UFC 223 was supposed to be simple: Khabib Nurmagomedov, the undefeated number one contender would finally square off against interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson. They had been paired three times before, and each time the fight fell through due to alternating injuries – Khabib, then Tony, then Khabib again. The winner would become the undisputed lightweight champion, the title that Conor McGregor had gone 500 days without defending. With McGregor’s absence from the cage, Ronda Rousey’s disappearing act, and the PED problems of Jon Jones and Brock Lesnar, the UFC desperately needed to give fans something to be excited about. Anticipation for the main event and a comprehensively stacked card underneath it made UFC 223 the first quality mixed martial arts offering of 2018. And in a matter of days, it all went to shit.
Of course it all started on April Fools Day. While Ferguson was in a Fox Sports studio for an interview, he tripped on a cord and tore a ligament in his knee. On the face this is a silly way to get injured, but it’s even more ridiculous considering Ferguson is known for some of the most stupidly dangerous training exercises in all of professional fighting. The freak accident cancelled the matchup for the fourth time, and a week out from the fight a replacement had to be found.
Enter Max Holloway, the reigning 145-pound champion. Though he was forced to pull out of his March 3 title defense due to an ankle injury, he claimed to be fighting-fit and ready to test Nurmagomedov ten pounds above his weight class. The damper of losing Ferguson was quickly replaced by excitement over the new matchup’s superfight narrative and stylistic intrigue, not to mention Holloway’s supremely ballsy gambit to step in on short notice. He immediately flew out from Hawaii to New York to start cutting weight.
Meanwhile, Nurmagomedov had his sights set elsewhere. Fighting on the undercard was Artem Lobov, a training partner of McGregor’s. No shortage of shit has been bandied about between the three of them, so when Nurmagomedov saw Lobov in a Brooklyn hotel, he took the opportunity to confront him. Nothing much happened in the moment, but it compelled McGregor to fly across the planet to come to Lobov’s defense. McGregor and his posse attacked a bus of fighters—including Nurmagomedov—by throwing a dolly through the window. He then ran off into a getaway van and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Shattered glass from the broken window resulted in two fighters sustaining injuries severe enough to be removed from the card. McGregor turned himself in and spent the night in jail. The sports biggest star was charged with three counts of assault and criminal mischief.
This was only the beginning.
During weigh-ins, the day before the fight, Holloway was deemed unfit to continue cutting weight, though this medical diagnosis was determined by the New York State Athletic Commission, not doctors. Holloway was pulled from the card and the UFC scrambled to find Nurmagomedov an opponent. The first choice was former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis, whose original opponent was injured by McGregor’s bus attack. He weighed in .2 pounds over the limit and was given two hours to shed the extra weight. No problem. Before he could weigh-in again, however, commission officials removed the scale. Pettis asked the UFC for more money—understandably so given the circumstances—but the UFC declined and Pettis walked away. The clock ticked, the search continued.
Next up: Paul Felder. Previously scheduled to fight Al Iaquinta on the undercard, he weighed in right on the money, and with a three-fight win streak he seemed about as good a replacement as any. The NYSAC then put a stop to this, claiming Felder was not ranked high enough to fight for a title. There are two ironies here. First, nobody takes the UFC rankings seriously, not even the UFC matchmakers, who have on several occasions ignored them outright to make more fan-friendly title fights. Second, this is the same commission that five months ago allowed Georges St-Pierre—who had never fought at middleweight in his career—to fight for the middleweight title after four years on the shelf. Nonetheless, Felder was bounced from the main event, leaving Nurmagomedov with an increasingly shrinking pool of potential replacements.
Yet the most absurd clusterfuck of a UFC event finally got the resolution it deserved. Nurmagomedov’s opponent for the lightweight title will be a fighter whose claim to fame has been publicly feuding with the UFC, Felder’s original opponent Al Iaquinta. It’s almost poetic that one of the UFC’s most combative fighters on the roster would be the one to save the promotion's ass.
So if your brain is spinning, let's just briefly recap what happened here: Tony Ferguson was TKO’d by a production cable, Khabib was slated to fight five different opponents in the span of a week, McGregor would rather commit assault to defend a friend than get paid to defend a title, a flying hand truck left six fighters out of work, the New York State Athletic Commission is composed of medical diagnosticians who take the UFC rankings very seriously, a former lightweight champion was nickle-and-dimed at the 11th hour, Paul Felder went from a title shot to having no opponent in a matter of minutes, and a fighter who was punitively banned from getting post-fight bonuses is bailing out the UFC. All in the last six days.
[Takes a very long, very deep breath.]
What a sport.