A roadmap to untangling the UFC's lightweight division in five (not-so) easy steps
For weeks, we waited for the kind of clarity that could only come from the Nevada State Athletic Commission. It was a ruling from that august body, according to UFC President Dana White, that would help him decide the next steps in a lightweight division so choked with talent that it can barely breathe.
Now the Nevada commission has done its part. Whatever you think of the various fines and suspensions and arm-twisting requests for public service announcements, at least now we know what the punishments will look like, which means we also know the possible return dates for the two primary participants.
Conor McGregor will be eligible to fight again in April. Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov can come back in July. (Somehow I don’t see him making that anti-bullying video, though holy crap would I ever love to see him attempt it).
So there, that’s settled. Now can we get back to making perhaps the most exciting division in the entire sport function properly? Not so fast …
The champ has said he’s not fighting until the fall, at the earliest. And even then, according to his manager, he’s definitely not going to fight the consensus No. 1 contender. Meanwhile, the division’s top draw has his eye on the man in the hat, while another top contender wants either the superstar or the top contender. Somewhere in all this is the whisper of a Diaz brother.
Is there any way to make everyone happy, fans included? Maybe. But it’s going to take a very specific roadmap to get there …
Step 1: Conor McGregor vs. Donald Cerrone
Look, don’t overthink this. In one corner you’ve got McGregor, a bankable superstar who needs a little help getting back on track after being thoroughly mauled by a superior grappler. In the other you’ve got Donald Cerrone, a fan favorite who often prefers to stand and bang, despite his deceptively effective ground game.
Plus, here’s the rare lightweight match-up that both parties are interested in. How often does that happen? (Answer: almost never.) So what’s the hold up?
Well, there is the question of what they’d be fighting for. McGregor isn’t about to headline some UFC on ESPN+ fight card. It’s pay-per-view or nothing, and he reportedly refuses to share space on those cards with anyone else who’s getting a cut of the proceeds.
So do you rely on him to sell a pay-per-view with no title fight? Or do you create a new belt – either an interim lightweight title or a 165-pound division title – just to accommodate the situation?
If I had my way, I’d just let them fight. You know this will sell, even without a shiny belt on the poster. Unfortunately, the UFC doesn’t seem to believe that, which means we shouldn’t be surprised to see an interim title materialize in Nurmagomedov’s absence.
Step 2: Dustin Poirier vs. Tony Ferguson
Why does this work? For starters, it’s one of the only two fights that Dustin Poirier has said he would accept right now. It’s also an absolute banger and you know it.
Plus, what else is Tony Ferguson supposed to do? Nurmagomedov isn’t eligible to fight him until mid-summer, and probably won’t agree to it even then. If you’re looking to make your case as the contender (and former interim champ) who simply cannot be ignored any longer, this would be a pretty good way to do it.
Again, though, we have the problem of stakes. Are we looking at an interim interim belt? Would Ferguson really fall for that trick a second time after what happened to him last time?
In a just world, the winner of this fight would clearly be next in line for a crack at Nurmagomedov. But in the world the UFC has made, we all know the bosses are just looking for a chance to run it back with McGregor and then swan dive into the pool of resulting money.
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