Forget Conor McGregor, Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson needs to happen next

Elias CepedaYahoo Sports Contributor
Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson have been scheduled to fight four times with each fight being canceled due to injury. (Getty Images)
Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson have been scheduled to fight four times with each fight being canceled due to injury. (Getty Images)

Don’t worry, MMA fans — the stellar UFC lightweight division’s messy title picture is this close to finally being resolved. After years of champions on top of interim champions and the biggest fight in the class — Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson — being delayed, we appear ready to see the bout play out, next.

Right?

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Ferguson has won 12-straight fights and not tasted defeat since 2012. He’s held one of the many UFC interim titles in the process.

Nurmagomedov is still undefeated after submitting Dustin Poirier last weekend at UFC 242, and has long called for the fight with Ferguson. The two champs have fought within just a couple months of one another this summer, and so seem poised for a showdown.

Sure, Conor McGregor predictably and boringly called for a rematch with Nurmagomedov on Twitter after the Dagestani’s latest win. The Irishman was dominated and submitted by Nurmagomedov less than a year ago, however, and has not competed since.

In fact, McGregor has lost three of the past five times he’s stepped into a ring or cage, and has developed a penchant for getting finished in recent years. For nearly a year now, Nurmagomedov rejected the notion of granting the disrespectful McGregor a rematch without the Irishman earning his way back into title-contention with, you know, actual wins.

After UFC 242, however, Nurmagomedov seemed to be less militant on the subject. Perhaps he just wanted to avoid talking about his next fight mere moments after winning his last one, or perhaps Nurmagomedov is more amenable to the UFC’s apparent wishes.

In any case, he appeared to leave more room that someone other than Ferguson would get the next crack at him, than he has in months. “Ahhh, UFC make decision,” he told ESPN’s Jon Anik, cageside, after his UFC 242 win in Abu Dhabi.

“I think yes, [Ferguson] deserve this ... and it’s gonna be good fight.”

UFC president Dana White later told reporters that Ferguson is the next in line for a title shot against Nurmagomedov, but also slipped in a subtle and disturbing caveat.

“Tony Ferguson is next in line for the fight if he accepts the fight,” White said. “We’ll see how this thing plays out when Khabib will fight again and if Tony wants the fight.”

Ferguson wants the fight. Nothing in the history of his professional career or the history of this proposed bout with Nurmagomedov would suggest otherwise.

The question is if he’ll want to fight when and for how much money the UFC wants to pay him for it.

“Tony Ferguson gets the next shot and obviously if for whatever reason Tony can’t take the fight or doesn’t want the fight at that time then we would figure out what was next but Conor would make a lot of sense,” White continued.

“Conor McGregor wants that fight really badly and I’m sure the fans would want to see it.”

Khabib Nurmagomedov squeezes the head of Conor McGregor forcing McGregor to submit during their fight at UFC 229 on Oct. 6, 2018 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. (Getty Images)
Khabib Nurmagomedov squeezes the head of Conor McGregor forcing McGregor to submit during their fight at UFC 229 on Oct. 6, 2018 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. (Getty Images)

Nurmagomedov and McGregor are both so internationally popular that their fans would likely pay money to watch them paint a fence. If we are to treat the largely self-regulated sport of mixed martial arts as something approximating legitimate, however, there is no justifying that rematch at this point.

The sport has worked hard over the past two and a half decades to be taken seriously outside of Brazil and Japan where it originally developed and found popularity in its earlier forms. The type of short-cash matchmaking that would make a Nurmagomedov-McGregor rematch possible would continue to undermine that effort.

Unlike other professional sports and sports leagues where title-contention is determined by preset rules and season and playoff systems, MMA title-fight matchmaking in the UFC is done completely by fiat.

The promotion decides who is a champion and who isn’t, regardless of record, wins or losses. It also unilaterally decides who gets title shots.

Even boxing uses the form of independence with regards to rankings and title-shots by having ostensibly independent sanctioning bodies determine rankings and mandatory challengers. In fact, boxing is required to do this by U.S. federal law (the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act) because third-party ranking and title-fight sanctioning is seen as such a basic necessity for even an attempt at fairness and anti-corruption.

The Ali Act does not yet cover the sport of MMA, and the UFC thus sanctions itself, which is a gigantic conflict of interest. To make matters worse, the UFC’s parent company, WME, has also begun to represent some of its roster’s athletes, meaning that the UFC now hires fighters, promotes and manages them (also illegal in boxing under the Ali Act), and has no oversight when it comes to rankings and title-fight booking.

So, we get abominations like this hypothetical Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor rematch pushed. The UFC has floated the idea of this fight as an immediate rematch since right after McGregor was beaten soundly by Nurmagomedov in 2018.

It makes even less sense now than it did then, if we care at all about fairness and credibility in the sport’s matchmaking. Sadly, the UFC has appeared to care less and less about just that, of late.

The promotion has signed celebrities with no competition experience to fight in their cage, and has expressed a desire to sign more non-athlete celebrities to its roster. They’ve recently introduced more interim title belts than ever before to artificially boost the perceived significance of bouts usually long before even a year has elapsed since a reigning champion has last defended their belt.

Right now, in the beautiful but messy UFC lightweight division, things can be simple, and things can be made right. Whenever Nurmagomedov and Ferguson’s schedules align, they should fight, and whatever the UFC needs to pay each man to make that happen, they should pay.

Due to at least his frequent losses and long absences from competition, McGregor’s name shouldn’t even come up. The former two-division champion can’t buy a win at this point in his career, had nothing for Nurmagomedov when they fought, appeared to beg him for leniency at the close of the third round in their bout, and has accomplished nothing since that loss.

What McGregor has done in the past year and a half or so, however, is assault multiple people outside of the ring, including several UFC fighters and with potentially deadly weapons. The fighter also has a rape allegation and investigation against him at present that White illogically said last month he both knows nothing about, but also seems confident isn’t true.

“I know zero about that,” White told reporters regarding the sexual assault allegation.

“The back-and-forth I’ve had with him about that [is] that it’s not him, that it’s somebody else. You know? So, I don’t know.”

Booking McGregor in a proven bad style matchup against Nurmagomedov that would serve as the face of the company for as long as the bout would be marketed, after he’s lost more than won in recent years, has been caught on tape assaulting multiple people and has a sexual assault investigation against him is a horrible look for the promotion. Doing so as Ferguson, one of the most worthy title-challengers in the organization’s history, idles in the wings would make it worse.

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