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The Great Divide: Should the lightweight title be on the line at UFC 257?

MMA Fighting

The Great Divide is a recurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which two of our staff debate a topic in the world of MMA – news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments below.

This past Saturday, we at last got the answer to the long-awaited question of whether or not we truly have seen the last of Khabib Nurmagomedov inside the octagon. UFC President Dana White positioned the announcement between the first and second fights of his promotion’s debut on ABC, and we all watched as he divulged the details of his previously announced meeting with “The Eagle.” Soon, we would know the fate of the lightweight title and the rest of the division.

Except we didn’t actually learn any new information. White dropped an absolute dud of a news item, saying that Nurmagomedov told him he plans to keep an eye on UFC 257, with the hopes that one of the lightweights competing will “do something special” to possibly lure Nurmagomedov back for another fight. If that sentence seems like it is full of conditional statements, it’s because it is. We’re no closer to figuring out Nurmagomedov’s future than we were before.

Fortunately for us, we are not beholden to the whims of White nor the UFC, and we’re free to ask whether a decision should have been made for the state of the championship, regardless of what Nurmagomedov did or didn’t say. More specifically, should the UFC lightweight title be up for grabs in Saturday’s main event between Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor?

MMA Fighting’s Alexander K. Lee and Jed Meshew give their thoughts on how the UFC could have handled this situation differently.


Lee: What is taking so long to get this lightweight division sorted out?

Given the UFC’s propensity for 1) insisting that almost every pay-per-view has a title fight at the top and 2) giving title shots to Conor McGregor, it is absolutely mystifying that they have dug their heels in so deeply when it comes to not stripping Khabib Nurmagomedov of the belt and putting it up for grabs at UFC 257. It’s such an obvious course of action that were I not a level-headed member of the media, I would think this is Dana White’s way of trolling us for all the times that we questioned the gratuitous introduction of interim belts or what we considered to be unjust title opportunities.

Maybe Nurmagomedov decides to fight again someday. Maybe he doesn’t (he probably doesn’t). Either way, it sounds like he’s not coming back for a while, and if he does decide to pop up within the next 12 months, it will likely be for a Georges St-Pierre fight that he’s supposedly no longer interested in (sure, Dana) or he would pursue a title in another weight class.

Don’t buy what White said about Nurmagomedov watching UFC 257 with the hopes that his competitive fires are stoked by a brilliant performance from one of the four featured lightweights. If White is to be believed, Nurmagomedov is so intent on watching UFC 257, he actually chose to leave Abu Dhabi after corning his cousin Umar on Wednesday as opposed to sticking around a few extra days to see the show in person. “...if these guys can do something special, Khabib will fight them,” my foot.

So if we all accept that White’s most recent display of posturing is just that, then we can ask whether Poirier and McGregor are worthy of competing for a vacant title. For Poirier, there’s no question. He’s coming off of a “Fight of the Year” candidate against Dan Hooker and is not far removed from a failed lightweight title unification bid against Nurmagomedov. He worked his way up to that title shot by beating the elite at 155, and he’s a wonderful ambassador for the sport.

McGregor is kind of a jerk, but there’s no arguing that he’s still the shiniest star in all of MMA, even with the boom in popularity that Nurmagomedov has had in the past couple of years. It does sound absurd to put him in a lightweight title fight when you consider that his last official win at 155 pounds was in November 2016, and his 40-second TKO of Donald Cerrone last year was a lightweight win in all but name, and the UFC will probably rewrite history when no one is looking and just ignore that it was a welterweight bout. And when you’re one of the few fighters that can make a claim to being bigger than the UFC, there’s really no such thing as an unearned championship opportunity.

Look, this isn’t just about giving Poirier a chance to add the real thing to his trophy case, or to stroke McGregor’s already well-tended ego. Keeping the belt in play is one of the easiest ways to keep the UFC’s deepest division moving. (And to add a few PPV buys. Again, why is the UFC not doing this?) Let the rest of the 155ers know what they’re fighting for and stop this endless jockeying for position, especially since the longer this goes on the more difficult it will be for these guys to know exactly what it is they’re fighting for.

Dan Hooker. Michael Chandler. Charles Oliveira. These fighters deserve to know what’s going on with the prize at the top of the division, and they deserve to know now. No more “staying in the mix.” No more waiting for Khabib. No more nebulous promises based on constantly shifting benchmarks that are defined by White and White alone. Yes, they’ll always be at the mercy of the higher powers, but at least give the fighters (and fans) the illusion of control. A belt is just a prop, but when utilized properly—say, positioned at the top of the first major event of the year—it’s a prop that can prove to be invaluable.

For now, let Nurmagomedov stick to his retirement plan. Even if he is waffling on his decision, he doesn’t need to carry around the belt while he deliberates. Give him what he wants, which is not to worry about fighting for now, and give the active fighters what they want, which is a shiny belt to wear and the fatter paychecks that typically come with it.

