Khabib Nurmagomedov is freezing Conor McGregor out of the UFC’s biggest fights, and he’s not the only one

Khabib Nurmagomedov

Khabib Nurmagomedov is freezing Conor McGregor out from the UFC lightweight title shot, and he’s not the only fighter to do so as the Russian’s upcoming opponent Dustin Poirier intends to do the same.

Nurmagomedov and McGregor share a bitter rivalry. The 30-year-old wrestler beat the Irishman in style at UFC 229, dropping him with a thudding right hand in the second round before submitting him for good in the fourth.

McGregor and his team have since campaigned for an immediate rematch, which Nurmagomedov is loathe to grant him as he instead challenged the southpaw puncher to return to the sport of mixed martial arts and win a bout, before he fights for the lightweight title.

Nurmagomedov is back in action Saturday at the UFC 242 event in Abu Dhabi, defending his belt against Poirier, a jiu jitsu specialist from Louisiana who is on a vicious, five-fight win streak.

Should he beat Poirier, he says he’d refuse McGregor a title shot, instead favoring a bout against Tony Ferguson, one of the most well-rounded athletes in the business having won 13 in a row in a variety of ways.

Read more: Khabib Nurmagomedov said he’d fight Conor McGregor if he ever ran into him because he’s not afraid of going to jail

“There’s only Tony Ferguson,” Nurmagomedov said on a UFC 242 media conference call, according to MMA Fighting. “I think he deserves. Who else? Nobody. Only Tony Ferguson.”

Nurmagomedov and Poirier face off

Even if Nurmagomedov were to suffer the first professional loss of his entire career and be upset by Poirier this weekend, the American would also look to fight Ferguson, shutting McGregor out.

“100%, it’s Tony Ferguson without a second guess,” Poirier said on the same conference call. “Without any bargaining, it’s Tony Ferguson. No doubt.”

In June, Poirier told BT Sport: “After I beat Khabib, we’ll see … there’s other guys in line. Financially I want to fight Conor,” he said. “But there’s other guys who fought their dues. Tony’s next, and there’s other guys after him. It depends where the division is at, when the next defense comes.”

Nurmagomedov and Poirier are not the only fighters to look beyond McGregor, a marquee name in the sport, sure, but an athlete who has failed to score a single win since 2016.

The 34-year-old Californian welterweight Nate Diaz dominated Anthony Pettis in his first fight for three years last month, then challenged knockout specialist Jorge Masvidal to the mythical “baddest mother-f—– in the game belt.”

Nate Diaz and Jorge Masvidal

Diaz is another of McGregor’s most storied rivals, having beaten him once before losing the rematch. The combat veteran is one of the few athletes McGregor’s coach John Kavanagh has spoken positively about regarding a comeback opponent for his fighter.

But Diaz, like Nurmagomedov and Poirier, have moved the fight game on with their recent successes — and McGregor realized he is no longer the star he once was when he issued a grovelling apology to ESPN after footage showed him punch an man in a pub.

When McGregor told ESPN that the UFC is “brand over fighter,” he understood the company is bigger than he is.

Read more: Conor McGregor has finally realized the fight game has moved on without him

He even gave a long list of opponents he would be willing to fight, which is an indication he knows he has to climb his way back up the rankings rather than head straight into a fight with a big-name opponent.

It may get worse for McGregor, though.

White and McGregor

Events and results in the last year have shown that combatants in the UFC can rise quickly in name value. And beyond Nurmagomedov, Poirier, Ferguson, Diaz, and Masvidal, there are other fighters and fights potentially blocking McGregor’s route to a big bout.

The welterweight wrestler Colby Covington is proving dominant and on the cusp of a title shot against Kamaru Usman, and the Diaz vs. Masvidal winner will likely be thrust into a championship bout in 2020.

Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and Justin Gaethje will also meet at a Fight Night 158 event later this month and if one of them secures a statement victory, they will likely join the line of title challengers at lightweight.

This leaves McGregor, currently an afterthought, with few options.

And the longer he leaves his return, the harder it will become for him to cling on to whatever relevancy he has left.

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