The UFC held a press conference January 19, and it was a weird one.
The idea was to promote and discuss April's UFC 223 fight card in Brooklyn, New York. At one point, the promotion brought out interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson and challenger Khabib Nurmagomedov.
These press conferences tend to follow a routine. There's a video at the beginning hyping one or two key fights. UFC President Dana White comes out and yells at the crowd, asking how everyone's doing. They're doing quite fine, they shout back, and then White brings out the fighters involved in the top bouts. The media ask questions; the fighters give answers.
Every once in a while, you'll get some entertaining banter between opponents, particularly if there's some pre-existing bad blood between them.
White eventually calls for one last question. After a bit, the fighters face off for photos. Usually, everything at the presser goes according to plan.
But this one? This one was different.
And it's all because of the Irish elephant in the room.
Conor McGregor is the UFC lightweight champion. He has been since he beat Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 in November 2016. But McGregor is out of the picture now, and he may never come back. That is why it made sense when White, responding to a media question during the press conference, said that Ferguson and Nurmagomedov were fighting for the actual lightweight title and not the interim title Ferguson holds.
So did this mean McGregor was being stripped of the belt?
No. White said McGregor is still the lightweight champion.
So Ferguson and Nurmagomedov are fighting for the interim—not the real—UFC lightweight title?
No, White said. They're fighting for the real belt.
How are Ferguson and Nurmagomedov facing off for the actual lightweight title when McGregor still holds it? Will there be two UFC lightweight champions? White gave no answers, and all of us who watched the press conference were left confused.
McGregor's rise to the top of mixed martial arts has repeatedly pushed the UFC's executive team into uncharted waters. He has commanded unprecedented fight pay, freedom and extracurricular options. Five years ago, it was a foreign notion that a fighter would be allowed to compete outside the UFC. So too was the concept of a fighter publicly blasting the organization in the way McGregor has and getting away with it.
McGregor is a special case, obviously, but his actions have cleared the way for others to do the same thing. He has changed the game for others to test the limits of power and to be vocal in situations they are unhappy with. Still, some of the old attitude remains, particularly with White.
While McGregor is allowed to hold a division hostage without being stripped of the championship, others are not afforded the same opportunity. (He did the same thing with the featherweight division for nearly a year before he was stripped, as it was clear he had zero intentions of returning to the weight class.)
Germaine de Randamie, the UFC's inaugural featherweight women's champion, was stripped of her belt in the blink of an eye after she balked at fighting the UFC's chosen featherweight project, Cris "Cyborg" Justino. White had no issues blasting former middleweight champion Georges St-Pierre, essentially calling him a coward who did not want to fight the best his new division offered.
McGregor has more power than the rest of the roster combined, though.
According to a source with the promotion, UFC executives are hesitant to strip McGregor of his title until the fight between Ferguson and Nurmagomedov happens. After all, the UFC has tried multiple times to book this scintillating matchup; each time it has fallen through, mostly because of injuries.
With a history like that, it is no wonder the promotion's brass see no reason to anger McGregor. It would be the UFC's luck to strip McGregor of the belt, only to see the fight for the other "real" belt fall through, leaving it even further on the outs with its biggest star. After all, the Irishman does not seem inclined to return after hauling in over $100 million against Floyd Mayweather Jr. in August.
With McGregor's return to the UFC looking less likely with every passing day, the company has a plan for moving forward, both with the lightweight division and a McGregor-less promotion as a whole. Once the fight between Ferguson and Nurmagomedov actually takes place, the UFC intends to strip McGregor of the championship, with an announcement likely coming on the UFC 223 pay-per-view broadcast April 7.
Though it's convoluted, it makes a certain kind of sense. Or, at least, it makes a lot more sense than having two "real" lightweight champions, because that makes no sense at all.
McGregor doesn't need to fight again; provided he doesn't continue spending outrageously, he and future generations of his family are financially set for life. And for McGregor, a man who has broken norms and charted new territory with each step he has taken, returning to the same-old deal at the UFC would be a major step backward.
And if we know anything about McGregor, we know that a step backward is unthinkable.