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Dana White: If Khabib Nurmagomedov doesn’t want to defend title, ‘I won’t push it anymore’

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Dana White’s great chase may finally be over.

From the moment that Khabib Nurmagomedov announced he was retiring—following a successful title defense against Justin Gaethje at UFC 254 in October—White has insisted in interviews that he expected Nurmagomedov to reconsider ending his competitive career. As recently as last Saturday, White said that at a meeting with Nurmagomedov in Abu Dhabi, the lightweight champion told him he might return to action if “something special” happened at UFC 257.

That event went down last night and two lightweights delivered in a major way, with Dustin Poirier winning his rematch with Conor McGregor by second-round TKO to avenge a past loss, and three-time Bellator champion Michael Chandler making an emphatic debut with a first-round finish of Dan Hooker.

Even with those statement wins, White admitted that he’s not convinced they were enough to draw Nurmagomedov back into the fold after speaking with him after Saturday night’s event.

“I did talk to Khabib,” White said at the evening’s post-fight presser. “He said to me, ‘Dana, be honest with yourself. I’m so many levels above these guys. I beat these guys.’ I don’t know. I don’t know what he’s—it doesn’t sound very positive, so we’ll see.

“And what he said was, I told you guys before, he won’t hold the division up. I mean, he already retired. He’s basically retired, I’m the one that’s been trying to get him to do one more.”

That’s the first time White has at least somewhat waved the white flag when it comes to Nurmagomedov’s comeback negotiations, which isn’t surprising given that Nurmagomedov had already said earlier this week that he was not planning to go back on a promise he made to his mother. Nurmagomedov didn’t even stick around to watch UFC 257 in-person, instead leaving Abu Dhabi after corning his cousin Umar Nurmagomedov to a win on Wednesday.

Chandler made sure to mention Khabib in his post-fight speech after defeating Hooker, declaring himself “the new lightweight king” while lobbying for fights with Poirier, McGregor, and Nurmagomedov.

White only heard some of Chandler’s callout, but regardless of what was said any matchmaking with Nurmagomedov is entirely dependent on what “The Eagle” wants.

“He was saying all kinds of things,” White said. “I can’t hear well, so I kept asking what he was saying, I didn’t get most of what he said but I knew he was fired up and I’m sure he was asking me for something, but I don’t know exactly what he said… But yeah, I’m obviously gonna talk to Khabib and see if he wants to defend that title. And if he doesn’t, I won’t push it anymore.”

White has made it no secret that he desired a rematch between Nurmagomedov and McGregor. The two stars fought a little over two years ago at UFC 229, an event that broke records for the UFC and ended in a chaotic melee between Nurmagomedov and McGregor’s teams that laid the groundwork for a second fight.

As insistent as Nurmagomedov has been that he has no interest in fighting McGregor again, White thinks the magnitude of the matchup is hard to resist.

“He wanted to see something spectacular, so I know he wanted Conor to lose, but there has to be a little piece of him inside that, you know—The fight with him and Conor would have been the biggest fight ever…” White said. “So the last few days, the way that this thing’s been trending—and you guys had to feel it with your numbers too, I mean our numbers were off the charts this week—I was saying that I felt Khabib-Conor could be the No. 3 fight all-time period in all combat sports. Today, I felt like it could be No. 1. I felt like it could beat McGregor-Mayweather.

“A piece of him had to want to be a part of a fight that big.”

As of now, White has no hard deadline for Nurmagomedov to make a decision—assuming he hasn’t already—so he’s in no rush to figure out what’s next for the lightweight title that has yet to be vacated. White did acknowledge that Poirier and Chandler are likely candidates to fight for a vacant lightweight belt should it come to it.

“It doesn’t matter because these two just fought, they’re not fighting again anytime soon,” White said. “We’ll get it figured out.”