LAS VEGAS — Let’s talk about the landscape of the UFC’s lightweight division as we head into 2018.
It’s actually pretty similar to what it was heading into 2017 — with the exception of about $100 million.
It starts with Conor McGregor, which, frankly, doesn’t add a whole lot of clarity.
At this time last year, McGregor was looking at an extended break to celebrate the birth of his son. That, of course, turned into a boxing match against Floyd Mayweather, which turned into a (reported) $100 million payday — the kind of payday that brings major uncertainty to a fighter’s immediate future.
The other players at 155 pounds? Also pretty similar to where they were last year.
Tony Ferguson is the rock. He’s up to 10 consecutive wins, and was rightfully crowned the division’s interim champion in October.
Nate Diaz is chilling. Hasn’t fought since his McGregor rematch in August 2016. He’s a far cry from retirement, but only rolls out of bed for the right offer.
And Khabib Nurmagomedov, the stoic, undefeated Dagestani who mauls ranked lightweights as if they are practice dummies, is fresh off a jaw-dropping performance over Edson Barboza at UFC 219 — the kind that makes you wonder whether Barboza will ever be the same.
Nurmagomedov finished off 2016 the same way, when he demoralized Michael Johnson in front of 20,000-plus at UFC 205 in New York.
So what do the three potential challengers to McGregor and the lightweight title bring to the table? Ferguson is the most deserving. Diaz is the most mainstream.
And Nurmagomedov is the best.
That’s not a vote for Nurmagomedov to jump the line. This division veered so far off the tracks in 2017, a return to normalcy (McGregor facing the interim champion, Ferguson) is badly needed.
But after witnessing, once again, what Nurmagomedov is capable of when healthy, it’s impossible not to sit here on the eve of 2018 and not beg the cosmos for that fight to happen eventually.
For the trash talk, yes. For the stylistic matchup, of course. And for the clash of McGregor’s Irish fanbase with Nurmagomedov’s Russian supporters.
But also because Nurmagomedov might not just beat McGregor — he may be capable of ripping him apart, piece by piece, over 25 minutes.
It’s a dark element of intrigue no other potential McGregor opponent currently brings. The UFC figured out a way to make Mayweather-McGregor happen in 2017. It would be wonderful if it could somehow do the same for McGregor-Nurmagomedov in 2018.