely outcome.
Cathal Geeney, Pundit Arena