If you watched the UFC St. Louis post-fight this past weekend, you're familiar with UFC president Dana White‘s latest catch phrase when asked about all-but-confirmed news.
In the past, he would say, “We'll see what happens.” Now White is saying, ” Did we put out a press release? No? Then I probably shouldn't talk about it.”
On a Boston radio show on Wednesday, White started talking about the likelihood of interim UFC lightweight champion Tony Ferguson facing Khabib Nurmagomedov at a highly rumored date of April 7 in Brooklyn, N.Y. On Thursday, the UFC made it official, putting out a press release that confirmed the fight, along with the already announced UFC 222 main event pitting featherweight champ Max Holloway against Frankie Edgar on March 3 in Las Vegas.
That's a good thing, because we need White to answer a few more questions. There was a key bit of information that was left out of the press release announcing Ferguson vs. Nurmagomedov. That being: what happens to UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor‘s belt?
McGregor has already held onto the lightweight title for well over a year without defending it. Granted, a good portion of that time was to welcome his first child into the world and then to land a boxing spectacle with Floyd Mayweather, which took place in August. That was five months ago, though, and McGregor's belt is still collecting dust.
Though McGregor is the UFC's current king, easily the most promotable fighter in the world, even White knows that the brash Irishman can't continue to keep the UFC at bay and be allowed to hold onto the belt.
White has said recently, it's okay if McGregor doesn't want to fight again or take lengthy time off, that's his choice, but he can't be allowed to leave the title stagnant. The UFC president added though that McGregor has indicated he might not want to fight again until September and that sounds to be a bridge too far.
“Conor has said he’s thinking about coming back in September. If he comes back in September, that’s almost two years (since he won the title). That can’t happen,” White said in St. Louis. “It’s not fair to everybody else.”
With the announcement of Ferguson vs. Nurmagomedov to headline UFC 223, there was no clarification on the title situation. The press release did not say that the fight would be for Ferguson's interim belt or whether McGregor would be stripped and the two would fight for the undisputed UFC lightweight championship.
In revealing a press conference slated for Friday ahead of UFC 222 in Boston, the UFC said:
“Additionally, fans will get their first look at their UFC 223 main event, the highly anticipated bout between interim lightweight champion TONY FERGUSON and the undefeated powerhouse KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV. Ferguson looks to extend his 10-fight win streak, while Khabib looks to claim UFC gold for the first time, while maintaining his perfect record. UFC 223 takes place on April 7 at theBarclays Center in Brooklyn, NY.”
Though White doesn't want McGregor to hold up the belt much longer, there are a couple factors in play.
McGregor has been angling for a new deal with the UFC, pushing for some sort of equity stake in the fight promotion or the ability to co-promote events with his brand, McGregor Sports and Entertainment, which he did for the fight with Mayweather. Either of those moves would be unprecedented for a UFC athlete. Of course, McGregor's career in the UFC has already charted and unprecedented course.
Secondly, there are strong rumors that the UFC is close to landing its Russian debut in September. If Nurmagomedov, who is Russian, were to defeat Ferguson for the interim belt in April and McGregor were allowed to hang on to his lightweight title, it would certainly make for the biggest blockbuster bout that the UFC could hope for when landing in Russia for the first time.
So, while we all want to know if McGregor will remain the champ, we may not even find out at Friday's press conference to promote UFC 222 and UFC 223. McGregor and the UFC are playing a high-stakes game of chicken in negotiating his next ground-breaking deal, and neither wants to budge. Who is going to flinch first?