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At UFC 229, there are a lot of people walking around with belts

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

One of the special treats going on in Las Vegas this week is the feeling that the inmates are truly running the asylum. Khabib Nurmagomedov couldn’t be talked out of his punctuality at the UFC 229 press conference, knowing damn well that Conor McGregor — nothing if not insubordinate — would be late. He stormed the stage at exactly 3pm local time, forcing Dana White, like a reluctant father figure, to traipse out there after him, forgoing the big introduction video and everything. Fifteen minutes later, Khabib was gone, and Dana was left to fend for himself.

At 3:26pm, McGregor showed up with his bottle of Proper No. Twelve and an amazing hat, as carefree as you please. Why was he late? Traffic, he said. I half expected him to go off on “time” itself when it was brought up. Time can kiss deez Irish balls! We are on McGregor time, and that’s it. Talk to me about time — fug time, time is just a bunch of long hands and short hands when only one hand matters, and that’s dis one getting raised!

Even more curious — and perhaps it’s just a passing thing — but most of the people in the lightweight division who are to appear on UFC 229 have been running around with belts. Nobody from the UFC seems to care or notice who’s real and who’s not. After all, it was the UFC that issued these belts at different, often desperate junctures. So all the recipients, old and new, carry them around like souvenirs, or security blankets, or bun-buns.

Tony Ferguson has had his belt with him all week, showing it off with no small amount of spite. Of all the people appearing on UFC 229, Ferguson is the saltiest blend of chopped liver. He won the interim title last October by beating Kevin Lee, and was set to defend against Nurmagomedov in April. But then the old “Trip and Strip” happened, leaving him out of the loop. He tumbled over a cable and tore up his left knee, saw his title evaporate before his eyes, and is now returning after five months with a freshly healed scar.

And, of course, his belt. It turns out he hung onto it. He’s basically telling everybody to #NeverForget, and he’s been doing a good job.

Ferguson’s not alone. Nurmagomedov, who won the vacant title the same week that Ferguson fell out with the injury, has his belt too — and it’s the closest to legit, though defining legitimacy at this point is like trying handle an eel with slick hands. Khabib’s belt is the one being dangled in the main event on Saturday night. The guy going after it is of course McGregor, who travels to any public appearance these days with both of the titles he never lost (nor defended). He had them again on Thursday, bringing the total number of belts in circulation to four. Anthony Pettis could have added to the confusion by dredging up the old belt from the Wheaties’ box, but he seems like the only one truly versed in the art of letting go.

The fun thing is, the UFC is just kind of turning the other cheek through it all — politely putting up with the real champ and suffering the imposters. What’s even more fun is that right smack dab in the middle of the press conference, in the 11 minutes that Dana White was forced to hold court, he was asked about the 165-pound division that doesn’t exist. Dana said he had no interest in a bridge division like that because it would decimate the lightweight and welterweight divisions, and give refuge to contenders who flunked out of each. On that point, he was fairly emphatic.

But moments later, when Conor was done revving up the thousands of Irish in attendance with shouts of “F*ck the Jameson Brothers!” he was asked about the new division, too.

So what did Conor say? Why, he’s all about a 165-pound division! He thinks it swell idea. The sooner the better. As he was endorsing it, there stood Dana White, the boss who for so long had control of the environs, ready to beat the next person that asked about it with the microphone. Nobody is obeying a damn thing right now. Nate Diaz, the biggest proponent of the new division, keeps threatening to not show up for UFC 230 in November, and Joanna Jedrzejczyk just expressed her disgust that the UFC tore up her bout agreement with Valentina Shevchenko so that Shevchencko can fight Sijara Eubanks.

If UFC 230 is anything like UFC 229, Nicco Montaño will show up to Manhattan carrying around her flyweight title, because right now big gaudy accessories are all the rage. And if UFC 230 is anything like this one, the UFC will just smile and nod and leave it up to the people to decide exactly what the hell’s going on.

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