With Conor McGregor on Hiatus, the Dust Is Settling in the Featherweight and Lightweight Divisions
Last December, in the main event of UFC 194, Ireland’s Conor McGregor knocked out Jose Aldo in just 13 seconds to claim the UFC featherweight title. A little less than a year later, after two wild welterweight wars with Nate Diaz, McGregor touched down in the lightweight division, where he knocked out Eddie Alvarez to win that division’s title. Just like that, he was the first fighter in UFC history to hold titles in two weight classes concurrently. Things had never been better for the Irish star. Things had also never been more complicated for the fighters in the two weight classes he ruled.
Fighters in the featherweight division were expected to keep slogging on, despite the fact that the title they all so desperately craved hung around the tiger-tattooed abdomen of a fighter who had just taken his third consecutive fight outside the division. Though the UFC did their best to keep the featherweight division moving by crowning Jose Aldo the interim champion in McGregor’s stead, this plan flopped when Aldo became so disillusioned with the state of things that he asked to be released from his contract so he could test his mettle in another sport altogether. With an absentee champion, and a placeholder champion who no longer wanted to fight, the division was in ruins.
Things were marginally less bleak in the lightweight division in the wake of McGregor’s UFC 205 win—though it was certainly not the picture of a healthy division either. Banging on McGregor’s door was a mob of ferocious contenders. This mob was helmed by Khabib Nurmagomedov, who improved his record to a sparkling 24-0 with a win over Michael Johnson on the undercard of UFC 205. Just behind him was Tony Ferguson, who extended his win-streak to nine with a defeat of Rafael Dos Anjos just one week before UFC 205. Further back in the mob were dangerous fighters like Dos Anjos, Johnson, Diaz and Edson Barboza, all of whom sought to earn their shot at the Irish king.
Unfortunately for them, McGregor’s history-making UFC 205 win was preceded by his announcement that he planned to follow the event with a break from competition. This left the many contenders in the lightweight division in a tough spot. Moments after winning the belt, their champion was taking it to Ireland, where it would sit on his mantle, undefended, for god knows how long. Like Aldo, Nurmagomedov found this situation so frustrating that he threatened to leave the UFC if he wasn’t awarded a fight with McGregor.
It was a grim looking stretch for both divisions, as fringe contenders collided violently into each other to no clear end, and number-one contenders and interim champions threatened to pack their suitcases and head out in search of greener pastures. Thankfully, things are already looking better in both divisions.
The logjam at featherweight was cleared considerably when the UFC made the controversial choice to strip McGregor of the title mere weeks into his sabbatical. As they did so, they promoted Aldo from interim champion to undisputed champion, and announced that a looming bout between Max Holloway and Anthony Pettis would be for the interim title. Miraculously, this move was enough to convince Aldo to fight again—though he did assure he’d only fight once before directing his focus back to a bout with McGregor.
“I think I’ve always been the champion, and I will always be the champion,” Aldo stated in an interview with SporTV’s channel Planeta (translated by MMAJunkie.com). “As long as I’m at featherweight, no matter what happens, I’ll keep being the champion. So this, for me, was something that was already certain. The minute I lost, I knew, the next day, the belt would be mine again. It was just a matter of time. Of course, [it was] not the way I wanted, but I’m happy because I know I’m the champion.”
“Of course, first I want to do a [title] defense and then, yes, I will want to pursue a fight with [McGregor].”
At almost the same time that Aldo agreed to defend his new undisputed title rather than continue to drool over a rematch with McGregor, Nurmagomedov seemed to let go of his obsession with a lightweight title shot against McGregor. In fact, the Dagestan native went so far as to request an interim title fight with Tony Ferguson while McGregor took his break.
"I feel very bad about this because before this year I have two years rest because I have been injured all the time,” Nurmagomedov told RT Sport. “Now I don't want [to be] waiting for this guy. If Conor don't want fight before May [or] June, I want to take other fight. I want to fight for the interim belt with Tony Ferguson.”
When McGregor added the lightweight belt to his crowded mantle, and confirmed his intention to take a break from the sport, it cast a shadow of uncertainty over the two divisions he ruled. Yet here we are, just weeks removed from his history-making UFC 205 win, and the dust has already settled in both the featherweight and lightweight divisions.
At featherweight, the new undisputed champion can look forward to a title unification bout with the winner of Holloway and Pettis’ looming interim title showdown. At lightweight, Nurmagomedov and Ferguson seemed poised to fight for an interim bout of their own to keep the division moving in McGregor’s stead. Yes, despite the grim state in which McGregor left the two divisions he ruled, it seems that both will be neat and tidy by the time he makes his return to action. Who would have thought?
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