Out of sight could mean out of mind for reigning UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, who is considering sitting out an entire year in support of his suspended teammates, Zubaira Tukhugov and Abubakar Nurmagomedov. For Conor McGregor, however, the absence of his greatest rival might shift his focus to prized fisticuffs over reclaiming the UFC title—a leather, gold-plated strap that never mattered in the first place.
No one is cancelling red panty night over a lightweight title.
Nurmagomedov might be the baddest 155-pounder on the planet in the octagon, but McGregor’s milk brings all the fans to the yard. He’s the golden calf of MMA viewership whether he’s champion or not. As long as he’s showing up late to press conferences, humiliating his peers verbally, swigging Irish whiskey and bouncing heads off the canvas, the entire combat sports world will continue eating out of the palm of his hand.
Don’t make the mistake of believing the transference of a championship translates into popularity. Former champion Cain Velasquez is arguably the greatest heavyweight fighter in UFC history, but he wasn’t breaking pay-per-view records after he defeated Brock Lesnar. Amanda Nunes is the baddest woman on the planet, but unlike Ronda Rousey, she isn’t the hot-topic for debate amongst middle-aged soccer moms that normally wouldn’t tune in to the UFC.
Chris Weidman stopped Anderson Silva twice, and while he remains one of the best middleweight fighters in the world, he has only headlined one UFC pay-per-view without Silva as his dance partner.
McGregor doesn’t need a rematch with Nurmagomedov for anything more than validating our own curiosities as hardcore consumers. If the fire within him burns bright enough for a redemption bout, he’d chase after it the same way he did after being submitted by Diaz. But there’s also the option of not allowing his career to be tethered to one title.
McGregor’s Hall of Fame legacy was cemented when he became the first simultaneous, two-division UFC champion. It’s easy to forget he’s a featherweight fighter that bumped up to the lightweight division. His venture to 155 pounds stemmed from his desire to conquer feats that no one else before him had ever achieved.
Even if he came back and defeated Nurmagomedov in a rematch, there was never going to be a scenario where he’d opt to stick around and defend the belt consistently. He’s far too much of a nomad to be married to a UFC championship. If sustainability was a legitimate goal, he would have never left his cozy spot atop the featherweight division in the first place.
He never cared about breaking title defense records or getting pats on the back for consistently knocking off top contenders. It was always about chasing the white whale—the biggest fish in the ocean that garnered the most attention.
Little did he know he’d turn into the very thing he was chasing.
The white whale isn’t a rematch with Nurmagomedov, a super fight with Georges St-Pierre or even a No. 1 contender’s bout with Tony Ferguson. It’s every fight that enlists McGregor as the headliner. He could headline a UFC fight card with Paulie Malignaggi, and it would do better pay-per-view numbers than any lightweight title fight the promotion could possibly put together.
Freedom from the UFC belt gives him a chance to hand-pick the marquee fights that pique his interest rather than running through a gauntlet of contenders and bad style matches. That’s the luxury of being on the A side of the ticket, which is still the case for McGregor even after losing in decisive fashion.
Nurmagomedov opting to sit out an entire year also fuels him from a marketing standpoint. The UFC is already moving on with the recently announced interim lightweight title bout between Max Holloway and Dustin Poirier. Casual fight fans have a short-term memory, and a one-year layoff would kill some of the momentum Nurmagomedov gained in popularity after his big win at UFC 229.
There are so many other options for McGregor outside of a rematch with Nurmagomedov, who would have to unify the belts upon return and wouldn’t even be available until beyond 2020.
He could take Donald Cerrone up on that drink and a fight that would certainly please fans, or there is always the long-awaited rubber match with Nate Diaz. A super fight with Anderson Silva or even a return to featherweight shouldn’t be ruled out, either.
The Conor McGregor Show is as popular as it’s ever been with or without the UFC title.
Even naysayers that vehemently spill their guts on how tired they’ve grown of McGregor’s wild antics and churlish insults will have a front row seat in front of the television screen for his next fight. Those fans were invested long before Nurmagomedov was ever in the picture, and they’ll still be invested when he’s gone.
This article first appeared on BJPENN.COM on 2/26/2019.