NEW YORK – As the injuries and lunacy around UFC 223 mounted, as he had to call Khabib Nurmagomedov time and again and tell him something had changed regarding his bout for the lightweight title Saturday at the Barclays Center, UFC president Dana White had to grit his teeth and hope that this wouldn’t be the time that Nurmagomedov had enough and said no.
After Tony Ferguson pulled out six days before the bout with an injury, White called and asked Nurmagomedov if he’d face featherweight champion Max Holloway.
Nurmagomedov said yes. When Holloway was yanked because of troubles during his weight cut, Nurmagomedov was approached at various times with the thought of fighting Anthony Pettis, Paul Felder and Al Iaquinta.
It was yes, yes and yes each time.
“I honestly believe there are three guys in this company who would have stayed and fought with all that was going on,” White said. “No doubt, Conor McGregor. Cowboy Cerrone and Khabib. The stuff this guy went through physically, mentally and emotionally this week … ”
And Nurmagomedov then went out and fought brilliantly, winning the lightweight title that had been stripped from McGregor with a dominant performance over Iaquinta. He won by scores of 50-43 twice and 50-44 and showed off an all-around game.
He did it despite being in the crossfire of one of the wildest weeks in the UFC’s history. It began on Sunday – April Fools’ Day – though it was no joke when Ferguson had to pull out because of a torn LCL.
On Tuesday, Nurmagomedov got into a confrontation with Artem Lobov, McGregor’s teammate. That led to the hard-to-believe scenario on Thursday of McGregor and 20 of his teammates attacking a bus on which Nurmagomedov and several other UFC fighters were sitting.
When the carnage was done, two fighters were injured and pulled from their fights, a champion was debating whether she wanted to continue, six fighters in total lost bouts and McGregor wound up in jail.
But it got even worse the next day. A few hours after a handcuffed McGregor was arraigned and charged for his role in Thursday’s incident, New York athletic commission officials decided that it wasn’t safe for Holloway to cut any more weight when he got to 159 pounds, and pulled him from the show.
That led to the last-minute chaos of trying to find an opponent for Nurmagomedov, who had successfully made weight and just wanted to fight.
Though he didn’t get the spectacular submission he may have envisioned when he first began to dream of winning a UFC title as a boy in Russia, Nurmagomedov dominated Iaquinta from the start and there was never a shadow of a doubt as to the outcome.
He capped his performance by calling out one of the greatest fighters in the sport’s history.
“I keep trying to learn from [my teammates] and be better,” Nurmagomedov said. “It’s like Georges St-Pierre said, ‘Even when you are a black belt, you have to think like a white belt.’ And now, I want to fight Georges St-Pierre in November at Madison Square Garden.
“I want to say thank you to Iaquinta for stepping up and fighting. He is a real Brooklyn gangster. I want to fight the best. Right now, give me 30 minutes rest, let me drink a little water and I can fight with anyone. Doesn’t matter.”
There were plenty of doubts about the women’s strawweight rematch between champion Rose Namajunas and former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, the first being whether it would happen.
Namajunas was seated behind lightweight Michael Chiesa when McGregor attacked the bus. When McGregor threw a dolly at the window it shattered and Chiesa was cut by the glass. Flyweight Ray Borg suffered a corneal abrasion and had to pull out of the bout.
Namajunas, who said after her fight in November she didn’t care for the negativity that was floating in the UFC at that point, briefly considered not fighting after the McGregor incident.
“If they opened that door and they all started to come in, obviously they’re not after me, but I’m caught in that scenario,” Namajunas said. “My imagination started. …. Anyone could have a gun or a knife. You don’t know, and I jump to the negative pretty quickly. … I’m grateful I’m still in one piece.”
Then she went out and fought like she didn’t have a care in the world, engaging Jedrzejczyk in an entertaining bout in which she didn’t feel she was at her best. Namajunas won by scores of 49-46 on all three cards, though the judges disagreed on the round that Jedrzejczyk won.
Jedrzejczyk landed plenty of kicks and Namajunas’ lead leg had plenty of welts, but she shook it off to win.
“Let’s see how she is going to walk tomorrow,” Jedrzejczyk said.
She was walking and smiling just fine well after the fight, the championship belt in tow.
And after everything that had occurred, the show sold out, with an attendance of 17,026, and the $3 million gate set a Barclays Center record.
“That’s ridiculous considering the week we had,” White said.
No other promoter in the world would have gone on with the show with all that was happening. And not only did the show go on, it was a good one, at that.
More UFC 223 coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Kevin Iole: McGregor’s violent outburst could end his UFC career
• ‘Thug’ Rose proves she’s no fluke, retains title
• Dan Wetzel: McGregor melee wasn’t fake, but that won’t stop the UFC
• Confident Namajunas hopes to inspire others