With a marketable lightweight trio, UFC must again make the best fight the best

The fallout of unbeaten lightweight contender Khabib Nurmagomedov's savage demolition of Edson Barboza on Saturday at UFC 219 left both fans and UFC matchmakers in the same place they were one year ago. In quite possibly UFC's deepest and most exciting division, a trio of 155-pound stars stand on separate mountains with the potential for epic and marketable clashes between them provided health, inactivity and financial concerns don't rear their ugly heads.  

The more things changed for the division's top three fighters -- Conor McGregor (21-3), Tony Ferguson (23-3) and Nurmagomedov (25-0) -- over the past year, the more they currently stay the same. 

McGregor, 29, entered 2017 fresh off dethroning Eddie Alvarez with nothing but dangerous tests ahead of him at lightweight should he decide to eschew superfights and actually defend his title. Over the next 12 months he never did, of course, first sitting idle due to paternity leave before earning a reported $100 million in a circus boxing match against Floyd Mayweather. 

The author of a destructive 10-fight win streak, the 33-year-old Ferguson begins the new year in almost the same standing as which he started it, save for an interim title victory over Kevin Lee in October after multiple attempts to face Nurmagomedov came up empty. 

Nurmagomedov, 29, pulled out of his March interim title bout with Ferguson after being hospitalized for a difficult weight cut (their December 2015 fight was also scrapped when the Russian from Dagestan suffered a rib injury). After observing Ramadan in May, he underwent back surgery and sat out until his return against Barboza. 

One year later, Nurmagomedov has whetted the appetite of fans hungry to see how his aggressive style of power wrestling would fare against the division's best strikers, the same way he did by closing 2016 with an equally dominant win over Michael Johnson. 

So what does UFC need to do in order to fix this mess? Following a down year critically in 2017, it's imperative for UFC to see at least some combination of fights within this bizarre love triangle actually get consummated over the next 12 months. But the question becomes what order do you attempt to make them and, if you're UFC, what leverage do you actually have in getting McGregor to come back? 

The simple answer could be to allow McGregor to bide his time on his own terms while rebooting Ferguson-Nurmagomedov to determine the next title challenger. But having an elimination fight between the two that doesn't involve the company's biggest star unnecessarily eliminates the loser from a shot at the full title that he already did enough to deserve.

The ideal position would be for McGregor to return in early 2018 against either one. Ferguson, who holds the interim crown, would in theory have the inside track. But fans would likely prefer McGregor against Nurmagomedov, especially if it could be made inside of a sold-out stadium in Russia. 

The latter scenarios, of course, would only hinge upon McGregor being paid enough to warrant taking such a challenge. Considering he currently holds more leverage than any fighter in UFC history, that's far from an easy proposition.  

UFC would certainly be justified in stripping him of his title for not defending it (which it did unceremoniously to Germane de Randamie in June for refusing to face Cris "Cyborg" Justino.) But not only would that do nothing but agitate McGregor, and likely send him back into chasing superfights against the likes of Nate Diaz or Georges St-Pierre, it would remove the potentially marketability of Ferguson and Nurmagomedov as breakthrough stars should they get the rub of facing McGregor.  

But at what point does UFC need to look at itself in the mirror and crack down on fighters being enabled into holding divisions hostage? At what point does breaking the rules for one create irreversible cracks in the foundation of what originally made the promotion so great? 

Recent comments from UFC president Dana White make it seem like stripping the title isn't an option. He also is hoping for McGregor to return this summer, which makes the idea of Ferguson-Nurmagomedov in between more likely. 

The best thing McGregor has done for the division in recent days was build excitement through a Twitter war with Nurmagomedov that began after his UFC 219 win. 

"That Dagestani was dog shit the other night you's are all nuts," McGregor wrote. "Game full of sloppy bums asking to be slept. Pay me my worth and Kings back. 

"Truly truly truly get on your f---ing knees and beg me. Otherwise I don't give a bollox. My whiskey is out this year and thats Diddy bread."

Nurmagomedov was asked on Saturday which opponent he preferred between McGregor and Ferguson. After initially saying he would be willing to fight both of them that same night if UFC provided him one hour of rest, he settled on a choice. 

"I don't think about these two bullshit guys, I think about only me," Nurmagomedov said. "Next fight, if UFC tell me, 'Hey, what do you want?' I'm going to say Tony Ferguson because he is [on a 10-fight win streak] in lightweight. I am [on a 25-fight win-streak], I am undefeated all my career. Tony Ferguson, but about Conor I don't think, because he has a lot of money now. He has to spend this money. After, when money is finished, I think he's going to come back."

Ferguson was also active on social media in the aftermath of UFC 219 and shared his thoughts on what the future should look like. 

After all of the problems UFC endured in 2017 (some of it self-inflected) while attempting to make consistently make big fights, it has seemingly been given a mulligan in terms of making things right at lightweight. With a trio of exciting, violent and camera-ready fighters, all with the potential to do big business against one another, the time is now to make force these matchups into existence -- something UFC built its name upon with the best constantly fighting the best. 

Considering Nurmagomedov's injury history (he missed two full years beginning in 2014 with a knee injury) and all of the financial reasons for McGregor not to return against a pair of opponents so dangerous, time is certainly of the essence. But whether it takes truckloads of money, catering to egos or strong-arming champions into doing their most important job -- defending their title against the next in line -- UFC is running out of excuses. 

For the promotion to make its own ranking system and title structure actually matter again, order will need to be restored in a variety of bottlenecked divisions, including middleweight. But first and foremost, it will need to come at 155 pounds.

Getting there, admittedly, won't be easy. But for all the time White has spent in recent months talking about his own plans to enter UFC into the promotion of boxing matches, the sport of mixed martial arts is increasingly falling victim to the same sins that hold back the sweet science from making the fights that fans most want to see. 

CBS Sports Insider

Brian Campbell covers MMA, boxing and WWE. The Connecticut native joined CBS Sports in 2017 and has covered combat sports since 2010. He has written and hosted various podcasts and digital shows for ESPN... Full Bio

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