What’s your favorite Conor McGregor title defense? Since catching Eddie Alvarez reaching a few days after the 2016 election to nab the lightweight championship, the Irishman hasn’t fought in the UFC. He earned the featherweight belt in 2015 by unhooking Jose Aldo’s jaw in 13 seconds, but the UFC re-appropriated that belt after it gathered dust as McGregor moved up in weight and got into a blood feud with the noble Diaz clan. McGregor has boasted about being a two-division UFC champ, but he’s never defended either title.
While he was off pretending to box, invading cages, and gazing at the ramparts of impossibly large boats, the divisions he left behind suddenly became very interesting. Max Holloway supplanted Aldo as the new featherweight king, becoming perhaps the most likable UFC champion on the roster. McGregor, who usually hews to a policy of talking the wildest possible shit at all times, was even complimentary of Holloway and invited him to come bang at 155 pounds. Whatever else that might mean, it probably means McGregor is done fighting featherweights for the immediate future.
Which makes sense, since lightweight is the most clogged and fascinating division in the UFC. Not only are hotshot prospects Kevin Lee and Justin Gaethje eager to throw hands and bloody anyone above them on the roster, there’s an eager glut of talented fighters whose natural next opponent is McGregor. Lanky dynamo Tony Ferguson choked out Lee in October to earn the interim title, and as the name suggests, interim belts are only awarded if the champion is unusually stagnant. Unification typically follows, unless the actual champion is a globetrotting maniac or a fight with Georges St-Pierre pops up.
The thing is, Ferguson might not even be the most dangerous lightweight contender. That would probably be the undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov. The Dagestani has had his own issues actually appearing in the octagon, but he came to boogie in Las Vegas last weekend and he put on a show. MMA is the logical endpoint of the truism about styles making fights, and the bout between Nurmagomedov and Brazilian superpuncher Edson Barboza seemed, in its broad strokes, to be the most foundational of contrasts—it was, literally, the wrestler against the boxer. But not only did Nurmagomedov grind Barboza to bits against the mat and the fence, he overwhelmed him on the feet.
Anything that happens in a UFC fight is terrifying, but what Nurmagomedov does deserves its own category. No matter what he’s facing, he pushes forward. Barboza throws bombs. It didn’t matter. Barboza had to spend the entire fight, which somehow lasted all three rounds, circling for his life, lest he give Nurmagomedov an inch to spring a takedown. Barboza’s reach advantage and ability to kick opposing legs out should have given him options to maintain the distance, but it didn’t matter. Nurmagomedov pushed through, and when he did, he punished Barboza.
The defining image of the fight was Barboza’s face as Nurmagomedov teed off on his head while pinning him to the ground. It was a thousand-yard stare, a look of befuddlement in the face of something he couldn’t contain. Nothing worked.
After disassembling Barboza, Nurmagomedov was very clear. He wants McGregor. He said as much after the fight, and he even camped out after UFC 219 to make his case to Dana White. For his part, McGregor acted unimpressed by the display. He’s since engaged in some dumb and not particularly notable (but for the ersatz photoshops) Twitter banter with Nurmagomedov.
Four fighters (Holloway, Nurmagomedov, Ferguson, and Nate Diaz) have a legitimate case to fight McGregor next. At this point, that list has reached saturation. The longer McGregor waits to defend his title or fight to win his old one back or just settle the Diaz trilogy, the louder the questions about him will get. White said he wouldn’t think of stripping McGregor’s belt and called anyone questioning his legitimacy as champ a “hater,” but such a move shouldn’t necessarily be out of the question. Germaine de Randamie lost hers after just four months for refusing to fight Cris Cyborg. It’s time for McGregor to fight, and he’ll get his pick of opponents.
Still, that’s not quite the same as saying that he owes anyone. If there’s a common thread to anything McGregor has said over the last seven months it’s that he is rich, he loves money, and he wants more. He holds all the cards here, and he’s been clear that he won’t fight until he gets paid what he thinks he deserves (or until he’s begged to do so).
Good! Fans should want to see him fight again, and they should want the UFC to pay up. They need him more than he needs them, and McGregor is doing exactly what is best for him. Call it cowardice or call it greed, but fighting is a nasty business, and he’s right to ensure that he’ll get the most from it. McGregor’s extended UFC hiatus has gone on long enough, but it’s up to the UFC to come to him, not the other way around.