Khabib Nurmagomedov took aim at Conor McGregor after ending a dramatic week on a high by defeating late replacement Al Iaquinta via unanimous decision to succeed the controversial Irishman as the UFC’s new lightweight champion.
The unbeaten Nurmagomedov claimed a 50-44, 50-43, 50-43 victory at the UFC 223 main event at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
The 29-year-old Russian took the title which was stripped from McGregor on Thursday, before the Irishman was charged with assault following a backstage disturbance at the media day ahead of the event.
McGregor handed himself in to police after footage emerged online in which he appeared to throw a hand truck at a bus taking rival fighters away from the Barclays Center.
McGregor, who last fought when he was beaten by Floyd Mayweather in a boxing bout in August, has not fought in the Octagon since winning his belt in November 2016.
Speaking after his victory, Nurmagomedov said: “Where’s Conor? You want to fight with bus? Iaquinta is real Brooklyn gangster.”
UFC president Dana White, who had labelled the McGregor incident “one of the most disgusting things that’s happened in the history of the company”, revealed he had talked with the Irishman.
“I think there is mutual respect between us,” said White at a press conference after the event, adding he did not currently have a plan for how to deal with the fighter.
“I had so many things thrown at me this week to focus on the show was insane. We’ll get back and we’ll focus on Conor McGregor.
“He didn’t come to New York to do anything with me. He jumped on a plane with all those guys to come to New York for the Khabib thing. I didn’t even know Conor was here.
“We had talked about him fighting in September. I don’t know (if that’s still possible).”
While McGregor’s behaviour may have overshadowed Nurmagomedov’s bout, the Russian also had to cope with having to prepare for three separate opponents.
He had been due to face Tony Ferguson, who suffered a freak knee injury, while Ferguson’s replacement Max Holloway was deemed not fit to fight.
Iaquinta, who weighed in 0.2lbs over the lightweight limit, stepped in at the 11th hour, and showed plenty of heart to last the five rounds, although he could not trouble Nurmagomedov.
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Cris Cyborg crushed Yana Kunitskaya in the main event of UFC 222 to ensure the women’s featherweight strap remained tightly wrapped around her waist.
The 32-year-old decimated the Russian challenger in the first round of their makeshift short-notice bout with any threat of an upset buried by the Brazilian’s booming right hand.
But a devastating right is what led to a shock win in the co-main event as Brian Ortega poleaxed Frankie Edgar to put himself in line for a title shot of his own.
CYBORG IS RUNNING OUT OF COMPETITION
It is Cyborg, however, who finds herself in unfortunate territory. The Brazilian’s hegemony over the women’s featherweight division means she is fast becoming a fighter who with each dominant victory, loses.
Unbeaten and relatively untested in the UFC, Cyborg hasn’t lost since her first pro fight, beating senseless one victim after another.
She is one of the best ever to do it, regardless of weight class or gender and yet therein lies the tragic irony to the Cyborg narrative. She is an apex predator in short supply of the sustenance required to translate her undeniable skill and dominance to a widened audience.
Her superiority has become boring, the entire notion of competition eroded with each passing contender failing to mount a legitimate challenge.
Kunitskaya was the latest example but she won’t be the last. The Russian’s expression when Cyborg’s first right-hand landed was that of a panicked deer.
Every strike, she shrunk and this wasn’t a case of an undersized 135-pounder moving up to slaughter.
The former Invicta champ was broader, taller and even stronger in some of the grappling exchanges. But she genuinely looked like someone who had never been hit in the face before whenever Cyborg landed.
"She called me out, and when you call Cyborg out, you have to handle it."— UFC on BT Sport (@btsportufc) March 4, 2018
Amanda Nunes is next up for Cris Cyborg...
We've got a Champ vs Champ superfight on our hands 🙌 pic.twitter.com/FeyTPcSpLP
The reality is, the champion’s power is such that the force is like of no other female fighter and while Amanda Nunes is next line, the narrative won’t change. A brave effort will earn the bantamweight queen applause, but for Cyborg it will be another shrug of the shoulders in victory.
It’s difficult to know who to pity more the challengers, or the unchallenged.
But the contrasting complexion of the men’s 145lbs to the women’s were laid bare by the fight proceeding Cyborg’s main-event mauling.
