The UFC lightweight division has twisted itself into a tricky little knot to begin 2017.
Now, the question is whether the fight company can pull the right strings to untangle it all before the most dependably great weight class in MMA begins to unravel.
Not since the UFC abruptly abandoned the 155-pound division in 2004 (only to pick it up again in 2006) have things been in such disarray.
Newly minted 155-pound champion Conor McGregor remains at odds with the organization on a return, so dead-set is he on boxing Floyd Mayweather. That far-fetched superfight continues to waffle between done deal and ain’t-no-way, depending on the day and which way the trade winds are blowing.
Last week, Mayweather announced he was “officially out of retirement for Conor McGregor,” in a video posted by FightHype.com. What that means, exactly, seems slippery at best, though at least the former five-division world champion appears to be feeling some urgency to make the fight.
“We don’t need to waste no time,” Mayweather said in the video. “We need to make this s--t happen quickly. Let’s get it on in June.”
On the MMA side of the aisle, folks continue to regard McGregor vs. Mayweather as an extreme long shot. As in, a stumble-into-a-forest-meadow-and-catch-Bigfoot-riding-a-unicorn type of long shot.
Somehow, though, the rumors haven’t dried up and blown away, despite McGregor’s exclusive contract with the UFC and Mayweather being a few weeks removed from turning 40 years old. Just about the only thing making the bout seem remotely possible is that the story itself refuses to die.
More painfully real is the growing acceptance among MMA fans that McGregor and the UFC might eternally be at each other’s throats.
The 28-year-old Dublin native has been a revelation since debuting in the Octagon in 2013. The sheer speed with which he went from complete unknown to the UFC’s biggest pay-per-view draw was breathtaking. Now, with Ronda Rousey perhaps gone for good and new owners at WME-IMG desperate to increase profits, McGregor is more important than ever.
Naturally, he’s well aware of that, too.
Better than perhaps any athlete in UFC history, McGregor has leveraged his position into big paydays. It’s been refreshing to see a fighter finally gain the upper hand on the organization in negotiations, but if McGregor’s current extended paternity leave morphs into a full-on contract hold-out, it feels as though his antics might finally start to wear thin with fans.
People seem to be getting sick of seeing McGregor win UFC titles—he’s captured two since December 2015—and then never defend them.
Case in point: Competition in the featherweight division was hot and heavy while McGregor was in the mix, but things have slumped since the UFC stripped him of the title in November 2016. Jose Aldo was promoted from interim champ to undisputed champ, but he has yet to defend the belt.
Max Holloway became the new 145-pound interim champion by defeating an overweight Anthony Pettis at UFC 206. Now a title unification bout between Holloway and Aldo is finally expected at UFC 211 on June 3.
So, McGregor’s entrance and exit at featherweight caused no small amount of chaos.
Now the same thing is happening at lightweight.
The UFC’s efforts to prop up an interim champ at 155 pounds during McGregor’s absence fizzled earlier this month when Khabib Nurmagomedov was hospitalized the week of UFC 209 and a meeting against Tony Ferguson was canceled.
Nurmagomedov officially remains the division’s No. 1 contender, but his immediate future is in doubt after his weight snafu dealt a significant blow to that event’s PPV fortunes.
Even the normally bombastic UFC President Dana White was flummoxed.
"He’s going to have to take some time to recover from this weight cut," White told reporters after Nurmagomedov's removal, via MMA Junkie's Mike Bohn. "Then, I don’t know what to do.”
The feeling is mutual.
You ready for this? Because at this point it gets a little complicated.
Ferguson remains healthy and ready to fight, but Nurmagomedov’s absence leaves him without a clear-cut championship caliber opponent. It would be a shame to see Ferguson put his nine-fight win streak on the line against lesser competition, but that might be the reality for him now.
On the other hand, he told reporters the UFC paid him less than half his expected show money for the bout after he made weight and Nurmagomedov didn’t. If Ferguson's accounting is accurate, that probably wasn’t the best way for the organization to endear itself to a guy it might need a favor from soon.
Meanwhile, former champ Eddie Alvarez—who lost the title to McGregor at UFC 205—just accepted a surprising booking against Dustin Poirier at UFC 211. That eliminates Alvarez from interim title consideration, at least in the short term.
Another former champ, Rafael dos Anjos, could make sense for the spot had he not just lost to Ferguson in November 2016. On top of that, dos Anjos recently announced his desire to decamp from lightweight entirely, in favor of a future at welterweight.
Dos Anjos cited his own difficult weight cuts as the reason for the move.
“It’s just too much for me,” he said, via MMA Fighting’s Guilherme Cruz. “I already got the belt. And for [the money] I’m making now, it's not worth it. One day, if there’s a superfight or something that gives me good money, I can make this sacrifice and go back to 155 again, but not now."
All that means nearly the entire lightweight Top Five is indisposed at the moment.
The champion is out indefinitely. The No. 1 contender faces a murky future, and Ferguson (No. 2 on the UFC’s official rankings) is left without a clear direction.
As ever, the elephant in the room remains Nate Diaz.
Diaz is currently No. 8 in the 155-pound rankings, but he deserves to be ranked higher. He’s pretty much the only guy in the Top 15 with the recent resume and crossover appeal to give an interim title fight against Ferguson (or anybody else) the shimmer of legitimacy.
Unfortunately, Diaz is also perennially seemingly crosswise with UFC management over his pay. His last two fights were both at welterweight (against McGregor) and he hasn’t fought since a majority decision loss to the Irishman at UFC 202.
Matchmakers could pluck Diaz from the sidelines and inject him into a fight against Ferguson at any moment, but in the new cost-conscious UFC, it is perhaps unlikely that a financial arrangement to the liking of all parties is in the immediate offing.
So, what to do?
How to untie this cluster?
There is no easy answer.
The sad truth is that we will all most likely continue to wait on McGregor.
His next move could dictate a lot about the lightweight division’s future.