BOSTON — With Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov both in town for a press conference on Friday promoting their UFC 223 bout, the subject of the UFC lightweight championship has inserted itself into the UFC 220 fight-week conversation.
As of now, the April 7 fight between Ferguson and Nurmagomedov is billed as being for the interim lightweight title, the one Ferguson won in October.
But most of the fighters who will compete at Saturday night’s card at TD Garden believe the time has come due for the UFC to strip the belt from McGregor, the division’s absentee champ.
“There are a lot of hungry-ass people in that weight class coming up,” said Calvin Kattar at Thursday’s UFC 220 media day at Fenway Park. “I wouldn’t say anything, all I can say, more than being anti-Conor, it’s about these guys being deserving of their shot. I can see why Conor wants to sit back. He’s got Conor money now. He doesn’t need the belt, he can fight when he wants to and who he wants to and props to him for getting his career to there.”
Indeed, fighters from weight classes in which McGregor has held titles — featherweight and lightweight — seemed to hold the strongest opinions. Burgos, who meets Kattar on Saturday in a featherweight bout, believes it’s time to give Ferguson and Nurmagomedov their time to shine.
“The dude hasn’t defended in over a year,” Burgos said. “He hasn’t competed in over a year. He didn’t defend the featherweight title either. And then on top of that, you’ve got two really top-notch guys who deserve their chance. It would be disrespectful to those two guys to not strip him, he said he wants to come back in September, that’s almost two years [since he won the title]. You have to strip him at this point.”
Another pair of opponents who agree it’s time for the lightweight division to move on from McGregor, who has not fought an MMA bout since finishing Eddie Alvarez to win the title at UFC 205 in Nov. 2016, are Thomas Almeida and Rob Font, who kick off the PPV Saturday with a bantamweight bout.
“Khabib and Tony deserve this,” Almeida said. “They are the champs, you know, they are the best in the division and they’re going to fight. I think the best choice for the division is to make that winner the champ.”
“If he’s going to hold it up, if he’s going to take a year, 15 months, whatever, I definitely think they should strip him and give the Tony-Khabib winner a legit title fight and go from there,” said Font. “Then obviously when he comes back give him the first title fight from there.”
One fighter who knows a thing or two about stripped championships is current UFC light heavyweight titleholder Daniel Cormier. He first won the belt by defeating Anthony Johnson for a vacated title after Jones was stripped of the belt, then had the belt returned to him when a Jones victory in their rematch at UFC 214 was overturned due to a failed PED test.
Cormier believes that for the integrity of the division, McGregor needs to be stripped of the belt. But he also believes the title shouldn’t matter to Conor, because he’s become such a big star due to his boxing match against Floyd Mayweather that he no longer needs a title to sell a fight.
“I don’t think it matters really much to Conor, because I don’t think he needs a belt anymore. He’s money no matter who he fights, with or without a belt. It doesn’t really matter. But I think for the legitimacy of the sport and the spirit of competition, they really have to [strip him of the belt].
“Conor is great for the UFC, so you gotta somehow keep him relevant,” Villante said. “If he still has the UFC belt, then he’s relevant for the UFC. I think you gotta keep him relevant for as long as you can. If he decides to fight again, it should be for a championship because he had two of them for a long time. He shouldn’t be stripped of them. He’s good for the sport. He’s good for me, he’s good for the guy next to me, he’s good for all of us, because of how many eyes he brings to us. It’s not a bad thing.”
Villante, who believes Nurmagomedov will “smash” Ferguson, also believes he shouldn’t be worried about whether the belt is interim or the full title. If anything, Villante said, a unification match with McGregor would make for an even bigger payday.
“I understand why those guys want to be called champ,” Villante said. “Khabib is like 40-0, it’s crazy. He should be the undisputed champion. That guy is an animal. But I don’t think he should complain about [whether or not he’s fighting for an interim title], because if he wins, unifying the belts with Conor is the biggest payday he’s ever going to have in his life. Why complain about it?”