A Race to Nowhere

By Pressley Nietering Apr 18, 2018
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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UFC 223 was supposed to bring clarity to the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s lightweight division. At long last, Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov were going to fight, bringing a 10 or 25-fight win streak to an end and settling the question of who is the best 155-pound fighter on the planet in the process. Well, that didn’t happen.

Instead, “The Eagle” fought 11th-ranked Al Iaquinta. It was an interesting scrap, but it only showed us that Iaquinta wasn’t a match for Khabib on a day’s notice, which was already pretty assumed. It didn’t bring any further clarity to the top of the division. At the end of UFC 223, there was still unfinished business between Ferguson and Nurmagomedov.

Ferguson vs. Khabib, as the UFC promotion machine called it, is a fight that should and most likely will be rebooked as soon as possible. It’s really hard to plausibly deny Ferguson, a fighter who never lost the interim title and is on a ten-fight win streak, a chance to fight for the undisputed belt. While Dana White claims he won’t rebook them for a fifth time, he also claimed that women would never fight in the UFC, that the Michael Bisping-GSP “ship [had] sailed,” that Conor McGregor would defend his featherweight title, that McGregor would defend his lightweight title, that Brock Lesnar would not return and that the UFC was not for sale. White’s bold proclamations are, at best, only casual acquaintances of the truth. Even with his denials, it’s safe to say the Tony-Khabib fight is probably still on the table.

Besides, what are the odds it gets canceled a fifth time? [Sweats nervously while crossing fingers]

There’s further uncertainty at the top of the division, as McGregor could come back at any time, pending legal action. As he surely won’t let anyone forget, he never lost his lightweight belt; it was stripped from him. And if the million-plus pay-per-view buys the “Notorious” one’s return would do weren’t enough to convince White he deserves a title shot, he’s also already cut one of the best promos of all time against Nurmagomedov with the charter bus attack, in apparent retaliation for Nurmagomedov’s on-camera confrontation with McGregor’s friend and teammate Artem Lobov. At this point, McGregor-Nurmagomedov might create unbreakable pay-per-view records, even surpassing McGregor’s rematch with Nate Diaz at UFC 202.

It’s still too early to count out Tony Ferguson from the Red Panty Night sweepstakes. While there is approximately zero chance McGregor’s return to the lightweight division would be against Ferguson as long as Nurmagomedov holds the belt, Ferguson could beat Nurmagomedov and be holding the belt when the Irishman finally circles back to the 155-pound division. McGregor and Ferguson could also meet if Nurmagomedov were to get hurt and be forced to pull out of a match with McGregor or, less likely, if McGregor beat Nurmagomedov, then decided to actually defend a belt. There are a lot of ways this could play out where McGregor meets Ferguson in his return to lightweight.

The situation at the top of the lightweight division gets even more curious, as Nurmagomedov called out St. Pierre, who last fought at middleweight. When you factor in Ramadan, which runs from May 15 to June 14 this year and will keep the devout Muslim interim champ on the shelf for much of the summer, injuries, and fights against Tyron Woodley or Floyd Mayweather, it could literally be years before the Ferguson-McGregor-Nurmagomedov triumvirate gets sorted out.

That puts the fighters in the main event of UFC Fight Night 128, Edson Barboza and Kevin Lee, in an unenviable spot. In just about any other division, the seventh-ranked fighter, Lee in this case, facing the fourth-ranked fighter -- Barboza -- would leave the winner a win or two away from the belt. This process would take about a year, but in most cases each fighter would have a clear path to the top.

Not so fast. Not only did Barboza and Lee each lose their last fight, both have already lost to Ferguson, and Barboza has also lost to Nurmagomedov. None of those fights left fans clamoring for a rematch either. In addition, Dustin Poirier or Eddie Alvarez will likely have a greater claim to the title once they settle their controversial no-contest at UFC 211. These factors, combined with the slow-moving nature of the top of the division, mean neither Lee nor Barboza is likely to cut the line and break up the gridlock at the top anytime soon.

So instead of looking at a title shot, the winner of Barboza-Lee is likely left taking a fight with Justin Gaethje or a rising contender, potentially James Vick or Olivier Aubin-Mercier. It may take a combination of several fights over the course of a few years to get that title fight. In the talent-rich lightweight division, that’s a tough row to hoe for any fighter.

That’s why we should enjoy the main event for what it is. Much like the co-main event, it takes place on the periphery of the championship picture. Not every fight can directly determine the fate of a division. Barboza vs. Lee is a fun fight first and foremost, a classic wrestler versus striker matchup performed at the highest level of MMA. And that’s enough sometimes.

Pressley Nietering is a third-year student at Clemson University.

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