It was supposed to be one of the most anticipated fight cards of the year. At long last, Interim Champ Tony Ferguson and Number 1 contender Khabib Nurmagomedov were set to square off and settle who would carry the championship mantle of the lightweight division, dethroning the delinquent Conor McGregor. You may remember way back in November 2016 he defeated Eddie Alvarez at Madison Square Garden to become the UFC’s first “Two Division Champ,” only to split from MMA to pursue his career in boxing. In a poignant circumstance of synchronicity, it’s New York City where his belt is being taken away. The lightweight division was held in limbo as a result of McGregor’s inactivity. Ferguson was given the interim title after defeating Kevin Lee late last year.
The dark stars of misfortune began to align when it was reported that Tony Ferguson was out of the fight due to a knee injury sustained by tripping over a cable during a UFC press event. ESPN’s Brett Okamoto reported it as “The freak accident of all freak accidents. He was walking, saw someone he wasn’t expecting to see, veered sharply to say hello and tripped.”
Sad but true, Ferguson was off of the fight card. To add insult to injury, his recently-won interim belt, was taken away from him. He wasn’t actually stripped, because that would imply that the title was going to be given to someone else; his belt sort of just dissolved. The news came on April 1, leaving the UFC less than a week to find another opponent for Nurmagomedov to validate his claim as lightweight champion.
It was then announced that featherweight champion Max Holloway would come in on short notice to fight Nurmagomedov. Holloway had recently been sidelined due to a leg injury, so it was questionable if he would even be in any condition to face one of the most dominant fighters on the UFC roster. It would be a tall order, even if he was 100% healthy with a full training camp under his belt. Ultimately, the New York State Athletic Commission stepped in and deemed Holloway medically unfit to compete.
After a few more opponent changes, including former lightweight champ Anthony Pettis, number-11-ranked Al Iaquinta got the okay to face Nurmagomedov. If you are dealt lemons, make lemonade, as the old saying goes. The decision to green light Iaquinta for a title fight is also oddly poignant since it’s no secret that he and Dana White have had their differences over the years. Nonetheless, he made the weight and turned out to be the only eligible fighter that could step up and face assured annihilation against the undefeated Nurmagomedov.
Amidst all of this confusion and chaos, things were about to get REALLY crazy. At some point during the week’s press events, Artem Lobov, one of McGregor’s team mates who was scheduled to fight on the card, had an alleged run in with Nurmagomedov and his entourage. It was reported that as a result of the alleged confrontation, McGregor boarded a private jet with several of his goons to confront Nurmagomedov. Upon landing in New York, the group was allowed access to the Barclay Center, the venue for UFC 223, by members of The Mac Life, McGregor’s personal lifestyle magazine. The Mac Lifers were credentialed journalists that were purportedly in attendance to report on the fight card. At that point, all Hell broke loose. McGregor and his band of hooligans began violently throwing metal crowd barriers at a bus containing Khabib Nurmagomedov and other fighters on the card, including defending female strawweight champion Rose Namajunas, Michael Chiesa, Ray Borg and various UFC personnel. The bus windows were shattered, raining broken glass on the passengers. Security footage clearly shows Conor McGregor and Artem Lobov leading the charge and then hightailing it out of the building to a waiting SUV.
It made the local news, eclipsing what was supposed to be the UFC’s 25th anniversary press week. Dana White went on record about McGregor saying, “This is the most disgusting thing that has ever happened in the history of the company, and there is a warrant out for Conor McGregor’s arrest.”
It was later reported that Michael Chiesa and Ray Borg were off of the card due to injuries sustained during the attack. Artem Lobov’s fight was canceled due to his involvement with the attack. The once-epic card was reduced to tatters. Let’s not forget that up until 2016, mixed martial arts were illegal in New York State. McGregor fought on the first UFC event ever in New York City and now his actions are tarnishing the perception of a sport that was, at best, controversial and, at worst, viewed as human cockfighting.
McGregor turned himself in and was charged with three counts of assault and one count of criminal mischief. The financial fallout due to lawsuits and claims is to be determined still, but it’s likely it will cost McGregor millions when this is all said and done.
Opinion: McGregor had always intended on going to the fight. After all, he was being stripped of his title so being able to call out the winner was a crucial tactic in keeping himself relevant as fan favor appeared to be waning for the Irishman with every month that he is absent from competition. The Nurmagomedov – Lobov controversy was just a catalyst for him, a reason to take it one step further. It was likely that he never intended for the bus windows to break, that he expected the metal barriers to harmlessly bounce off. It played out differently, of course, and now he is facing criminal charges and potential Visa issues in the future.
What about the fight?
Khabib Nurmagomedov defeated Al Iaquinta. Though the victory was a 5-0 shut out, many claim that holes in Nurmagomedov’s striking game were exposed. Iaquinta managed to have some success in the third and fourth round of the fight. He was landing punches and stuff takedown attempts. Many analysts believe that a path to defeating the undefeated Nurmagomedov was charted. One thing to consider before making any definitive decision is the week that he had to endure; the attack by McGregor’s gang of thugs, several opponent changes and the mental drain of the chaos that resulted. There are few fighters that would have stayed on the card. Remember when Jon Jones at UFC 151 when he was set to defend his title against Dan Henderson who was removed from the card due to a knee injury. Jones refused to fight late replacement Chael Sonnen and the entire card was canceled. Nurmagomedov chose to soldier on and that has to be worth something.
Does Nurmagomedov’s victory secure his position as best fighter in the Lightweight division? That remains to be seen. The fight against Tony Ferguson should still be made despite the evidence that the MMA gods seem to be against it.
Some closing thoughts on Conor McGregor: You reap what you sow. The UFC crafted McGregor’s career, built him up and gave him a clear path to glory. There is no denying that he is a gifted athlete and martial artist, but the deep flaws in his character were allowed to flourish with the fame and fortune that were granted to him. The UFC gave him a platform and, in return, he has chosen to compromise the validity of the organization by sabotaging one of their highest profile cards, refusing the defend his titles and, most recently, with his unprecedented barbarism.
Will the UFC and Dana White learn any lessons from this? Doubtful. Recently White stated: “I think that there’s a mutual respect between us and obviously this week, I had so many things thrown at me. To focus on this show was insane. We’ll get back and we’ll focus on Conor McGregor.”