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By now you’ve heard the news. You’ve probably already shed your tears and come to peace with it. Upon realizing that UFC President Dana White was not perpetuating an elaborate ruse in honor of April Fool’s Day, I sipped a generous portion of whiskey from a chilled glass and held back any cathartic emotional displays as snarky remarks and sarcastic retweets filled my Twitter timeline. Despite perhaps the best style and personality matchup on paper in the history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship being booked four times, it simply wasn’t meant to be. Tony Ferguson will not not defend his interim -- or undisputed depending when you ask White -- lightweight title against perennial top contender Khabib Nurmagomedov in the UFC 223 headliner on Saturday in Brooklyn, New York (now available on Amazon Prime). Our dream fight went the way of Fedor Emelianenko-Randy Couture or Brock Lesnar and remains a frequently discussed what-if talking point.
Of course, the last-minute solution was simultaneously epic and equally destructive. Featherweight champion Max Holloway on six days’ notice will step in to fight the undefeated and well-hyped Nurmagomedov. In a world of constant superfight talk, this is right up that alley. We either crown the Dagestani grappler with the title many believe is inevitable or we promote another young dynamic featherweight as the “Champ Champ.” The best legitimate sporting contest is being replaced by a sudden injection of chaos that may very well deliver on those same promises of action. Usually, I take my weekly spotlight on this website to highlight the problematic nature of the UFC’s current course. However, this time I’m here to ask why not? At this point, what do we have to lose? This is the rare instance where throwing away the rulebook may actually help in the long run despite the obvious problems with this last-minute change.
As is always the case with champions jumping lines across weight classes, Holloway’s sudden entry into the 155-pound picture will undoubtedly disrupt the featherweight division. After an excellent and possible star-making performance against the legendary Frankie Edgar just weeks ago, Brian Ortega emerged as the next logical contender, and the idea of his challenging Holloway was instantly high on the list of anticipated upcoming fights. A sudden showdown with Nurmagomedov halts those plans that were rumored for UFC 226 and International Fight Week in July. Barring any catastrophic injuries, it is possible the delay may not be too long. While within the hardcore bubble, Holloway is just a few steps shy of immortality, but his title reign hasn’t caught the attention of the general public. His three title fight main events have averaged less than 200,000 pay-per-view buys. Holloway, with a decent effort, can build his profile to attract the interest of more eyeballs ahead of defending his featherweight crown for the second time. With the combination of personalities and impressive respective highlight reels, a big blockbuster event between Holloway and Ortega may replace the compelling matchup that may not have otherwise registered a blip on the sports world’s radar.
In the lightweight division, an obvious amount of disorder can ensue from this shake-up. However, what would be different? The most competitive division in the promotion has already seen an unprecedented level of chaos following the last man chasing the “Champ Champ” moniker. When Conor McGregor moved up from featherweight and knocked out Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 to capture the lightweight crown, order was disrupted. When McGregor left mixed martial arts and put his championship status in the sport on hold to take on Floyd Mayweather Jr. in a boxing match, order was further disrupted, as Ferguson, Nurmagomedov, Kevin Lee and Edson Barboza staked their claims as rightful contenders to the throne. When Ferguson emerged victorious defeated Lee for the interim title at UFC 216, the disruption to natural order was continued. The refusal to officially strip McGregor of the championship despite over 500 days of inactivity set a new precedent for throwing away the rulebook. When Ferguson tripped in a simple freak accident while promoting UFC 223 at Fox Studios and tore his LCL off the bone, it brought about more upheaval. For better or worse, confusion has become a part of the fabric of the lightweight division. When a major pay-per-view event is in jeopardy, why change course? Chaos would have lingered had Ferguson and Nurmagomedov actually squared off, as McGregor would still be the lineal champion and has yet to finalize a return date. Making decisions strictly for sporting integrity would be counterproductive at this point.
The upside to Holloway filling in is simply too compelling to ignore. UFC 223 goes on with another incredible style matchup and storyline in place. Nurmagomedov is still afforded a long-awaited shot at UFC gold. Holloway is given the opportunity to grow his fanbase and presence in the sport while attempting to accomplish a historic achievement. A victory by either man sets up a drama-filled and highly publicized return for the absentee champion. If Nurmagomedov gets his hand raised, all the trash talk between he and McGregor can get settled for the highest stakes. If Holloway wins, the second dual-division king will be able to rematch the first dual-division king.
Make no mistake about it, this is a great mountain for the young Hawaiian to climb. Nurmagomedov has badly beaten some of the best fighters the lightweight division has to offer. A smaller man fighting against such a dominant and destructive grappler on short notice is a recipe for possible disaster. Holloway could lose in a blowout; his weight cut is a serious cause for concern; and two divisions could be adversely impacted. How is any of that different from a normal day at the Endeavor offices? Bad weight cuts, injuries and breaks from meritocracy are unfortunately part of this era in MMA. On short notice, course correction would be meaningless and we would be cheated out of a special moment. Whether that special moment takes place at UFC 223 or at a later date will be determined. Just this one time, why not enjoy the ride while we can?
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