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The Show Must Go On

Can a great fight at UFC 209 make us forget about Conor McGregor?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Update, 2:28 p.m. ET, March 3: Khabib Nurmagomedov’s fight with Tony Ferguson has been canceled. Khabib went to a hospital early Friday morning because of health problems related to his weight-cut efforts, and the fight was called off due to a doctor’s recommendation. MMA can be a cruel, cruel sport.

With UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor threatening to upgrade his four-ounce gloves for the eight-ounce variety so he can strike gold against Floyd Mayweather in the boxing ring, there’s not so much a target at the top of the division as a mogul in an ivory tower. McGregor has the title, but defending it at this current time isn’t exactly a priority. It was the same with his featherweight title, which he took from Jose Aldo at UFC 194 in 13 bedlam-inducing seconds to close out 2015 and never put back up for grabs. With McGregor the pattern is easy to detect: Win the strap, and move on to bigger and better things.

Unfortunately, the UFC doesn’t have an offseason in which to savor accomplishments, and nor does it (traditionally) cater to belt hoarders. UFC president Dana White and company stripped McGregor of the featherweight title to get it back into circulation just a couple of weeks after he won the 155-pound title against Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205. Why? Because it was like what Johnny Utah said after he uncuffed Bodhi and let him paddle into the waves of the 50-year storm at the end of the original Point Break:

He’s not coming back.

That’s kind of what’s happening at UFC 209, which takes place Saturday night at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Khabib Nurmagomedov is fighting Tony Ferguson in the co-main event for the interim lightweight title. They might as well call the event "UFC 209: The Show Must Go On." While McGregor is fishing for a nine-digit payday not just outside of the promotion but outside of the sport, Nurmagomedov and Ferguson are here to restore the process.

This is the old school way of UFC matchmaking — you pit two guys, each of whom have a long, glorious trail of dead in their wakes, and you latch the gate. It’s a fantastic style matchup, yes, but it’s also more than that. The best UFC fights are those in which it becomes nearly inconceivable that one of the parties will have to lose. And Nurmy-Fergy is a classic fight in that sense, harkening back to the pre-McGregor days, when Zuffa was still run by the genuinely curious Fertitta brothers rather than a Hollywood conglomerate. A classic fight is when merit and momentum meet, in the way that Daniel Cormier vs. Jon Jones was, rather than Georges St-Pierre vs. Michael Bisping (more on that in a minute).

The term gets thrown around a lot, but this really is a head-on collision: Ferguson has won nine fights in a row in what might be the UFC’s toughest division. Nurmy? He’s never lost. He’s never really come close to losing.

Nurmagomedov is as bleak to look at as the City of Industry. He wrestled bears back in Dagestan. He wears a fucking papakha hat to the Octagon, not because he’s a fan of the Trolls movie, but in homage to the mountain people of the Caucasus. He doesn’t smile too much, nor play games. He sees a pair of legs walking towards him, his instinct is to pluck them from the earth, like humans are nothing more than overgrown weeds. You mention McGregor’s name to him, and the room temperature drops 20 degrees.

Ferguson? A marauding pressure fighter who tries some of the most absurd offensive assaults you’ll ever see — from spinning back fists to Imanari rolls. If there’s a word to describe Ferguson’s style, it’s possessed. "El Cucuy" is a kind of Regan MacNeil of the fight game, in that at times you feel there’s a hostile tenant inside of him, pushing him forward, egging his own body into supernatural contortions.

What’s not to love about a setup like that?

This isn’t the first time Nurmagomedov and Ferguson have been booked to fight. In fact, it’s the third time. It’s just the first time it’s actually going to happen. They were originally supposed to square off in December 2015 — the night before McGregor beat Aldo — but Nurmagomedov was forced to pull out with an injury. Ferguson fought Edson Barboza that night instead, a blood-soaked back-and-forth looting of human properties that ended with Ferguson sinking a second-round D’Arce choke.

They were supposed to fight last April in Orlando, but this time Ferguson pulled out after suffering problems with his lungs. Nurmagomedov instead stood in against somebody named Darrell Horcher, which might have been a blessing in disguise, given at that point he’d been out for two years. He won the fight rather easily.

Since then, both have taken care of business. Nurmagomedov beat Michael Johnson at Madison Square Garden in November, and Ferguson beat Lando Vannata and former champion Rafael dos Anjos. Had Nurmagomedov and Ferguson fought earlier on, as they were supposed to, it would have been a good fight. But after being built-up and postponed twice, and with so much else having transpired in the meantime, it now looks like a terrific fight — one of the best on the calendar.

The only black mark here is that McGregor — who is expecting a child and May and still fetishizing a record payday against Mayweather — won’t likely be coaxed to fight the winner. That’s why "interim" in this case feels more like "moving on."

The Main Event

The UFC missed a golden opportunity to at least give the public something more to think about heading into the rematch between Stephen Thompson and Tyron Woodley. First of all, up until Tuesday, there was a built-in contender available to face the winner in Demian Maia, the UFC’s jiujitsu necromancer who has won six fights in a row while somehow perfecting the art of throwing the bare minimum of punches. He could have been left out there as a possible challenger to the winner. Instead, the UFC leaned on Maia to sign on for a fight with Jorge Masvidal, which takes place at UFC 211 in May.

