Things change quickly in the UFC. An adjustment to a single fight can set off a chain reaction, altering the title pictures across a division -- or even multiple divisions. That could be what fans are seeing in the current twisting tale involving Conor McGregor, Justin Gaethje, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Jorge Masvidal and Kamaru Usman.
When the coronavirus pandemic sent the UFC into a scramble for a new location for UFC 249 -- and Khabib Nurmagomedov back to Russia -- it was the first domino falling in what may ultimately result in McGregor fighting for the welterweight championship. This, despite McGregor becoming "No. 1 contender" for the lightweight title in his January return to the Octagon.
Let's take a look at the answers to four questions that may provide some clarity to fast-changing, confusing, title pictures across lightweight and welterweight and where McGregor, Masvidal, Usman and others stand.
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How does McGregor fit into the lightweight title picture?
McGregor had it made just a few months ago. By returning in a welterweight fight against the struggling Donald Cerrone and winning in just 40 seconds, UFC president Dana White said McGregor had claimed the No. 1 contender spot for the lightweight championship. While that was a case of two plus two equals five, it was clear the UFC's primary goal was making the biggest fight possible, a rematch between McGregor and Nurmagomedov after Khabib finally met Tony Ferguson at UFC 249.
Of course, Nurmagomedov ended up stuck in Russia due to confusion surrounding the location of UFC 249 and travel restrictions resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, leading to an interim title fight between Ferguson and Gaethje. Gaethje dominated Ferguson and now the only fight to make at lightweight is the unification bout between Gaethje and Nurmagomedov, erasing McGregor -- at least temporarily -- from the lightweight title picture.
Of course, that hasn't stopped McGregor from calling out Gaethje and the rest of the lightweight division, saying, "I am going to f---ing butcher you. Your teeth. I'm going to put them on a f---ing necklace." McGregor has called for an interim title fight with Gaethje that would see the winner fighting Nurmagomedov later in the year. That seems highly unlikely because Nurmagomedov's observation of Ramadan is no longer standing in the way of a fight booking and unifying the titles is the best way forward. He would -- in theory -- be next in line to face the winner of Gaethje vs. Khabib.
Usman vs. Masvidal for the welterweight title?
Probably -- but not necessarily. After it seemed Usman and Masvidal were destined for a big-time clash over the welterweight title, including a confrontation on radio row during Super Bowl weekend, now there seems to be a new line of fights being teased by the involved parties. Masvidal has recently began to tease a rematch with Nate Diaz after dominating Diaz in their highly anticipated UFC 244 fight for the one-off "BMF title" in November.
Masvidal tweeted suggesting the two "run it back," drawing a response from Diaz to "pull up then." There wasn't much drama left after their first fight, where Diaz was stopped on multiple deep cuts around his eyes but had been thoroughly beaten by Masvidal from the opening bell. Still, there's likely money to be had in a BMF rematch since the Diaz faithful have clung to the idea the cut stoppage happening just as Diaz was ready to take over the fight.
White has been teasing that Masvidal might not fight Usman next. And Masvidal's manager, Abraham Kawa, has said Masvidal is "a man of his word" and is already in camp for his next fight -- stating it would happen in July or "a little later." These could, obviously, simply be attempts by Masvidal to negotiate for bigger pay for a fight with Usman, a fight he would be the underdog and lose some standing as a draw with a bad loss.
Meanwhile, Usman has been starting to talk about a fight with -- wait for it -- McGregor.
Wait, so Usman would fight McGregor?
If these dominoes fall the way the Twitter trash talk forecasts, yes. As it became increasingly unlikely McGregor would receive a shot at the interim or full lightweight title until Gaethje and Nurmagomedov had their showdown, the idea of McGregor vs. Usman started to gain momentum. That became even more true when Masvidal began teasing a fight with Diaz.
"I really don't understand why you all want this man DEAD!!!" Usman tweeted, along with a photoshopped picture of the two in the cage. "I'd shag him in there if I wanted and he'd 'DO NOTHIN' FOH"
Usman then appeared on ESPN, taking shots at Masvidal for wanting fights other than a title bout while the top contender. "In the history, when have you seen a No. 1 contender say, 'You know what? We're not gonna take the fight to become the champion of the world and be the star that we always wanted to be?'" Usman said. "Why would anyone do that? Oh, you're just trying to get some money because you think that's an easier fight for you. The guy that you kinda just beat, playing around, that's a better fight for you? Why is that a better fight than being the champion of the world?"
Usman then offered up a title fight to McGregor in the same interview, saying, "We're about making history here. He said that he's the pound-for-pound greatest of all time across three divisions, this is your chance to prove it. Go out there and win a third belt in a third division. So why wouldn't we make that fight? I'm gonna give him that opportunity. If Conor wants it, let's do it. But Conor's quiet now. Why is Conor quiet? Who says no to a title shot?"
With Colby Covington having lost to Usman, Tyron Woodley tied up with Gilbert Burns on May 30 and Masvidal potentially running it back with Diaz, the doors could be open for the Irishman to fight for the welterweight title -- after winning a lightweight title shot by beating Donald Cerrone at welterweight in his first fight at 170 pounds since August 2016.
So what will happen?
In reality, there are two obvious title fights that are perfectly set up in both divisions. Gaethje is going to fight Nurmagomedov to unify the titles. Masvidal will likely challenge Usman for the welterweight title because it's the right way to cash in on Masvidal's run to becoming a "money fighter."
McGregor can be paired with anyone and have it be a big event-selling fight while spinning his wheels to challenge the winner of the title fight in either division. And with Diaz back in the public eye and the two having split their first two bouts, it makes sense to line the duo up for a big rubber match before deciding who McGregor fights for a belt to end 2020.