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Who’s Next for Khabib Nurmagomedov?

The dominant UFC champion is in the center of a roiling lightweight division. From Conor McGregor to GSP to (yep) Nate Diaz, we break down the potential challengers.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After tearing through 11th-hour replacement Al Iaquinta at UFC 223 on April 7, Khabib Nurmagomedov became the UFC’s “undisputed” lightweight champion. Of course, in a division as complex as the one he now rules, there’s actually plenty of dispute. Tony Ferguson won the interim lightweight title against Kevin Lee just last October at UFC 216, and that fight was only “interim” because Conor McGregor was the actual titleholder and opted to try out boxing rather than defend the belt. Neither McGregor nor Ferguson has lost since winning their respective titles, in large part because neither has fought.

With one actual champion and a pair of kind-of champions, there are a lot of strong proprietary feelings involved about where the division should go from here.

So what happens next? Will Dagestan’s most feared fight in Russia, where the UFC has been trying to put on a fight for years? And who will he face? Realistically, there are half a dozen good options for the UFC to consider, though each and every one of them is more complicated than it should be. Let’s put on our thinking astrakhans and see if we can figure out who has the best chance of fighting Nurmagomedov next.

Option 1: Conor McGregor

It’s fashionable right now to pile on McGregor for showing up in Brooklyn and nearly ruining UFC 223. What kind of person attacks a bus? Disgusting! He could have seriously hurt somebody! Banish that hooligan to the salt mines forever! Or worse—send him to Bellator!

The truth is, the kind of person that attacks a bus is of the attention-grabbing, rewardingly selfish, $100 million variety—the kind the UFC can’t afford to reprimand beyond expressions of disappointment. McGregor’s antics were ridiculous. He threw a dolly through a window of a bus filled with UFC fighters and employees like a spoiled, bearded toddler, wounding several people, and forcing three fights to fall off the card. Not only that, but he spent the night at the 78th Precinct in Park Slope, and was charged with several counts of misdemeanor assault and felony criminal mischief in Kings County Criminal Court the following day.

It was an indefensible sequence of actions, and in fight terms it was a bad look for a guy who many fans suspect is dodging real challenges in his profession. Moreover, it was a concerning look at what happens to transformative stars in MMA. Up until that night in Brooklyn, McGregor played the game perfectly by harnessing vanity and ego, monetizing insubordination, and preening around in mink robes (all of which we glorified along the way). McGregor is the monster that the UFC created, and now that monster is rampaging through the Zuffa castle. He’s out of control, a human amphetamine wreaking havoc on the system, and until somebody puts him in his place he’ll continue to do so.

Who is there to punish him? Given his otherwise clean record, most believe McGregor is likely to beat the charges in New York without having to serve any time. He has plenty of money to make things go away, and it’s not like he had a public defender with him for his arraignment—he had Jim Walden at his side in Brooklyn, the courtroom titan who represents the former director of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory (and star of the Netflix documentary, Icarus), Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov. He’s since replaced Walden with white-collar representative Bruce Maffeo, of—get this—Cozen O’Connor.

It’s not likely to be the UFC, even if Dana White initially called his behavior “disgusting” and when asked if he still wanted to do business with him answered soberly, “Would you?” By the end of UFC 223, White’s tone had changed considerably. “We talked, it’s good,” White said at the post-fight media conference. “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.”

So if the authorities won’t put McGregor in his place, you know who would? Khabib Nurmagomedov. Millions would pay for the privilege of seeing it. It would be cruel and unusual—and profitable. It would be a mega-fight of mega-fights. Nurmagomedov has been saying that he will happily humble McGregor for a long time now, but the problem is that McGregor doesn’t seem all that interested in being humbled by a meat cleaver of a Russian who handles things the old-country way.

If there’s a silver lining to McGregor crashing the UFC 223 party, it’s that he kicked the idea of a Nurmagomedov fight into high gear. It wasn’t the bus that McGregor was attacking, after all; it was Nurmagomedov, who had a confrontation with McGregor’s teammate, Artem Lobov, just a couple of days earlier. McGregor was acting out toward Nurmagomedov, who has been making clucking noises at him and waving his arms like chicken wings for years. Now is the perfect time to stick them in the octagon together, slide the latch and run.