Why take him out of the running just days before the title picture clears up? (That tells you something about how the UFC views Maia’s drawing power.) If that wasn’t enough, the UFC could have stayed mum that Georges St-Pierre would be fighting middleweight champion Michael Bisping at some point in the second half of 2017. GSP is the most dominant welterweight champion of all time, returning back to the UFC after three-plus years. He could have fed some imagination as the next challenge for the Woodley-Wonderboy winner, because the UFC thrives when it’s thought of as a gauntlet. If Woodley beats this guy then he’ll have to face that guy. Fight fans love the idea of far-off destinations.

Instead, on Wednesday UFC president Dana White announced Bisping-GSP on SportsCenter like a $320 million fuddy-duddy.

So, what do we have in Wonderboy-Woodley II, other than a chance to resolve things after the majority draw they fought to at UFC 205? That’s about it, unless the UFC is dusting off Nick or Nate Diaz behind the scenes to get a crack at the winner.

The first fight, which took place at Madison Square Garden in November, didn’t lack drama. Everyone knew Woodley had power, and he showcased it. Everybody knew Thompson was a blade on the feet, and he was nimble with his kicks. Thompson’s heart was the real revelation through that five-round battle. Woodley nearly had Thompson on the ropes, yet — after dropping Wonderboy in the fourth — he went for a submission instead of trying to land the coup de grâce. Thompson not only survived, but in the fifth he rallied, winning the round and forcing a majority draw.

It was actually a pretty phenomenal bout, yet — for whatever reason — the rematch feels like a good action movie that didn’t necessarily need a sequel. It’s Lethal Weapon 2. It’s fun and people know the main characters, but judge’s scorecards aren’t the greatest of cliffhangers. And, though the hope is that something dramatic and definitive happens, there’s a foreboding feeling that the second bout will not live up to the first.

"Suga" Rashad Evans Returns

Rashad Evans is the former light heavyweight champion who showed Chuck Liddell the writing on the wall by knocking him out — spectacularly — at UFC 88. Evans made Liddell look slow, vulnerable and outdated that night in Atlanta, like an old predator trying to rip through something meaty using his gums. Though Liddell fought a couple of more times afterwards, that right hand Evans put on him essentially evaporated the "Ice Man" for good.

A little over eight years later, it’s now Evans fighting through skepticism, neurological concerns and the encroachment of age. He was knocked out violently against Glover Teixeira in his last bout last April, which is a hard thing to bounce back from at 37. It’s been rough sledding for the last 10 months or so. Evans was supposed to fight Tim Kennedy at UFC 205 in his native New York, but was removed from the card after concerns were raised following an MRI on his brain. He was redirected to UFC 206 in Toronto, but again he could not get licensed for the same reasons.

So he lands in Las Vegas, where he’s been cleared to compete. Instead of fighting Kennedy, he is taking on the judoka, 39-year-old Daniel Kelly, who is affectionately known as the "Dad Bod" in fighting circles. This is a rare UFC matchup pitting a name guy against a sturdy, mostly anonymous fighter just to see what the hell might happen.

For Kelly, who is 5–1 in the UFC, it’s perhaps his one and only chance to stand in against a former champion. In all likelihood, fighting Evans on the main card of a big pay-per-view is the high point of Kelly’s MMA career..

For Evans, it’s a merciful re-entrance to the cage, to see what he has left against a non killer. If nothing else, this is conscientious matchmaking.

Best of the Rest

The heavyweight fight between Alistair Overeem and Mark Hunt is actually a rematch as well, with the two having fought back in 2008 in DREAM. Overeem won that fight — as most people did back in Japan against Hunt — via submission.

What’s fun about this one, other than the near certainty that somebody will be knocked out, is that the 42-year-old Hunt is now a marble-chewing spokesman against PEDs, something that Overeem previously had issues with. Hunt is suing the UFC for what happened to him against Brock Lesnar at UFC 200 (Lesnar was busted for PED use, which Hunt claims the UFC was complicit in by waiving the mandatory four-month testing window leading up to the event), and is entering this fight somewhat begrudgingly. There’s all kinds of bad blood between him and the promotion. Hunt is the loud-mouthed enfant terrible whom the UFC can’t shut up.

It’s ironic that he’s fighting Overeem, who was busted for high testosterone levels in a prefight drug test in 2012. Maybe matchmaker Sean Shelby has a wicked sense of humor, but this is one of those fights where there’s so much subtext in play that it almost becomes literary.

The bonus of UFC 209 is that Lando Vannata is fighting David Teymur. Vannata is coming off one of 2016’s knockouts of the year against John Makdessi — a perfectly executed wheel kick — at UFC 206. That fight was only slightly less memorable than his UFC debut five months earlier against Ferguson, whom he fought on short notice. Vannata gave Ferguson hell in that first round, and if he proved anything it was that if Ferguson’s sense of self-preservation is nil, then his own is less than nil. It took Ferguson’s deepest reserves to out-brutal Vannata, and even then he did so only barely. Ferguson won via a second-round D’Arce choke, but Vannata made it count.

Overall, UFC 209 is the best fight card the UFC has put together so far in 2017. With Vannata as the curtain jerker, and Ferguson and Nurmagomedov facing off at just the right time — potentially helping steer Conor McGregor’s thoughts back to his native sport — there’s potential for some pretty crazy things to happen in Las Vegas.

Chuck Mindenhall is a senior writer at MMA Fighting.