Stop promoting this “will he, won’t he” sideshow, and get back to promoting fighters and fights. In other words, put the belt back in play and get back to doing your job.


Meshew: I understand the urge for there to be a title on the line this weekend, I really do. The lightweight division is by far the best division in the sport, and with Khabib Nurmagomedov retired from the game, that means that there is suddenly a major vacuum. But having Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier fight for that title is not the right way to handle this situation for a number of reasons.

The most obvious reason against anointing this weekend’s winner the lightweight champion is that McGregor has a very good shot to win. That’s not to say McGregor doesn’t deserve it (he doesn’t but we’ll get to that later), but if there’s a worst-case scenario for the lightweight division, it’s McGregor getting the title. You think the division is logjammed right now? Just wait to see what happens if McGregor reclaims the strap. McGregor has literally never defended a belt in his life, and there’s no reason to believe this time would be any different. After all, why would he want to?

By virtue of being the biggest star in the sport, McGregor has far more opportunities available to him than anyone else does. If Poirier were to win the title, he’d just go on defending because really, what else is he going to do? But Conor? There are already rumblings of a return to boxing against Manny Pacquiao, and that fight would be far more lucrative for him, not to mention imminently more sellable if he’s the UFC champion. We’d see that one in the works almost immediately. Or how about McGregor finally moving to welterweight to try and become a three-division champion? He briefly flirted with it when Tyron Woodley was the welterweight king and let’s be honest, if Gilbert Burns becomes champion that is almost guaranteed to be the move he’d try to make. And even if McGregor did defend the lightweight belt, it would probably be against Nate Diaz. None of that is moving the division along.

More importantly though, at a very basic level, when a champion vacates his or her title, the two top contenders in the division should be the ones fighting for the belt. And for this weekend, only one of the fighters can claim that. Poirier is currently the second-ranked lightweight in the division, the seventh-ranked pound-for-pound fighter overall, and he has wins over numbers one, six, and nine in the divisional rankings. Meanwhile, McGregor has one win over a currently-ranked lightweight, and that is Poirier – seven years ago at featherweight. Simply put, McGregor does not deserve to fight for the title.

The fact of the matter is McGregor, by his own admission, hasn’t really competed at lightweight. He’s only fought at 155 twice in the UFC, and he’s 1-1 in those two showings. Even if you want to add in his fight with Donald Cerrone, which was contested at welterweight, you’re still talking about giving the man a title shot because he knocked out a man who was on a two-fight losing streak coming into their fight! Yes, being the biggest star in the sport undoubtedly gets you extra leeway in situations like this. But it shouldn’t supersede everything. At some point, merit has to come into play.

Which brings me to what should happen and what appears to be happening on a de facto basis: a lightweight grand prix. This weekend, Poirier and McGregor are going to fight, as are Michael Chandler and Dan Hooker and though Dana White contends an “impressive” performance might cajole Khabib into one more fight, we all know that’s not actually going to happen. Instead, McGregor or Poirier will win and then, if Chandler wins, the UFC will probably pull the trigger on a title fight between those two. If Hooker wins, then it’ll be Conor or Dustin vs. Charles Oliveira for the belt. And while that’s all fine, it’s still not the way the UFC should actually handle things.

Nurmagomedov is the greatest lightweight in history, the greatest champion of the greatest division in the sport. That means something, and it shouldn’t be cheapened in a mad dash to keep the UFC money machine churning. Whoever wins the lightweight title next won’t be the best lightweight on the planet (at least not for a few years), but they will be the best lightweight competing in the UFC, and that honorific is something that should be earned, not given. That means you shouldn’t just have a few hand-selected top guys in contention for it, but all of the cream of the crop should have a shot.

Putting together the top eight guys in the world (well, the top seven and Michael Chandler) would not only be great for the fans, it would re-legitimize a belt that will be only one step above paper once the UFC does finally strip Khabib. The main and co-main events at UFC 257 can cover one half of the grand prix bracket, and just last month, Oliveira kicked the sh*t out of Tony Ferguson, so he’s already through to the semi-finals. Round things out with number-one ranked Justin Gaethje vs. former champion Rafael dos Anjos, and that’s one hell of a tournament we’ve got set up. Whoever made it through that gauntlet would undeniably be the best non-Khabib lightweight on Earth. And isn’t that what it should all be about?

Like I said at the start, we’re in agreement that the UFC needs to move on from the Khabib-fighting-again pipe dream (or more particularly, Dana White needs to move on). But they don’t need to be in a rush to do so. Remember when Conor won the title and then all hell broke loose in the division for the next few years? The thing that finally ended all that and returned things to a sense of structure and normalcy was Khabib clearly establishing himself as the king of the lightweights. What keeps fighters happy and divisions healthy is structure at the top, and that’s what the UFC needs right now: A clear-cut plan on how to crown Khabib’s successor. Hopefully, we’ll get one soon.


Should the UFC 257 main event be for a vacant lightweight title?

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