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Here Today, Octagon Tomorrow

With Tony Ferguson out of his UFC 223 title fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov, it’s time to admit that this matchup is cursed … and that Max Holloway is a goddamn hero

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Last month, Max Holloway was supposed to defend the featherweight title against Frankie Edgar at UFC 222. It didn’t happen. Holloway hurt his ankle four weeks beforehand and was forced out of the fight, marking the second time that a Edgar-Holloway bout was booked, salivated over, and then abruptly called off. Instead, Edgar fought the upstart Brian Ortega that night and got knocked out for the first time in his long career. If there was a pang of sadness to Ortega’s big moment of arrival, it was that Edgar-Holloway—one of the few truly great fights in the UFC’s pocket—was (in all likelihood) lost forever. It turns out that fight cards are first drafts and the MMA gods are just a bunch of humorless editors.

That’s a big part of why Sunday’s news that Tony Ferguson was forced to withdraw from his lightweight title fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov just six days before UFC 223 felt so tragic. Ferguson and Nurmagomedov had already been booked to fight three times with nothing ever happening, so every superstitious fight fan was talking about the fourth time guardedly, using hushed tones, knocking on wood, and crossing their fingers just to get out in front of premonition and counter-jinx any foolish urge to take anything for granted.

Somebody should have knocked on Ferguson’s LCL, which he tore in a freak accident during a promotional visit to Fox Sports 1. You read that correctly. Ferguson didn’t get hurt training for the fight, he got hurt hyping the fight. Destiny laughs at our simple plans. It was a twisted April Fools’ joke brought to life. Ferguson turned to go say hello to someone he recognized, tripped, and his LCL “tore off the bone,” as UFC president Dana White explained it to ESPN.

This is one of those big fight revisions that changes everything in a league where matchmaking melts off the brush of Salvador Dalí. Ferguson was the interim lightweight champion, the one keeping the belt in play while Conor McGregor—who won the lineal title in November 2016—is out spending his millions. Though White initially hedged on formally stripping McGregor, the intention was for Ferguson-Khabib to be for the real title; now the plan is for Ferguson to be stripped of his interim title and McGregor to be stripped of his real title, just as soon as Nurmagomedov steps foot in the octagon on Saturday night in Brooklyn. The show—and the title lineage—must go on. But who will Khabib be facing for the new actual belt in this revised arrangement? Why, none other than Max Holloway! Holloway volunteered to step in on six days’ notice—and come up a weight class—to take on a Dagestani bogeyman that nobody else wants any part of. Apparently his ankle is healed enough to save the UFC’s ass.

Here’s the thought that comes to mind when you take all that into consideration: What in the actual hell? Why does this latest shuffling seem so awesome and so desperate at the same time? Holloway on six days’ notice? Will he even be ready? Why does this feel like a karmic happening? Is the UFC cursed or “Blessed,” as Holloway’s nickname (and tattoo) implies? These are mightily complicated feelings to deal with on the Monday of a fight week. How can something feel so bereft and exhilarating all at once?

That’s the UFC at its lemons-to-lemonade finest. It’s like when Anderson Silva stepped in to fight Daniel Cormier after Jon Jones was removed from UFC 200. It’s a fun distraction that we didn’t see coming, but still not the thing we actually wanted.

The truth is there are reasons to get excited about the switcheroo, reasons that don’t feel like a blind search for silver linings. Ferguson would have been staking his 10-fight win streak against the undefeated Nurmagomedov, while the 145-pound champion Holloway carries a 12-fight win streak up to lightweight. Given Holloway’s spring-loaded takedown defense, you could make the argument that he’s the more compelling fight for Nurmagomedov. Holloway is the best coping mechanism the UFC could have come up with given that he’s been so dominant since losing to McGregor in 2013.

Still, it wasn’t supposed to be that way. It’s digressive and disruptive to everything. Ortega, who earned his shot at Holloway’s featherweight belt, is now the odd man out. Ferguson, who won the interim title by beating Kevin Lee at UFC 216 in October, is now in fighter purgatory. And the same cruel thing that went on with Edgar and Holloway is repeating here—after years of contemplating it, we’re not likely to ever see Ferguson and Nurmagomedov fight. At least not at the heights of their primes, with Nurmagomedov still unbeaten and Ferguson—a pressure-forward fighter with a demon’s cardio—on top of his game. If Nurmagomedov wins, it’s hard to imagine the UFC saying “Fifth time’s the charm.” If Holloway wins, that fight is moved permanently to the back burner.

In fact, if Holloway wins what we’re left with is pure chaos. Should Holloway slide into Brooklyn and take out Nurmagomedov, he will become the second man to hold simultaneous titles in two different weight classes. And not just any two weight classes, but the very same weight classes—featherweight and lightweight—that McGregor held his in. He would be like a Hawaiian version of McGregor, except while Mac never deigned to defend either belt, Max would be a hero who is not only active, but willing.

Maybe he gains broader fanfare with a victory over Nurmagomedov. It’s a ballsy thing to do, fighting Nurmagomedov on a week’s notice, but it’s filled with upside. Lose, and go back to featherweight. Win, and just like that, Holloway emerges with the golden ticket in the sweepstakes to face McGregor, who for his own part never showed much enthusiasm to fight either Ferguson or Nurmagomedov.

At least, that’s the simple way to look at it. But nothing is ever that easy in the UFC, where fans are asked to repeat, time and again, mantras that you’d read on a magnet—life really is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.

So long Tony Ferguson, hello Max Holloway. UFC 223 rolls on, and it only asks that you remain open-minded and sync your enthusiasms accordingly.