Khabib Nurmagomedov prepares to face Edson Barboza

On the only day of the year in which even society’s most gullible take everything with a pinch of salt, UFC president Dana White dropped perhaps the most suspicious and ultimately soul-crushing bombshell that the promotion has seen in recent times. And the world did not take it well.

Just six days out from his headline appearance at UFC 223 this weekend, Tony Ferguson has torn his LCL ligament ‘off the bone’ and will be unable to face longtime rival Khabib Nurmagomedov for the undisputed lightweight title. The ever-game featherweight champion Max Holloway is set to step in and try his luck at becoming the first man to halt the Russian in his terrifying march toward gold. And while that in itself is a tantalizing matchup – regardless of Holloway’s minimal preparation – the entire MMA community cannot help but feel that any dying embers of Ferguson and Nurmagomedov meeting have finally been extinguished. And that is a sad, sad prospect.

A cruel fate

After a startling fourth failure in attempting to get Ferguson and Khabib in the same Octagon, fans and fighters alike have expressed their collective disbelief about the whole debacle. To have a matchup between two such prolifically successful fighters scrapped so consistently is a feat rarely achieved previously by the MMA Gods. Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier should rightfully point to their several cancellations, but at least we got to see those two get in there and trade leather, no matter how many times it was booked. We saw eight thrilling rounds of it, in fact.

But “El Cucuy” and “The Eagle” have never once had the cage door close behind them, despite coming as close as a day away from fight night. That was the third installment in the rivalry’s wicked series, when Khabib was dragged to death’s door by a torrid weight cut before UFC 209. But we were certain that ‘Tiramisu Gate’ would be the most painful and, crucially, the last chapter of the tale. But as is the upsettingly appropriate slogan for this soap opera, it was not to be.

Every cloud does have a silver lining, and amidst all the uproar and heartbreak over the last three cancellations, there was a decidedly noticeable increase in demand and anticipation after each one. What was once relative excitement before The Ultimate Fighter 22 Finale has now mutated into pure pandemonium at the very mention of Ferguson and Khabib going to battle. That’s why the sheer fandom at large heading into UFC 223 was perhaps even blinding; the possibility of the main event falling apart was discussed in jest, never with any serious consideration of the worst case scenario.

And so it hurt. It stung. It plunged the MMA world into widespread misery, just as a Ferguson or Khabib-inflicted choke might do so. But when one of those two snatch your neck, there’s only one bleak, sure-fire consequence. This latest cancellation, however, poses the astronomically complicated question that is this: what next?

Keep going or keep in the past?

Well, the immediate answer to that question is a simple one. For better or worse, Nurmagomedov will be fighting Max Holloway this Saturday for the UFC Lightweight Championship at 155lbs. But it cannot be denied that the fight to make, the fight to determine the truly greatest lightweight in the world, is still between Ferguson and Khabib. Holloway is an outstanding talent in his own right, but the current climate of the featherweight division dictates that, at least for now, that talent is to remain at featherweight. He has justifiably been heralded as a “stud” for stepping up against the dominant Dagestani, but that does not automatically make him a lightweight contender.

No, the top lightweights are the #1 and the #2 contenders. The two men with the unparalleled levels of grappling acumen. The two men who have consistently displayed improved levels of striking ability and know-how in each outing. The two men that have bludgeoned Edson Barboza into a bloody mess. The two men that hold a victory over one of the welterweight division’s most impressive representatives and former lightweight king Rafael Dos Anjos. The two men that, with every win, grind away at the last remains of Conor McGregor’s validity as a champion. Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov are, cursed or not, undoubtedly the pairing to be made out of all the sharks that feast in lightweight waters.

In terms of what will actually happen, the future does not look good for those still praying for the two to meet inside the cage. In the interview that shook fight fans around the globe, Brett Okamoto quizzed circus master Dana White on the likelihood of ever booking the bout again, and the reply was as blunt as it was a sharp stab to any fans with a shred of hope left. White claimed that he would “never make that fight again.”

And so Tony Ferguson vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov may well rest as the fight that never was. We have learned to never take White’s word as gospel, but if his latest claim holds even an ounce of truth then this fight will be one of MMA’s greatest mysteries. We’ll never know how Ferguson’s unorthodox nature could upset the forward pressure of Nurmagomedov. We’ll never know if the booby trap-ridden guard of “El Cucuy” could suppress the unrelenting violence of “The Eagle”. And perhaps, as heart aching as it sounds, we’ll never know who the greatest lightweight of this generation was, is, or will be.

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