In this new Conor McGregor age of MMA, this money-fight/big-media era, when a fighter's position in the rankings mean less than his ability to sell himself and the question of who deserves a title shot and who doesn't has become increasingly nebulous, the smartest fighters are the ones who both earn their shots through victories in the cage and convince UFC matchmakers they've earned them through a protracted self-promotional campaign. In the McGregor Age, it isn't enough to be great in the Octagon: you have to an undeniable media presence outside of it as well.
And so the biggest fight in the UFC this week isn't taking place in the cage but on the Internet. This weekend's event in Belfast pales in comparison to the struggle being waged between contenders for McGregor's newly won lightweight title. And each aspirant—aware of the age in which he now lives—is doing his part to make himself the most attractive candidate. Tony Ferguson, coming off a victory over former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos last week, has stolen a page straight out of the McGregor playbook: putting on giant sunglasses and fancy vests and proclaiming himself the rightful champion to whoever will listen. Nate Diaz, who, if rankings still meant anything, would be nowhere near a title shot but who is in the enviable position of being the only man to ever beat McGregor in the Octagon, has once again been making the talk-show rounds as an aggrieved soul, claiming the UFC didn't even want him at the MSG event and fears arranging another fight between the two men, lest Diaz beat the promotion's cash cow again, and even crashing McGregor's post-fight celebration party in Manhattan.
But if these things could be quantified—if we could find a way to score a man's in-cage viability and the value and meaning of his proclaimed self-regard—then surely the next man in line to fight McGregor would be Khabib Nurmagomedov, who not only demolished fellow contender Michael Johnson on the undercard of last Saturday's event, moving his career record to 24-0, but who kicked off a multiple-front self-promotional media campaign to rival that of the champion himself.
Step one won Nurmagomedov points for both originality and terror. Yesterday, the UFC released a preview video of a new documentary titled UFC 205: The Thrill and the Agony in which Nurmagomedov is caught on tape inside the Octagon calmly explaining to Michael Johnson that he, Johnson, needs to quit so that he, Nurmagomedov, can move on to his rightful fight for the title. The amazing and terrible thing is that Nurmagomedov was explaining all of this while pummeling Johnson on the ground, taking time between throwing devastating punches and elbows to Johnson's already battered head to explain to him, the way one would explain to a child why it's time to go to school, "You have to give up. I need to fight for the title. You know this. I deserve it."
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Now, as an act of in-cage psychological warfare this would have been terrifying enough: I can imagine nothing more disheartening than an opponent explaining to me his post-victory plans as he's beating me up. But Nurmagomedov was working on two levels here. As media-savvy in his own way as McGregor, Nurmagomedov surely knew that in 2016 any footage of him giving Michael Johnson career advice and laying out his plans for a title fight while in the actual throes of ground-and-pound would make it onto the Internet and thereby impress the UFC brass. From Khabib's lips to God's ears, as they say. The fact that the video also features footage of Nurmagomedov talking to Dana White between rounds, when he should be catching his breath and listening to his coaches' advice, telling the UFC president, "Hey, be careful, I'm gonna smash your boy [McGregor]," only makes the Russian's performances, both as a fighter and as a salesman, that much more impressive. Nurmagomedov may not have Conor McGregor's silver tongue (in English, anyway), but his ability to simultaneously fight a war on two fronts is remarkable, maybe even unprecedented.
And that would have been enough, I think, to secure him the title fight by the rules of today's game, but yesterday Nurmagomedov upped the stakes, telling Twitter that if he doesn't get the title shot next he "won't be fighting in UFC" anymore.
Now, the Threat to Leave is a dangerous move for a UFC fighter. There's always the risk that the UFC will call your bluff or ignore you entirely. They've done it before. Poor Jose Aldo tried it recently after failing to coax McGregor back down to the featherweight division, but the UFC doesn't seem any closer to forcing McGregor to give Aldo a rematch than they were before.
But it might work for Nurmagomedov. After all, any time they want to, McGregor and the UFC can point to McGregor's quick knockout of Aldo and argue that the former champion lost his claims to a title shot, and with it all his negotiating leverage, the moment he went unconscious that December night. But Nurmagomedov is an undefeated wrecking machine whose greatest strengths match up perfectly against McGregor's greatest weaknesses. At this point he is perhaps the one fighter MMA fans could reasonably point to and say, "If McGregor doesn't fight him, his legacy would be tarnished, or at least incomplete." And since McGregor is a man devoted to the completeness of his legacy, surely he must see that himself. Besides, I can't imagine McGregor, the greatest self-promoter in MMA history, a true master of the game, didn't see Nurmagomedov's antics in the cage last Saturday and think to himself for a moment, "Now why didn't I think of that?"