What's next for Conor, Khabib and the UFC's lightweight division

Conor McGregor was stripped of the UFC lightweight title that Khabib Nurmagomedov won by defeating Al Iaquinta on Saturday at UFC 223 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. (Getty)
Conor McGregor was stripped of the UFC lightweight title that Khabib Nurmagomedov won by defeating Al Iaquinta on Saturday at UFC 223 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. (Getty)

Last week marked the wildest fight week in the history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a company not exactly known as a serene environment in the first place.

The madness started when Tony Ferguson had to pull out of his planned UFC 223 main event against Khabib Nurmagomedov after blowing out his knee tripping over a production cable at the Fox lot in Los Angeles. It continued with featherweight Max Holloway stepping into the bout for Ferguson.

That turn of events alone was newsworthy. But then former champion Conor McGregor — who was angry both at being stripped of the belt and at Nurmagomedov for a midweek hotel run-in with McGregor’s teammate, Artem Lobov — launched an ill-advised assault on a fighter van containing Nurmagomedov at Barclays Center on Thursday. Several people were injured in the assault and McGregor was arrested on multiple charges. He’ll return to a Brooklyn, New York, courtroom on June 14.

Friday, Holloway was pulled from the fight by an overly meddlesome New York State Athletic Commission official who pulled him from his weight cut. That led to a chain reaction of events that ended with Al Iaquinta, who was originally slated to fight Paul Felder, getting the nod to face Nurmagomedov.

So with the dust settling on Saturday night’s pay-per-view event in Brooklyn, which ended with Nurmagomedov earning a one-sided decision over Iaquinta to win the lightweight title, here’s how things figure to shake out for the notable players coming out of last week:

Nurmagomedov: The undefeated Dagestani was the eye of the hurricane all week. He didn’t flinch throughout the insane chain of events. Nurmagomedov accepted Holloway as replacement for Ferguson. He responded to McGregor’s attempt to intimidate him with stoicism. He made weight early during Friday morning’s weigh-in window, then sat back while the drama unfolded that ended up with Iaquinta as his opponent. Then he went out and improved to 10-0 in the UFC with his victory over Iaquinta. Nurmagomedov doesn’t have McGregor’s star power — no one else in the sport does — but this week’s events only served to make the new lightweight champ bigger than he’s ever been, and if a grudge match with McGregor can be put together, he’ll make more money than he ever dreamed. Which leads us to …

McGregor: McGregor’s path is the trickiest one to navigate. There’s the biggest, obvious obstacle: his legal situation, one which could potentially put him behind bars and his career on ice. Going on the assumption that the legal situation will sort itself out, McGregor basically has to decide whether he really wants to be a fighter any more, or whether he’s content to live off the massive paycheck from his boxing match with Floyd Mayweather Jr. and continue making an idiot of himself in public and ruining his hard-won image as a competitor who dreams big and makes it happen. The UFC, for its part, isn’t in a position to wash its hands of McGregor, who is far and away its biggest star. The very real grudge between McGregor and Nurmagomedov will make for a gigantic money fight, if it can be put together. First, McGregor needs to clean up his act. The ball’s in his court.

Iaquinta: It might sound a little weird to say that a fighter who lost a 50-43 fight saw his stock rise in the process, but that’s exactly what happened. Iaquinta, a quirky and personable dude who goes by the nickname “Raging Al,” won five straight fights and eight out of nine heading into Saturday night. He demonstrated significant heart in weathering Nurmagomedov’s onslaught over the first two rounds, then got back into the fight, landing often enough to give the bout an air of excitement up until the final horn. Not a bad showing for a guy who trained for a three-round bout and found himself going five on 24-hours’ notice.

Ferguson: If it wasn’t clear before this week that UFC title belts are just as much promotional props as they are signifiers of the world’s best fighter at any given weight class, it is now. Ferguson was injured in a freak accident while filling out contracted promotional obligations for the UFC, but that didn’t stop the company from deciding the interim championship he was going to defend against Nurmagomedov no longer exists. Ferguson tore his lateral collateral ligament, which means he’s going to be out for awhile. But whether he was hurt or healthy, Ferguson is going to be a bargaining chip as the UFC attempts to put together Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor: If McGregor’s demands to return to the cage are outrageous, the UFC can always go back to making Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson, a long-teased fight which has fallen out on four separate occasions. If Nurmagomedov-McGregor gets made, then Ferguson will be the odd man out.

Holloway: Aside from the fact he didn’t actually get the fight, this week could barely have gone better for the UFC featherweight champion. Holloway has made his name on his willingness to fight anywhere, anytime. He accepted a fight with a now 26-0 killer who is a weight class above him, on six days’ notice, flying 12 hours from from Hawaii to New York. He also was pulled from the fight over his vigorous protestations. If it was up to Holloway, he would have fought Saturday night. The mere fact Holloway was willing to accept this fight adds to Holloway’s legend. But by not actually having to compete in the fight, one in which he would have been a decided underdog, Holloway keeps his 13-fight win streak, and goes back to what’s expected to be a barnburner of a featherweight title fight against Brian Ortega with his already stellar reputation only further enhanced.

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