Conor McGregor isn’t known to be shy with his opinions. And neither are his fans.
The Irish faithful have followed the only fighter ever to simultaneously hold two UFC weight class titles in droves, showing up by the thousands in locales from Dublin to New York to Las Vegas for his fights.
And if it’s possible, they’re an even more boisterous presence online, extolling his virtues following his victories and coming up with excuses when the UFC lightweight champion ends up in hot water.
His more obnoxious Twitter followers seem to think that if only they’re rude enough to strangers online, McGregor himself will roll up to their apartments in his sports car and invite them out for a night at the club.
But a funny thing happened on Saturday night as UFC 219 played out. Somewhere around 11:30 p.m. ET, when Khabib Nurmagomedov took to the cage against Edson Barboza in Las Vegas, McGregor’s mouthiest backers suddenly went radio silent.
Nurmagomedov put on a ruthless display of aggression against Barboza at T-Mobile Arena, taking him to the mat early and often and doing all but stealing Barboza’s lunch money as he dished out a schoolyard beating. It was a credit to Barboza’s toughness that he lasted the full 15 minutes, but the judges’ scores of 30-25, 30-25, and 30-24 was an accurate gauge of how the fight played out.
That ran the Russian standout’s record to 25-0, 8-0 in the UFC. And all of a sudden, Conor Nation went quiet on Twitter. There were no more taunts at Nurmagomedov about the injuries and weight issues which slowed his ascent.
McGregor himself is known for making either dismissive comments following a main event involving a UFC rival, or posting an ostentatious display of his wealth. As of Sunday afternoon, McGregor hadn’t posted on social media following UFC 219.
It has been just shy of 14 months since McGregor knocked out Eddie Alvarez to win the UFC lightweight championship at Madison Square Garden. Since then, he’s blazed a path that’s made him rich beyond his wildest dreams. He helped will a boxing fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr. into existence and reportedly made upward of $100 million for his losing effort in the August bout.
But as McGregor enjoys the spoils of his labor, the division is moving forward. McGregor holds the championship belt, but he is precisely 1-0 in the UFC’s 155-pound weight class.
Tony Ferguson won an interim belt back in October in McGregor’s absence. He’s on a 10-fight win streak, which is eight longer than McGregor’s current MMA win streak, and is 13-1 overall in the UFC. Nurmagomedov indisputably hurt his own cause by having to withdraw from a UFC 209 fight the day before due to a weight cut gone awry, but 25-0 is 25-0.
And Nurmagomedov knows it.
“The real belt is 25-0,” Nurmagomedov said at the UFC 219 post-fight news conference. “This is real belt. They’re all fake belts. To be honest, real belt is Tony Ferguson. Conor, he has only one fight in UFC at 155 and he have [title]. He beat Eddie Alvarez. He’s good fighter, but he’s not champ. I think lot of people can beat him in 155. This is my opinion. I think lot of people can beat him at 155.”
Especially when rumors pop up linking him to boxing matches with opponents ranging from Paulie Malignaggi to Manny Pacquiao to, really, everyone short of Glass Joe from “Punch-Out.” McGregor could propose fighting the animatronic shark Michael Phelps raced over the summer and a segment of his fan base would applaud like trained seals.
The UFC is loathe to strip McGregor of the belt, because they don’t want to alienate their only remaining superstar. Maybe McGregor is about the money and nothing else at this point. He certainly has the right to make that choice, as they do call this game “prize-fighting” for a reason and he is MMA’s undisputed pound-for-pound king of bringing home the loot.
But his claim to being the world’s top lightweight is slipping. Ferguson — who is coming off elbow surgery and understandably angling for the big-money fight with McGregor — has proven himself time and again at 155 pounds. Nurmagomedov showed once again on Saturday night why he’s a significant threat to everyone in the division.
Fourteen months is plenty of time to get your first title defense lined up. Maybe the UFC will let McGregor hold onto his belt indefinitely. But the true No. 1 vs. No. 2 fight in the lightweight division as the calendar turns to 2018 is Ferguson vs. Nurmagomedov.
And the silence from both McGregor and his fan base on Saturday night as Nurmagomedov bludgeoned Barboza is an indication that deep down, they know that’s true.
More UFC 219 coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Kevin Iole: Nurmagomedov is class of UFC’s lightweight division
• Cyborg prevails despite Holm’s grueling test
• Unbeaten Khabib dominates Barboza in violent win
• What’s next for Cyborg after defeating Holm?