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UFC 257 preview: Is Dana White trying to keep the title away from Conor McGregor?

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Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has no problem handing out interim titles, particularly in the lightweight division. When Khabib Nurmagomedov took himself out of the lineup back in early 2019, Dustin Poirier and Max Holloway went to war for the substitute strap.

Prior to that, longtime 155-pound contender and mayor of “Snap City,” Tony Ferguson, battled fellow division bruiser Kevin Lee for the interim lightweight belt when then-champion, Conor McGregor, was cashing his Floyd Mayweather lottery ticket in late 2017.

So then what the heck is the issue ahead of UFC 257?

Nurmagomedov retired from mixed martial arts (MMA) following a submission victory over Justin Gaethje at UFC 254 last October. Promotion president Dana White believes he can persuade the current lightweight champion to return at some point in 2021, but “The Eagle” insists he’s not coming back anytime soon — if ever.

With Gaethje getting finished, there’s a pretty good argument that McGregor and Poirier — who were also subbed by Nurmagomedov — are worthy of competing for the vacant title. If White wants to leave the gold around the Dagestani’s waist indefinitely; no problem, why not roll out another interim strap?

“I would make the case if that man is continuing to dodge the commitment of competing again, the title should be stripped and we should be engaging in a title fight,” McGregor said at the UFC 257 press conference (watch it here). “I’m sure it will happen after this bout. I’m interested to hear the excuses or what will be said after the fight, but I predict a title strip.”

If the promotion is going to strip Nurmagomedov after UFC 257, which takes place this Sat. night (Jan. 23, 2021) inside Etihad Arena on “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, then why not just strip it beforehand? Waiting until after the fact makes the selection process far more arbitrary ... unless White and Co. are trying to keep the belt off McGregor.

Sound crazy?

McGregor has only competed twice over the last four years and before his bout against Poirier came to fruition, the power-punching Irishman was trying to finagle a fight against boxing legend Manny Pacquiao. In fact, the only reason “Notorious” handpicked “The Diamond” was to get real-world experience against a battle-tested southpaw.

He was even willing to do it for free.

His UFC contract, however, would not allow it. That’s why McGregor is now fighting Poirier on ESPN+ pay-per-view (PPV). Sure, “Mystic Mac” claims he will return to the Octagon multiple times this year, but he also insists his Pacquiao fight is still on the table. In addition, partner Dee Devlin is expecting another child at some point over the next few months.

McGregor has not fought twice in the same calendar year since 2016.

We also have to examine his level of competition. Assuming Nurmagomedov stays retired, can UFC motivate “Notorious” to compete against an opponent like top contender Charles Oliveira? Or the winner of Dan Hooker vs. Michael Chandler, who compete in the UFC 257 lightweight co-main event?

Sounds far less exciting than a couple of rounds of “Pac Man,” or getting sweet revenge against “The Eagle.”

“The world knows this fight is not over, the war is not over,” McGregor said about his rivalry with Nurmagomedov. “The sport needs it to happen. The people need it to happen. I’m not going to chase it if he doesn’t want it. That’s it. I’ll keep my calm and move on. That’s what I’m doing. I’m back here at the 155-pound division. I’ll show the world what’s-what over time and that’s it. It begins on Saturday night against Dustin Poirier.”

It may also end on Saturday night against Dustin Poirier, win or lose.

McGregor is saying all the right things ahead of UFC 257, but he also said them ahead of UFC 246 — more than one year ago — before opting to “retire” (again) when he didn't get what he wanted during contract negotiations. And from the promotion’s perspective, a star that shines as bright as McGregor doesn't need a belt to move the needle.

He just needs to keep showing up, something he’s failed to do over the last four years.