Lightweight is, and has always been filled with all the goodies we’ve come to expect from MMA: violence, drama, theatre. 2020 decided to add tragedy to its comprehensive checklist, and so the division wanders into the new year without a lightweight champion, who now lives without his father.
A lot of chapters closed in 2020 for the division. Not just with Khabib Nurmagomedov. Tony Ferguson finally hit the physical wall he never met until time, wear, tear and Justin Gaethje converged to stop him. Paul Felder flirted with retirement, came back, looked great, but it was always clear when Felder peaked. Rafael dos Anjos came back from the welterweight underworld, looked great, but like Felder, it has always been clear when RDA peaked.
Then there’s Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier. It feels like lightweight’s version of Metallica bringing back Dave Mustaine for a live show. It’s cool. But it still feels too much like reaching into the nostalgia cookie jar. All of this leaves the usual fallen leaves of former prospects, former champions, and whoever’s stuck below them. I’m making this sound depressing perhaps, but on the contrary: it’s cool to see the end of an era. It’s the sensation of failing to let go that corrupts what used to be. Speaking of which…
Khabib Nurmagomedov: Stay retired. The sport owes you nothing.
I won’t lie. I have a lot of mixed emotions about Nurmagomedov retiring. Like every other MMA fan, I still want to see him fight. I’d argue that he owes lightweight more of a ‘reign’ than just two title defenses. I think there’s a lot of fun to be had, and violence to chronicle. For all the the chapters that have been closed, Khabib is the only one with the script to many more.
But that’s just it: these are my emotions. Not Khabib’s. I come from a background of watching John Carpenter films and the Three Stooges with my dad; a simple machinist. Khabib comes from a background of wrestling literal bears with his dad; a Soviet army veteran teaching wrestling to kids to keep them away from the Islamic extremism of the region. No matter what I think or feel, Khabib’s emotions are clear. It’s easy for fans to get lost in wanting to see their favorite fighters do what they do best. It’s a lot harder to accept when their favorite fighters want to do what’s best for them. If only Dana understood this basic principle.
Dana White: Figure out what you want to do with Conor, or get off the pot.
Conor McGregor will always have that special allure. It’s not the kind of appeal that always works. It’s not the kind of appeal that’s even legal at times. But it’s what sells. What helps McGregor is that unlike MMA fighters of years past who needed to bark at the risk of exposing their diminutive bite, McGregor is an extremely talented mixed martial artist. The only question is whether he’s invested enough in the sport at this point. Between the sexual assault allegations, the bar fights, the Manny Pacquiao rumors, and that time Dana White seemed to be more pissed off by Conor sharing his DM’s than attacking a bus — I find it hard to believe McGregor is gonna reinvigorate the division by showing a newfound dedication.
Dana needs to read the writing on the wall. I realize Dana’s wall is just a Red Bull scented candle next to a cliffsnote of Alfred Marshall i.e. McGregor makes money, money equals value, give McGregor more fights. Now, McGregor isn’t Greg Hardy, obviously. But there’s enough baggage surrounding McGregor to force Dana into one of two choices: a) keep him focused on his MMA career or b) feign the moral high ground, and stick him in random high profile fights periodically to satisfy whatever his everchanging needs are. Handing him a shot at the belt if he beats Poirer doesn’t fix anything except further put lightweight at his mercy.
The best of the rest get none
Justin Gaethje. Tony Ferguson. Rafael dos Anjos. Charles Oliviera. The loser of Poirier vs. McGregor. Hooker and Diaz. A lot of fighters are smack dab in the middle of a bedlam revel of martial arts — so much so that it’s turning lightweight into a katamari ball of tattoos and washboard abs.
Without a clear vision for who deserves what, everyone below Khabib will have a difficult time figuring out what the future holds. That’s what makes trying to keep Khabib inside the fold somewhat silly. That’s why pretending like there’s a foolproof plan to keep McGregor focused on the title thoroughly silly. All any of this does is hold the future of lightweight hostage. Given the drama and tragedy that befell lightweight in 2020, maybe that’s exactly what we should expect. Atfer all, you can’t fan the flames with the stroke of a clock.
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