And I have a theory, too. In Nurmagomedov’s beatdown of Iaquinta, rather than continue taking the fight to the mat in his usual fashion, he opted to stand in the third and fourth rounds, claiming that some recent binge-watching of Muhammad Ali’s fights got into his head. Though he jousted Iaquinta’s face with what seemed like a thousand left jabs, a lot of people (including UFC color man Joe Rogan) saw his stand-up as sloppy and vulnerable, making his chin ripe for the pickin’ for a more skilled striker.

Somebody like, oh, I don’t know … Conor McGregor.

I think Nurmagomedov, who was annihilating Iaquinta on the ground for the first 10 minutes, decided to dangle a carrot for McGregor by standing—to show how unpolished and hittable he is. To draw McGregor out of his idleness by making his face look like a big dollar-sign-infused target.

The bus attack was over the top and foolish in the short term. But give it a few more weeks. It will crystallize into something else—a conflict in need of a resolution. If McGregor and Nurmagomedov fight before this year lets out, it has the potential to be the UFC’s biggest pay-per-view event of all time.

UFC 181 - Ferguson v Trujillo Photo by Alex Trautwig/Getty Images

Option 2: Tony Ferguson “V”

UFC 223 was supposed to pit Khabib against Tony Ferguson for the undisputed lightweight title, yet—for the fourth time—it fell through. This time it happened just six days out, when Ferguson tripped on a cable and tore his LCL. Though it’s a fight that has long captivated the imagination, it feels destined to never happen. No amount of knocking on wood helped. It’s like the MMA gods have voodoo dolls of Ferguson and Nurmagomedov, and love nothing better than to poke at them. (For the record, after undergoing surgery to repair his LCL it could take Ferguson six months to heal, meaning the earliest he could realistically return would be the fourth quarter of 2018.)

Still, even though the UFC has stripped Ferguson of his interim title to try to make the lightweight picture a little easier to understand, and even though Dana White said he’d “never” book the fight again, and even though Ferguson and Nurmagomedov are sick of thinking about each other, the fact remains that Ferguson has won 10 fights in a row. He is a legitimate no. 1 contender who makes for a fascinating matchup against Nurmagomedov. If he’s able to rebound from his LCL injury, the UFC would have to consider the unthinkable. That is, booking Nurmagomedov and Ferguson a fifth time, and then spending the ensuing months at a monastery praying with the monks.

If this fight ever does happen, it promises to be so good that all those earlier teasings will feel completely worth it. That’s saying something. If the fight ever happens, that is, and that’s one hell of a mighty if.

Option 3: Georges St-Pierre

Nurmagomedov had a name prepared for his post-fight interview at UFC 223—that of longtime former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre. That was surprising on a lot of levels, not the least of which is that they are in different weight classes. Nurmagomedov is a massive 155-pounder, and St-Pierre last appeared in the UFC in November when he won the 185-pound middleweight belt against Michael Bisping.

St-Pierre has since vacated the middleweight title and wants his next fight to be back at welterweight (170 pounds), if he returns at all. He’s still in limbo as he deals with ulcerative colitis, an ailment he was diagnosed with after the Bisping fight. Making the fight ever more far-fetched is the fact St-Pierre isn’t that interested in mixing it up with Nurmagomedov. “I feel the UFC and Khabib got unfinished business before I try to make a step in here to go for the 155 title,” he said during an appearance on The MMA Hour.

Still, money talks, and so does Khabib. He explained the callout to the baffled media at his post-UFC 223 press conference.

“When I grew up, I watch [St-Pierre’s] fights, all fights with my father, and he greatest athlete who ever compete in UFC,” Nurmagomedov said. “[He’s been the] middleweight, welterweight champion. And I hear about he want to come and fight in 155, take this belt, make history, become UFC three-division champion.

“Why not? Me vs. Georges St-Pierre. If I beat Conor or if I beat Georges St-Pierre, which one is better for my legacy? Maybe for money, it’s Conor, but for legacy it’s Georges St-Pierre. But we don’t know about money too because me vs. Georges St-Pierre is going to be a big fight.”

It would be a money fight, given the style clash and similarities. St-Pierre’s at his best when he dictates a fight, takes it to the ground, or keeps the fight standing in a way that benefits him. As one of the UFC’s great athletes, he exploits weaknesses and punishes aggression. The one thing he doesn’t do is fight off of his back. Not a lot of people have taken St-Pierre down over the years. The idea of a dogged, relentless wrestler like Nurmagomedov trying to plant GSP into the canvas is a novel one. It’s got a lot of unique charm.

