The state of the UFC lightweight division was thrust deeper into limbo this past Saturday when Khabib Nurmagomedov scored a thunderous victory over Edson Barboza at UFC 219, adding to the logjam at the top of the ranks between absentee champion Conor McGregor and interim champion Tony Ferguson.
McGregor hasn’t fought in MMA since his Nov. 2016 title victory over Eddie Alvarez, and many assumed that a title unification bout against Ferguson would be next for the Irishman. McGregor said as much late last year. Still, in the aftermath of Nurmagomedov’s performance at UFC 219, and Nurmagomedov’s subsequent Twitter dialogue with McGregor, rumblings started emerging about Nurmagomedov potentially skipping the queue and jumping straight into a fight against McGregor.
UFC president Dana White addressed those rumors as well as McGregor’s timetable for a return Thursday in an interview with Yahoo! Sports‘ Kevin Iole.
“I love that matchup (against Nurmagomedov), but Tony Ferguson is the interim champion, and Conor and I haven’t really figured out when he’s coming back and what’s going on,” White said. “So Conor has some big decisions to make here, really quick. If he waits — I don’t think Conor wants to fight until August, but if he waits until August or September, that’s around two years since the belt has been defended, and that can’t happen.”
Ferguson has long called on McGregor to “defend or vacate” the UFC lightweight belt. Those calls have only picked up since it became clear 2017 would come and go without McGregor competing in MMA.
If McGregor is targeting a return in August or September, as White suggested, that would put “The Notorious” at 21 or 22 months without defending the 155-pound title. And White acknowledged that out of obligation to the sport, such a long a gap between defenses of the belt would be a problem.
“Not only to the sport, but to the other fighters,” White said. “This is game of time. Time is your enemy in this sport, or any other sport. When you’re a professional athlete, time is your enemy, and we can’t let this thing go on forever and not give other guys the opportunity. Tony Ferguson has been around for a long time and has earned his dues, Khabib has earned his dues, and the list goes on and on. So, Conor has done very well, he’s made a lot of money, and if he decides that he doesn’t want to fight again for another, however long, that’s up to him. That’s his choice and his decision. But the belt has to move on, so we’ve gotta figure some stuff out about him in the next couple of months.”
Regardless of what happens with McGregor, White seemed to indicate that Ferguson vs. Nurmagomedov is the fight the UFC is interested in booking next, and he suggested the matchup could end up being for the legitimate title if McGregor chooses to wait.
“As long as Conor is willing to (book a) fight by March, we could do Khabib versus Tony,” White said. “We could do Khabib versus Tony, and then the winner fights Conor for the title. Or if Conor doesn’t want to fight and wants to sit out until next fall, then we would have to make Khabib versus Tony for the title, not the interim title.”
White also dismissed the notion that contract negotiations with McGregor are slowing the Irishman’s return.
White’s comments came a few days after McGregor suggested on Twitter that all it would take for him to come back was the UFC paying him what he is worth.
“I’ve never been afraid to pay Conor McGregor money,” White said. “Conor McGregor brings the money in, and we’ve laid out a really nice offer for him, and he’s a smart kid. I think we’ll figure it out. I’ve always figured it out with him. I’ve always ended up getting a deal done with Conor McGregor. The question is, and you’re right, does he have so much money that he doesn’t care anymore and he doesn’t really want to fight? That’s up to him, but in no way, shape, or form am I asking him to come back and not make money, because he’s going to make money.”