At UFC 223, Dana White strapped a gold belt around Khabib Nurmagomedov's waist. The Russian grappler, a dominant force in the lightweight division, spent 25 minutes beating up Al Iaquinta, a New York realtor who had fought just twice in the previous three years. In today's UFC, that's a feat worthy of a championship bauble.
Somehow, everyone in the cage managed to keep a straight face as ring announcer Bruce Buffer proclaimed him the "undisputed champion of the world."
There were two small problems with that—both Conor McGregor and Tony Ferguson already claimed the honor of being the world's best. Both men had their own title belts to prove it.
Inactivity and injury cost them their claims. But can anyone else truly be champion without defeating them in the cage?
For an undisputed honor, there seem to be an awful lot of claimants.
So who deserves to call themselves the best fighter in the lightweight division? Bleacher Report writers Jonathan Snowden, Matthew Ryder and Nathan McCarter each have an opinion. All will try to influence you—but only you can decide.
It's a truly talented triumvirate, but only one fighter can stand alone as the best in the world.
The Irish Flame
There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical about McGregor's place in the lightweight hierarchy. After all, the man has only had a single UFC fight in the division over which he supposedly ruled. And while Eddie Alvarez was a fearsome opponent, other fighters in the weight class would pose a significant challenge.
Nurmagomedov is a brute of a man, a fighter who bullies the world's toughest athletes until their spirits break. You know exactly what he intends to do in the cage—but, no one has come close to stopping him.
Predicting what Tony Ferguson will do is like guessing whether it will rain. Some weathermen may think they know what to expect, but the storm blows where it may. Ferguson is like that, a whirling dervish of frantic movement and wild moods. With him, lightning could strike anywhere at any moment.
You can make the case that either man could beat McGregor. If things break their way, they certainly have the skill sets to do it. Likewise, the Irishman has shown the ability to turn the lights out with a single flick of his left hand.
We don't know who would emerge from those battles with his hand raised high. That's why they have the fights.
What we do know is McGregor is the rightful lightweight champion. He didn't win the belt against seventh-ranked Kevin Lee like Ferguson or snatch his title from the world's toughest realtor Iaquinta like Khabib.
In the old days, proclaiming yourself world champion was simple. All you had to do was beat the previous kingpin. McGregor beat Alvarez, who defeated Rafael dos Anjos, who owned Anthony Pettis, and so on, all the way back to B.J Penn's iconic reign in the late 2000s.
Ric Flair said it best—to be the man, you've got to beat the man. And brother, until someone says otherwise with their fists and not their salty tweets, McGregor is the man.
The Russian Eagle
On the notion that you gotta beat the man to be the man, Nurmagomedov is categorically not The Man.
He didn't beat McGregor.
He didn't beat Ferguson.
He didn't even beat Pettis or Paul Felder or Max Holloway.
He beat Iaquinta, who's beloved but not included in any variety of discussion about who The Man is at lightweight these days.
But what Nurmagomedov is, in spite of his unsteady resume, is the best lightweight in the world. Never forget the golden rule: He who has the gold, makes the rules.
Promotional turmoil notwithstanding—none of which was the fault of Nurmagomedov—the Dagestani now holds the gold. He makes the rules.
What we've seen from Nurmagomedov is a unique blend of next-level skills that have honestly not been seen before in MMA. He combines an unhinged aggression with grappling chops that challenge the best the game has known, and the results have been staggering.
Sure, he's largely beaten overmatched opponents to get to this point, but what proof is there that anyone wouldn't be overmatched by what he's bringing to the table? When the bell rings and he barrels forward trying get his hands on you so he can throw you on the ground and punch a hole in your face, what level of preparation is going to ready you to keep him from doing it?
Those questions haven't been answered in his UFC career so far. The closest we've gotten is when, at UFC 223, Nurmagomedov took a couple of rounds off from his normal game to beat Iaquinta up on the feet for a while, at which point the cries of his somehow having been exposed began.
To put the absurdity of that into perspective, let's remember Iaquinta is a good athlete in a sport where the whole objective is to maximally harm another human. And Nurmagomedov beat him at his own game, by choice, for 10 straight minutes, more or less just to work up a sweat.
That's the sign of a scary man.
Going forward, the question will inevitably turn to Nurmagomedov's next opponent. There's an outside shot it will be Ferguson, who he would surely be a favorite against at this point, but most likely it's going to be McGregor. The two genuinely dislike each other and have been eyeing each other through the proverbial fence for a while now.
When that next fight happens, you can expect all questions to be answered about Nurmagomedov and his place in the lightweight hierarchy.
He will enter that fight as the true champion, for whatever that means in the modern UFC.
It will be a fight against the toughest opponent of his career, and how he looks will prove what he is.
A win will be a win over The Man, be it Ferguson or McGregor, because both are seen to be The Man right now in the eyes of a portion of the MMA fanbase.
It will be his coronation, but it will not mean much in the grand scheme of things.
He's already the best lightweight in the world.
It may be easy to say McGregor is the best lightweight since he is, or rather was, the true champion with a dominant knockout performance. It may be even easier to say Nurmagomedov is the true king at 155 as he has been the most dominant force and reigns with the gold after UFC 223.
But the true top dog at lightweight is Ferguson.
McGregor is a stand-up fighter and Nurmagomedov is a ground fighter. Ferguson is a complete fighter.
The allure, knockouts or pure domination through control of an opponent are easier to get excited about in choosing who is better, but shouldn't the best fighter be the one who is able to do everything once that cage door closes?
He has a wealth of submission finishes to his credit including the triangle choke to win the interim belt over Kevin Lee. He stood toe-to-toe with the likes of Edson Barboza and came out on top in a grueling bout before exploiting his ground weakness. Ferguson's style makes for many bad matchups no matter his opponent's main strength.
That is one of the keys to Ferguson's continued success. He can make any fighter, no matter their strength, fight in a grueling war. He can contend with them in their specialty, outlast them, and then finish his foe. It can be dirty work, but no one is more equipped for those kinds of barnburners than Ferguson.
We have seen McGregor tire and falter in those wars. Nurmagomedov has not been dragged into the deep waters yet—we don't know if that kind of mettle is where he thrives.
The resume Ferguson has built is also most impressive. There hasn't been a "gimme" fight throughout his tenure in the UFC. It's another notch on his bedpost of why he's the best lightweight in the world.
He was never given a Darrell Horcher on short notice to make him look good; Ferguson has had to fight the best man available, the next man up and prove it the old-fashioned way.
To be the true best in the world one cannot be one-dimensional—no matter how good that dimension is. Ferguson's top-notch skills both on the feet and the mat put him a notch above his opponents and the other two vying for this distinction.
It took Ferguson nine consecutive UFC victories to earn a right for a championship, and he won the gold. The UFC can strip him after an injury, but they cannot take away the accomplishment.
The American's fight to the top, showcasing the full breadth of skills, is worthy of the moniker of being the best lightweight today.
Ferguson has been put in the fire and risen out of the ashes to be the best lightweight in the world.