The UFC's 2021 debut on ABC was big news for everything that happened inside the Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Saturday, and everything that didn't.
Max Holloway put on one of the most punishing, one-sided displays of boxing in UFC history, landing a record 445 significant strikes in his unanimous decision victory over Calvin Kattar. Despite absorbing all of that damage, Kattar stood up to the barrage and made it to the final bell.
But just as big as Holloway's declarative statement for a return shot at the featherweight championship was, the biggest question going into the night centered around the recently retired Khabib Nurmagomedov.
While Nurmagomedov announced his retirement after defeating Justin Gaethje in October, Dana White has been actively trying to draw him back into the fold for one more megafight, with Conor McGregor the likeliest opponent.
White promised an update on Nurmagomedov's position on a return fight, and while there wasn't a definitive answer either way, White's assertion that Nurmagomedov could be persuaded back into action with a particularly dominant performance in either of two key fights at UFC 257 -- set to be headlined by McGregor and Dustin Poirier -- left the door open a crack.
With an eye toward the fallout of Saturday's events, Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto and Jeff Wagenheim are here to answer some of the UFC's most pressing questions as they project what's to come.
A rematch against Khabib Nurmagomedov is Conor McGregor's to lose
Okamoto: One million percent. Nurmagomedov has spent the past two years basically saying he has no interest in McGregor, but the narrative around McGregor has changed in the past two years. After Nurmagomedov beat him in 2018, McGregor's career was really up in the air. It was not a question of whether he was about to retire but rather what he wanted out of the sport at that point. A money fight once a year? Or did he want to try and get back to where he was in 2016, at the top of the lightweight division?
Would that loss to Nurmagomedov reignite his desire to be the best in the world, the same way he was obsessed with evening the score with Nate Diaz in 2016? It appears to have done the latter. McGregor looks motivated, just as he appeared motivated in 2020, before circumstances out of his control interrupted his plans for the year. If he looks great against Poirier and someone hands him a mic, McGregor is going to be the obvious choice to fight Nurmagomedov; and based on White's comments on the matter, I now expect Nurmagomedov to take that fight, if offered.
Did we learn anything new about Khabib's stance today?
Dana White: Khabib vs GSP is off the table
When asked if a megafight with Georges St-Pierre is on the table for Khabib Nurmagomedov, Dana White says it looks like neither is interested anymore.
Helwani: Absolutely not. That was a whole lot of nothing. Look, I get the UFC wanted to draw a few more eyeballs to the ABC debut, but this wasn't needed. It was a pure letdown.
- We still don't know if Nurmagomedov will fight again.
- The lightweight title hasn't been vacated.
We don't know if Nurmagomedov will fight McGregor later this year. In short, we know just as much as we knew when we all woke up this morning, and that's nothing new.
The optimists will say the door has been opened. But if you recall, White reopened that door three days after Nurmagomedov retired back in October. Nothing has changed since then.
Am I surprised? Not really. White is a promoter, and he just did what promoters do.
This was old-school carny, wrestling stuff. It was, as Nick Diaz famously said, wolf tickets. We all fell for it.
Real or not: If Khabib fights again, Charles Oliveira would be the toughest challenge.
Wagenheim: Real, real, real ... do I have to type that 14 times, one for each submission victory by Oliveira inside the Octagon? Nurmagomedov takes everyone down to the canvas, and that is where the Brazilian fighter does his best work, eliciting more tapouts than anyone in UFC history. Of course, Nurmagomedov's wrestling is at a different level from that of anyone Oliveira has yet faced, so who knows whether that elite submission game would ever get on track. But it would be an intriguing fight to watch, more so than the other possibilities.
I'm not so naive to suggest that this is the fight the UFC would make, though. If McGregor wins next Saturday, White's eyes will light up with dollar signs and he'll immediately try booking Khabib-Conor 2. And McGregor will have earned the rematch, because he presumably would be coming off a victory over No. 2-ranked Poirier. But we've already seen Nurmagomedov tangle with McGregor, and it was not competitive.
The same is true with a potential Poirier redo; he got mauled by Khabib too. And while we've not seen Nurmagomedov share the cage with either man in next weekend's co-main event, neither Dan Hooker nor Michael Chandler present the same degree of challenge that Oliveira would. "Do Bronx" has won eight in a row, most recently a total domination of the indomitable Tony Ferguson. I could see that high-level challenge drawing Nurmagomedov out of his short retirement.
Max Holloway, featherweight
Okamoto: Even before Saturday, there was a case for booking Holloway another title shot against Volkanovski. They fought in 2019 and 2020, and while Volkanovski won both bouts, their fights have been so close that the UFC could have booked that trilogy immediately -- and the company did consider it.
Ultimately, I'm glad that didn't happen. Regardless of how you scored those first two fights, Volkanovski emerged the winner, and it's important to show him a little respect and not force him to beat the same guy three times in a row to call himself a champion. Following this win over Kattar, though, and especially the manner of victory, there is truly nowhere for Holloway to go other than a title fight. So, whether it's Volkanovski or a rematch against Ortega, that's the 145-pound title fight that should happen next.
Wild card: Zabit Magomedsharipov
I put Holloway vs. Magomedsharipov down as one of the top 12 fights I want to see in 2021 -- and if Holloway doesn't fight for the belt next, this would pretty much be the only matchup that would make sense for him. But again, I can't envision a world in which Holloway doesn't get a title shot next. Unless something truly odd happens in Volkanovski vs. Ortega and the UFC is forced to run that back immediately, Holloway's status as next in line is pretty much set in stone.
Calvin Kattar, featherweight
Who should be next: Chan Sung Jung
Okamoto: This was a massive opportunity for Kattar -- one that would have taken his career to another level. Now just because he lost, I don't necessarily think his career takes a hit, per se; it just doesn't take off in the way it would have had he won this fight. Kattar is still a top-10 guy, in my eyes. He still is a potential title contender. And he told me before the fight that he isn't afraid of adversity or setbacks because he already has experienced them, and he came back every time. This certainly isn't the end of big fights for Kattar. He has plenty more on the horizon. A meeting with the "Korean Zombie," who lost to Ortega in his last bout, makes sense to me.
Wild card: loser of Volkanovski vs. Ortega
Like I said, Kattar might have lost to Holloway, but his status within the division doesn't suffer too much from it. I'd love to see Kattar fight either Volkanovski or Ortega. I think both are even, competitive matchups.