Ask Ant: Feb. 2 Mailbag

By Anthony Walker Feb 2, 2019

Roberto P. asks: If Khabib sits out for a full year like he says, what should the UFC do with the lightweight belt?

I feel dirty for using the word interim here. Lately interim titles have done almost nothing but confuse fans, throw disarray in crowded divisions, and shine on event posters. However, this is a case where an interim belt would make the most sense.

We had the briefest moment where the title picture at lightweight was clearly defined. Conor McGregor lost his claim to the belt when he tapped out to the newly minted Khabib Nurmagomedov only minutes after the former interim champion -- who never lost his title in the cage -- scored a TKO victory in the co-main event. It couldn’t be more perfect.

When Nurmagomedov leaped over the fence to attack Dillon Danis, he shattered that moment of clarity before it was even 30 seconds old. Now that the Nevada State Athletic Commission has had its say, it’s up to “The Eagle” to play the game and get back to the Octagon to defend his title. If he carries out his threat to sit on the sidelines in solidarity with his teammates Abubakar Nurmagomedov and Zubaira Tukhugov for their full year-long suspensions, then he forfeits his rights to the title.

With a growing list of contenders waiting, most notably Dustin Poirier and Tony Ferguson, there’s no reason for the division to once again be held up due to one man. This wouldn’t be a case like the forced welterweight interim title, where the champion defended the belt within a reasonable time frame and suffered an injury that required surgery. This wouldn’t be like when Renan Barao held a bantamweight belt while Dominick Cruz had multiple training camps to return but was derailed by catastrophic failures of his body. This isn’t a case of a fighter being disqualified for out of the cage controversies and being forced to stay on the sidelines. This would be a healthy fighter who is cleared to compete but just refuses to do so because of a misguided protest.

It would certainly be unfortunate to have a champion choose to be inactive as opposed to circumstances mandating that inactivity. You choose to sit out, you choose to stand by and watch the division move on without you. Even the UFC’s living ATM, McGregor, eventually found himself stripped because he didn’t defend the title. Nurmagomedov should be no different. When he returns, as was done with McGregor, give him the first crack at whoever has the belt upon his desired return date.

Feyla asks: Which middleweight do you want to move up to fight Jon Jones?

It’s no secret that the light heavyweight division is one step removed from being a complete wasteland. Jon Jones has twice defeated Alexander Gustafsson and despite whatever asterisk you put beside the Daniel Cormier fights, we’ve seen what happens between those two at 205. A contender like Dominick Reyes is still too green and needs some more development before facing the champion.

Considering his next challenge is versus mid-tier middleweight turned surging light heavyweight Anthony Smith, it only makes sense to look a division down for guys who might perform better without the grueling cuts to make the 185 pound limit. Thiago Santos already fits the bill as he is riding a two-fight finish streak since moving up a weight class.

As far as the guys who haven’t skipped officially skipped the sauna, look no further than Yoel Romero and Luke Rockhold. Romero is an athletic freak with an eccentric personality and a deceptively technical game. Seeing an Olympic medal-winning wrestler with a scary ability to suddenly finish fights against the unsolvable Jones puzzle would be fascinating.

On the other hand, Rockhold stepping in against Jones is too easy a story to tell. As a longtime member of American Kickboxing Academy and friend of Cormier, it seems appropriate that he get to face Jones at some point. It would be a great side story in what looks like a brewing heavyweight showdown between the longtime rivals. Additionally, Rockhold being a former champion and difficult style matchup has potential outside of the drama and storylines.

But before we start planning the future for Jones, let’s show respect to the challenge he has ahead at UFC 235.

Sansnom asks: Is Tyron Woodley becoming more likeable?

Welterweight champion Tyron Woodley’s appearance at the UFC 235 press conference yesterday was probably the highlight for most people watching. The banter between him and his next challenger, Kamaru Usman, certainly added life to what was otherwise a pretty routine event. What initially appeared to be a forced matchup for the belt now has some of the heat that it originally lacked. The awkward Twitter exchanges and seemingly forced callout translated beautifully to the direct interaction of the presser.

As far as being more likable, maybe people have turned around on him a bit. The unnecessary interim belt, Darren Till win, and the ridiculous threats of stripping him of the belt just a few months after his last defense may have changed some minds about him. However, Woodley isn’t doing anything different than he always has.

Woodley has always found side projects outside of the Octagon. Movie roles and a rap career are nothing new. Despite his vocal desires to get money fights against the Diaz brothers and Georges St. Pierre, he’s consistently fought whoever was next in line. His strategic approach to a fight hasn’t changed. He fights to win and the finish either presents itself or it doesn’t. His attitude toward the media is essentially the same. He’s remained very transparent and means what he says.

If the Usman fight delivers in the cage like it did on the mic yesterday, it’s a pretty safe bet the public opinion sways in his favor a bit more, especially if Woodley retains the title. Expect that trend to continue if he does finally fight Covington, who has wisely positioned himself as the heel that will force fans to pick sides. Just know that if your personal opinion of him has changed, it’s most likely a product of your perspective as opposed to his actions.
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