But unless St-Pierre sees it as an alluring fight for him to come back to (meaning challenging, winnable, and profitable), here’s guessing this one is a long shot. At least for now.

UFC 218: Holloway v Aldo Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Option 4: Max Holloway

Holloway has already been rebooked to defend his featherweight title against Brian Ortega at UFC 226 in July, but weird things happen in MMA, so I’m including this. The thing is, the UFC already unlocked its possibilities by trying to bring Khabib and Holloway together in a whirlwind superfight in Brooklyn after Ferguson was scratched, which captivated the imagination for a quick minute—until Holloway was unable to make weight.

The fact Holloway agreed to step in and face Nurmagomedov on six days’ notice was beyond brave. That he flew to New York from Hawaii weighing north of 180 pounds was gonzo to the extreme. That he couldn’t whittle his frame down to 155 pounds in time for the fight was a buzz kill. The New York State Athletic Commission deemed him “unfit” to compete just a day before the bout, and Holloway was ultimately replaced by Al Iaquinta.

Still, there was that riveting press conference that he and Nurmagomedov had in between; it was the kind of encounter that took a genuinely intriguing patchwork fight to a holy fucking shit mega-clash between renegades. Holloway came off like a legitimate OG by saying he had to test himself against Nurmagomedov, because “to be the best you need to beat the best.”

With Ortega now back in his sights, this option is a non-option right now. But we’ve seen a million times in MMA what happens to the best-laid plans. If shit hits the fan again with options 1-3, the UFC just needs to dial the 808.

Option 5: Either Kevin Lee or Dustin Poirier

In the weeks since Nurmagomedov’s win, he’s had two callouts from main-event winners. First it was Dustin Poirier, who went through the nine circles of hell in his fight with Justin Gaethje to give himself a platform on national TV. Then it was Kevin Lee, who dominated Edson Barboza this past weekend in Atlantic City, and challenged Nurmagomedov right after.

Both of them are stretching their worth a little bit to even ask, but callouts are sometimes self-fulfilling prophecies, and each guy has a case given the obstacles facing the aforementioned Nurmagomedov options. Poirier has won three of his past four fights, and the one he didn’t win was a manic, back-and-forth affair against Eddie Alvarez that ended in a “no contest” due to an illegal knee. The three he won were all Fight of the Nights, meaning the kind of barnburners the UFC loves to incentivize with $50,000 bonuses. Taking out a Rock ’Em Sock ’Em blitzkrieger like Gaethje on Fox helped his case for a title shot.

Lee’s situation is a little different. His victory over Barboza was a bounce-back fight after Lee lost at UFC 216 against Tony Ferguson for the lightweight interim title. Realistically, he’s a fight or two away from asking for a title shot. But if he made a case, it was through comparable action. He dominated Barboza in the same way that Nurmagomedov dominated Barboza back in December, only he flashed his hands a little more. As a brash, burgeoning star from Detroit, he has the gift of gab. He made sure to point out that he could out-wrestle Nurmagomedov, which spiked a few eyebrows. Nobody out-wrestles Nurmagomedov. The dude has never lost a round in the UFC.

But Lee is smart to plant the seeds for a future clash, just so we can find out.

Bonus Option: The Dark Horse, Nate Diaz

Look, it’s not likely to happen, and it shouldn’t. Diaz hasn’t fought since UFC 202 in 2016, and he lost that fight against McGregor. Overall he’s gone just 3-3 since 2012. But almost nothing has to be logical when discussing Diaz. He’s the lovable, mean-mugging center of the fight game conscience; plug him into any situation and he will make it work, because he’s Nate Fucking Diaz.

There is some allure here, too. Diaz is a switch-throwing volume striker who can do damage on the feet, but he has offense off of his back as well. He’s seasoned enough to know how to get up, and stubborn enough to keep the fight standing at key moments when momentum’s on his side. The lead-up to the fight would be epic, given his zero-fucks attitude and Nurmagomedov’s dismissive attitude. And Diaz did say he was looking to return ASAP.

Is it likely to happen? No. But if the UFC can’t get one of the above fights booked, a fail-safe option is to check in on ol’ Nate. It worked in transforming Conor McGregor from a big star to a megastar. And Khabib could use a similar kingmaking moment, because—no matter who comes next—he might be around for a while.