Indeed, Ortega might just be the next featherweight champion and that is not a hot-take solely presented because of the coldest knockout you will see this year.
You guys, Brian Ortega's easiest fight in the UFC was Frankie Edgar.— Luke Thomas (@lthomasnews) March 4, 2018
Is this real life?
The 27-year-old did what no other fighter has managed yet, stop Frankie Edgar, and he did so by virtually decapitating his head with an uppercut of raw violence.
Ortega is a nasty submission artist, but his striking is developing at such a rate he has to be considered a legitimate contender to dethrone Max Holloway.
Physically, he has the attributes critical in matching the long and rangy Hawaiian with his super-slick composure on the feet or the mat making for a fascinating fight.
With Holloway 26 and Ortega 27, the pair represent the fresh-faced new look of the UFC.
Conor McGregor’s star-pull won’t last forever, but the promotion is already showing there is plenty of new blood to continue the lineage of talent.
The women’s featherweight division is crying out for just that.
Yoel Romero planted two sledgehammer left hands on Luke Rockhold, then sealed victory with a kiss.
In an illustration of the Cuban’s beauty and the beast persona, the 40-year-old phenom positioned himself for another crack at middleweight title holder Robert Whittaker with a third-round knockout of the former champ in UFC 221’s headline slot.
In the end, Romero’s eruption of violence negated the legitimacy of the interim belt – only on offer to Rockhold after he missed weight – as the volcanic nature of the UFC’s Middle Earth continues to quake.
Indeed, the 185lbs division is among the UFC’s most muddled. Georges St Pierre vacated after deciding his foray would be a brief one, promoting Whittaker from interim – a title he claimed by beating Romero – to undisputed champ.
Rockhold was then initially slated to fight Whittaker in Perth on Saturday only for the Australian to pull out through injury allowing the dangerous Romero to slot in on four-weeks notice.
Obviously he would go on to miss weight, and the empty interim belt lost all gravitas the UFC desperately attempted to give it. Yet, victory for either was always likely to place them in line for a shot at genuine gold.
Despite the fact Romero turns 41 in a couple of months time, he is left as the only real challenger for the only man who legitimises the division after sending Rockhold into a turbulent slumber before awakening him with a kiss of life on the cheek post-fight.
However, the signature KO came at a cost.
“I think in the first round I took two kicks and I’m pretty sure it broke my leg,” the Olympic silver medallist said through an interpreter post-fight.
“Life is like the weather. Sometimes you have a lot of sun. Sometimes it rains. You need to be prepared for these weather changes.”
Right now, the middleweight climate is stormy and for a division which for so long was dominated by one man, Anderson Silva, it has failed to find any real consistency since the Brazilian was dethroned.
Chris Weidman always came with the caveat of two victories against Silva tinged with fortune until he lost the belt to Rockhold. His subsequent defeat to Michael Bisping threw the division into disarray before GSP’s victorious return. Now we are here, with a 40-year-old veteran as a sole challenger, one already defeated by Whittaker.
At least the route for Romero appears obvious, the next step for Rockhold is less so.
His talent is undeniable but in equal measure so is the ability hit him. There might not be another elite-level fighter quite as hittable as Rockhold – a hard man in name only it seems.
Respect to Yoel that man is made of steel.— Luke Rockhold (@LukeRockhold) February 11, 2018
As Bisping has proved, Rockhold is open when he throws a right hook and after feinting with a double jab, Romero exploded from docility to seat him in similar circumstances.
The American will be left contemplating his position because in one sense, the cut to 185lbs is brutal but in the other, his chin is clearly suspect.
Granted, light-heavyweight is wide open and with Daniel Cormier retiring next year it’s something to consider.
But Jimi Manuwa, Volkan Oezdemir and a potentially returning Anthony Johnson are all frightening prospects for him.
Still, nightmares don’t come much worse than being on the receiving end of death’s kiss.
Before the soul was sucked out of Rockhold came the injection of much-needed youth into the heavyweight division.
Curtis Blaydes smothered Mark Hunt to a unanimous decision in the co-main event while Tai Tuivasa increased his burgeoning reputation with another first-round knockout.
At 26 and 24, respectively, the duo’s victories help the turnover of talent in a division which has struggled with stagnation.