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As an added hook for UFC 257 this Saturday in Abu Dhabi United Arab Emirates, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has tied the results of the card to the future of Khabib Nurmagomedov and the lightweight title. One has to take UFC President Dana White’s proclamations about potential upcoming fights with a grain of salt these days, but his framing of a heavily publicized meeting with Nurmagomedov was that Nurmagomedov wants to be impressed by a fighter’s performance in a way that motivates him to return to competition in 2021.
White noted that Nurmagomedov was impressed by Charles Oliveira’s recent victory, and it’s a very safe assumption that the Brazilian was seen as the probably the least marketable option for the champion. The UFC president also mentioned Conor McGregor-Dustin Poirier and Michael Chandler-Dan Hooker as fights Nurmagomedov would be monitoring and fights that might coax him to seek a perfect 30-0 MMA record. So that raises the natural question as to what is the most likely next step for Nurmagomedov. Let’s handicap the options, from least likely to most likely.
Before going through the top options, it’s worth laying out some outside possibilities. Justin Gaethje is the No. 1 lightweight contender in the UFC rankings, but he lost to Nurmagomedov decisively in his last fight and there’s no way they do an immediate rematch. Tony Ferguson was a fight Nurmagomedov badly wanted for years, but with two straight losses “El Cucuy” has taken himself out of the running. Poirier finds himself in a high-profile fight against McGregor, but Nurmagomedov beat him handily two fights ago. Even if Poirier knocks out McGregor, it’s hard to imagine Nurmagomedov being intrigued by that rematch.
Alexander Volkanovski or Kamaru Usman would offer Nurmagomedov the chance to become a two-division champion, but there’s been no discussion in either direction and neither seems like that big of a deal. Plus, the UFC already has a champion-versus-champion bout scheduled between Jan Blachowicz and Israel Adesanya. Finally, Hooker seems to be in the realm of possibility given the placement of his fight with Chandler, but with his having lost his last fight and two of his last five, it doesn’t make sense for him to leapfrog Oliveira as far as dark horse candidates go. That leaves the six most likely options for Nurmagomedov’s near future:
White and the UFC are going to push hard for this one if McGregor beats Poirier again. It’s far and away the biggest fight of the bunch. As such, it will make Nurmagomedov the biggest payday. The problem from UFC’s standpoint is that Nurmagomedov is a man of principle, and he’s already richer than his wildest dreams. He has a strong, deep-seeded personal animosity towards McGregor. The idea of helping McGregor make a ton of money and giving him the opportunity to avenge his loss are exceedingly unappealing options for Nurmagomedov. If McGregor wins, White will cajole and persuade Nurmagomedov with everything he has to take that fight, but it would be shocking if Nurmagomedov gives in.
White has ruled this out as a possibility, but it wouldn’t be the first time he has ruled out a fight that ended up taking place. Nurmagomedov and St. Pierre have both expressed interest in the fight in the past, even if they’ve seemed less interested recently. However, it would be the biggest money option besides McGregor and thus might seem like a decent backup plan if the Irishman is unequivocally ruled out. Still, it’s less likely given that St. Pierre has seemingly moved on and Nurmagomedov isn’t that enthusiastic, either.
The former Bellator MMA champion enters the UFC with a lot of buzz. He has been in the mix for some big fights already, and the fact White mentioned Chandler-Hooker specifically in the calculations for Nurmagomedov’s potential next opponent was telling. An impressive win over Hooker would put Chandler in a good position, as he would have made a strong first impression on UFC fans; more hardcore fans are already aware of his ability.
3. Max Holloway
This would have been completely off the board a week ago, but then Holloway fought Calvin Kattar. Not only was it one of the most singularly dominant displays in the history of the UFC, but Holloway explicitly expressed after the fight his interest in taking on Nurmagomedov. Holloway’s two recent losses at featherweight were both competitive decisions against the champion; he’s a popular figure; and his dominant win over Kattar was on a big stage. Not to mention, the UFC tried to make this exact fight before on short notice at UFC 223 before Holloway was deemed unfit to compete.
It seems a little counterintuitive to put Oliveira above the four fighters fighting at UFC 257, given that the event was framed as the proving ground for a Nurmagomedov opponent. However, Nurmagomedov has already beaten two of the four key competitors there, and even if Chandler or Hooker wins impressively, it’s going to be difficult for either to seem like more of a challenge than Oliveira. The Brazilian has won eight straight with seven finishes, and White may try to sell Nurmagomedov on the Poirier-McGregor winner while holding Oliveira as the backup option if Nurmagomedov declines.
1. No Fight in 2021
Sorry, fight fans. We’re being teased with a Nurmagomedov return, but it’s been almost exclusively on the UFC end. It was less than a year ago Nurmagomedov vowed to retire, and while there are some good options for him, none are overwhelming. Only Nurmagomedov himself can say for sure how he feels after an emotionally wrenching year, but the most likely outcome appears to be his politely declining the UFC’s offers and vacating the lightweight title.
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