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This is a New Year’s column in which the hashtag #DefendOrVacate is used

UFC 205 photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

There’s an iconic scene in the 1979 movie The Warriors where the New York gang leader Luther shows up in Coney Island on the morning After the Trouble and chants, “Warriors, come out to play-ee-ay!”

I got that feeling Saturday night when Khabib Nurmagomedov left Edson Barboza in poor order after three rounds of sustained human mauling. He was like Luther out there in Coney Island, clanking beer bottles together delicately on his fingertips, trying to provoke the warriors — in this case the “bullshit guys” Tony Ferguson and Conor McGregor — to come out and play.

In Ferguson’s case, you know he will. In fact, not long after Nurmagomedov acted as a Dagestani rolling pin to one of the UFC’s most dynamic strikers and made everybody say all at once, ‘holy red hell, good luck beating that guy,’ Ferguson was on Twitter again getting freaky with his caps.

“Don’t Care If The @ufc Approves, I’ll Cut @TheNotoriousMMA…Drop @TeamKhabib & Move Up To Welterweight Either B4 Or After I’m Done w/ This Division & Rid It Of The Trash At The Top,” he wrote. “Pollution Has Accumilated Over The Years, Time To Clean House #DefendOrVacate –TheeChamp”

This appears to be code for his motives, which are to beat up McGregor, then circle back around to Nurmagomedov, then bounce to welterweight (maybe) after purifying the air — or perhaps just clean the house — because obviously either you defend a belt or you give it up. The tweet, when dissected and analyzed, seems to be more about McGregor than Nurmagomedov.

At any rate, Ferguson was just reminding us in his special own way that he’s ready to take off his shirt whenever they say; the rest of UFC roster may shriek at the sight of a papakha, but not the UFC’s most dangerous eccentric. All good.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The warrior who may or may not come out and play at all is McGregor, the lightweight champion who is — for all intents and purposes — holding the belt ransom for a share in UFC ownership, or an unprecedented foray into co-promotion, or a quickly dying-on-the-vine trilogy fight with Diaz, or something. McGregor didn’t fight in the UFC in 2017, and has nothing set up for 2018. He made his absurd millions in the boxing ring, and by default the rest of the division remains — to his way of thinking, anyway — frozen in awe.

Only, as we head into the New Year and the seasons continue to pass outside the window, we’re to the point now where awe has become more like um. As in, um, WTF? Either the healthy McGregor intends to defend the lightweight title — and soon — or he doesn’t. Either he fights Ferguson as he’s supposed to, or the belt needs to be plucked out of Dublin. On that point, Ferguson is right.

Either #DefendOrVacate.

It shouldn’t be able to work both ways for the convenience of history. The belts were made readily available to McGregor during his pursuit of becoming the UFC’s first simultaneous two-division champion, which to his credit he made the most of. Yet now that he’s achieved it — now that he has the lightweight title in his possession — he’s happy to make everyone beg?

This must be what it’s like to watch greatness spoil.

Here’s the problem, and it was made all the more emphatic with each Nurmagomedov hammerfist into Barboza’s head: This sport doesn’t have that kind of attention span. McGregor’s race to history begins to take on asterisks the way the Titanic took on water with each day that passes. Idleness has a way of making people see achievements in a different light. They see somebody like Nurmagomedov clobbering Barboza, and — though it was his first fight in long while — it looks like activity.

It looks current, like participation.

In this last year, people who follow the UFC have found themselves pondering concepts they don’t traditionally think about. Such as, is there nobility in a game of keep away? Is the thing that defines a champion his willingness to stake a prized possession — or to welcome another man’s best shot to take it — and see if he can prevail? McGregor has been exceptional, but he’s not excepted from such basics as these.

More importantly: Just how far is the UFC willing to bend and contort to allow special conditions? To the point that McGregor dictates every condition and term? That seems a little protective for a league that got popular by continuously making greatness vulnerable. At some point, enough is enough. Either McGregor gets out of the way, or he gets in the way.

Got to be one or the other, even for the UFC’s biggest draw.

The kicker is this idea that McGregor made the kind of money that he’s lost interest, a little side effect to the Mayweather escapade. Though Dana White recently said he hoped to get McGregor back in the summer (a full year-and-a-half since he won the title at UFC 205), he also pointed out that McGregor may never fight again, a casual reminder that he has plenty of money and therefore, you know, why would he want to get punched in the face? As if the fighter — the man who used that romantic occupation to not only define his greatness, but make it destinational — has all but been eradicated.

It reminds me of a song that’s popular around this time of the year.

Should Old Acquaintance be forgot,
and never thought upon;

The flames of Love extinguished,

and fully past and gone:

Is thy sweet Heart now grown so cold,

that loving Breast of thine;

That thou canst never once reflect

On old long syne.

If it has to be out with the old and in with the new in the lightweight division, the UFC only has to delete the word “interim” from the title equation to give it life. Nurmagomedov has showed back up just in time, and Ferguson is always ready to come out and play.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

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