Khabib Nurmagomedov Holds All the Cards over UFC

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterJanuary 29, 2021

Khabib Nurmagomedov chokes out Dustin Poirier in 2019.
Khabib Nurmagomedov chokes out Dustin Poirier in 2019.Mahmoud Khaled/Associated Press

Why, hello and happy Friday. You might know me from all the post-fight columns, features and other MMA coverage I've provided here over the past eight years. Welcome to my first in a series of weekly columns, publishing every Friday morning. We'll go around the MMA galaxy, preview upcoming cards and put some shine on the fighters and topics we think may have it coming.

That said, having fun is the important thing, and in MMA you always know there's a "fighting" chance of that.

OK great. Let's go.


Khabib Nurmagomedov: The Absentee King

It's been three months since UFC lightweight champ and GOAT Khabib Nurmagomedov abruptly retired. It happened because of a promise he made to his mother in the wake of his father Abdulmanap's death, which resulted from COVID-19 complications. UFC brass has seemed reluctant to accept the retirement, with UFC President Dana White loudly reassuring everyone he could bring the Dagestani back into the fold.

So far, it's not going his way, and that shows you the remarkable level of power Nurmagomedov has over his future, be it in MMA or somewhere else.

This isn't all just carnival barking from UFC headquarters. Nurmagomedov has fanned the flames by refusing to formally relinquish his belt. He has also suggested he might return if the UFC could make "something special" happen.

What would "special" look like? A bout with Georges St-Pierre, one of the best two or three fighters of all time, has been bandied about. A superfight with the retired, now-39-year-old GSP has been a Nurmagomedov white whale for years. St-Pierre has seemed a bit chilly to the idea.

Of course, the rematch between Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor was the biggest possible fight in the sport—that is, until McGregor got knocked out last weekend by Dustin Poirier, whom Nurmagomedov dominated in 2019. Streaking contenders like Charles Oliveira and Bellator transfer Michael Chandler are exciting but lack the Q score you need to bookend a blockbuster.

So the options appear to be dwindling, and even White is acknowledging he may not be able to make good on his pledge, saying he "won't push it anymore" if Nurmagomedov indeed wishes to remain retired. The talk to date has been around Nurmagomedov voluntarily vacating the belt, but if the impasse continues, and with the top of the 155-pound division absolutely red-hot, White might have no choice but to strip the lightweight king. Even if the UFC is the one that ultimately takes action, it's clear now this is Nurmagomedov's call.


Skewed Conor Coverage

If you're reading this, you're likely aware of the multimillion-dollar sexual assault lawsuit (first reported on by the New York Times) filed by a woman against McGregor last week in Dublin, five days before his main event with Poirier at UFC 257.

According to the Times report, Irish authorities ultimately "declined to pursue criminal charges against McGregor," which led to the filing of the civil suit January 18.

But you likely got that news from a source other than the airwaves of ESPN, the UFC's broadcast partner, who apart from a few mentions on SportsCenter largely buried the story from its audience all throughout fight week.

Jon Anik (left) interviews Justin Gaethje in 2019
Jon Anik (left) interviews Justin Gaethje in 2019Gregory Payan/Associated Press/Associated Press

The Daily Beast picked up on this with an article titled, "ESPN Doesn't Want to Talk About Conor McGregor's Rape Case."

"It's abominable that the company would do this," an anonymous female ESPN reporter told the site. "Particularly because it feels like there isn't a uniform policy when it comes to how ESPN covers these things."

Meanwhile, on fight night itself, UFC 257's broadcast team carried on as if the suit didn't exist at all.

Saturday's group—play-by-play commentator Jon Anik and analysts Daniel Cormier and Paul Felder—not only didn't mention the suit but repeatedly read ad copy for McGregor's whiskey brand.

"The finest, the tastiest, the smoothest liquid gold in the world," Anik said.

These three men are known in the MMA community as dedicated professionals and solid human beings, but it's a clear dereliction of duty not to hold powerful people accountable or at least make objective assessments. If you're holding that microphone, you hold a responsibility. They're not the only media members who do this, MMA or not and sports or not, but it's the kind of thing that wouldn't impress any of my old journalism professors.


A Special Secret About Jake Paul vs. Ben Askren

It looks like Jake Paul is heading back into the boxing ring. That's right. The Donny Lalonde of D-list celebrity fighting is back on the rampage again.

In November, the 24-year-old YouTube dignitary knocked out 36-year-old former NBA backup point guard Nate Robinson. Who's up next? Matt LeBlanc? I'd watch that. Hulk Hogan? Sure. A snowman wearing Bernie Sanders' mittens? Now we're talking.

Ben Askren
Ben AskrenJohn Locher/Associated Press

But no, he didn't do that any of that. He signed up to box Ben Askren.

As a reminder, Askren is a world-class wrestler who fashioned a 19-2-1 record in pro MMA largely fighting in Bellator and overseas for ONE Championship. His top-control wrestling was stifling. Or it was, that is, until he jumped to the UFC, where he went 1-2 thanks in part to the greatest knockout that ever happened.

Now, it's all culminating with this (sarcasm font) amazing (/sarcasm font) fight with Paul. But here's a little secret about Askren that Paul may not have known: He doesn't know how to box.

Should we alert Paul to this? This piece of matchmaking may have been an oversight by his team, given his desire to "be in this sport for a long time." Surely a hot prospect like Paul would want to challenge himself by boxing a boxer, or at least a snowman with Bernie Sanders mittens. Why would Paul sign up for this? It's like driving a parking spot. I'd hate to think Paul was just in this for money or attention. That's not how we do things in MMA. 


Walkout Song of the Week: 'Thunderhorse'

The name says it all. Welcome to my regular feature on walkout songs, because a great fighter walkout song doesn't deserve to live in the shadows. They should be recognized for the strategic tools they are.

For the first edition, let's dig into the archives for a true gem, used by one Tamdan McCrory: "Thunderhorse" by Dethklok.

This one's a cult favorite among people who like fights and music, particularly metal. And you get a twofer with McCrory because he also makes the all-time list of best nicknames. Give it up for the Barncat and this crowd-riling metal anthem.


Movie Fighter of the Week: Johnny Cage

Do you remember where you were when you saw Johnny Cage heartlessly murdered by Shao Khan? I do. It was a movie theater, and I was watching Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. On the list of unexpected character deaths, Cage was somewhere between Ned Stark and Optimus Prime. A true cinematic calamity.

He was also a great character in the original Mortal Kombat game. Who could forget that savage groin punch? In this game, it didn't matter whether you were a thunder god or an undead ninja. If you had family jewels, Johnny Cage was gonna find 'em.


Final Thought

No fight card this weekend, but Wednesday, it was announced American audiences will enjoy four weeks of ONE Championship action on TNT.

ONE Championship is arguably the top MMA show in Asia, so this isn't just something for the hardcores. Flyweight GOAT and longtime UFC champ Demetrious Johnson, perennial lightweight standout Eddie Alvarez and Adriano Moraes, the 135-pound kingpin who could absolutely make hay right now in the UFC, are among the names on the first card. Mark your calendars for some (free) MMA excitement.


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