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The Conor conundrum: Does Khabib need to ditch anti-McGregor rematch sentiment if he is to stay as UFC champion?

The Conor conundrum: Does Khabib need to ditch anti-McGregor rematch sentiment if he is to stay as UFC champion?
UFC champion Khabib Nurmagomedov has insisted that he has no interest in a rematch with Conor McGregor but the reality is that his future status as the 155lb titleholder could be inextricably linked to the notorious Irishman.

Such was the bad blood which surrounded Nurmagomedov's October 2018 win against the former champion that even McGregor, a man known for his acerbic wit and silver tongue, admitted recently that some of the pre-fight trash talk crossed a line. 

That first fight, with its story forged in the bowels of a Brooklyn arena car park and concluded with a post-fight brawl in and outside of the cage, was the closest that a professional sports rivalry has come to blowing over into the real world - at least in UFC terms. What was intended to be a fight between the lightweight division's two standout competitors instead became uneasy viewing. 

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Of course, the rivalry translated into huge box office success for the principal parties involved. Nurmagomedov claimed the biggest win (and paycheck) of his career. McGregor, while licking his wounds, wasn't left short on his purse either. It was the top-selling UFC pay-per-view in history.

As such, the UFC will always try and find a navigable route to propose a sequel to the rivalry, but this is an idea which has been repeatedly shot down by Nurmagomedov, as well as people within his camp.

Following McGregor's 40-second annihilation of Donald Cerrone last month, UFC chief Dana White has stated that the Irishman is next in line for the winner of the April title bout between Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson. White has even said that McGregor will be ready to step in, should one of the two fighters be forced to pull out, as has happened on four previous occasions to date.

However, this comes at odds to Nurmagomedov's recent statements in which he said that a rematch with McGregor isn't on his agenda.

"As for a rematch, to fight for a belt in the UFC, I remember I had something like nine or 10 fights. If he wins 10 fights in a row, then that's completely possible," Khabib said back in November when asked about the potential of a second fight with McGregor.

This sentiment was doubled down on by the Russian's manager Ali Abdelaziz while speaking to the media at Saturday's UFC 247 event in Houston.

"The only chance this fight could happen is in the street," Abdelaziz said "[McGregor would] have to do something spectacular. He's sh*t, you understand?

"Conor McGregor is one of the biggest stars because he's one of the biggest scumbags.

"We don't like this guy. We're never gonna like him. Probably every time we see him, there's gonna be problems. He said things about family, things about religion, things about race. He crossed the line. ... You can't cross the line with [Nurmagomedov].

"Listen, there's a lot of money for Khabib if Khabib fights Conor," Abdelaziz said. "... But everything is not about money. Especially with Khabib."

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Let's examine this for a moment. Nurmagomedov is obviously a principled man and unwilling to forgive the nature of their prior exchanges, or indeed McGregor's statements of a personal, ethnic or religious nature, but given the conviction of Dana White and the UFC hierarchy it appears almost certain that in the not-too-distant future he will be told to face McGregor again. 

McGregor has already been named as the division's top contender and just like in boxing, promoters don't take kindly to fighters dismissing their mandatories. It remains to be seen if Nurmagomedov can be swayed by the lucre that a fight of this magnitude would bring, but if he doesn't the UFC could be forced into making a definitive call: Fight Conor McGregor or have your world title stripped. Indeed, even should the Russian lose to Ferguson - who offers his most dangerous challenge yet - the calls to rematch McGregor would remain. 

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The Irishman is arguably the only figure within MMA who captures more attention on a global level than Nurmagomedov and he has already had TWO world titles removed from his waist by the promotion for inactivity. There is little to suggest that Nurmagomedov is sheltered from similar measures.

The Dagestani grappler has his hands very much full when he takes on Tony Ferguson in a matter of weeks but if he wins, prepare for a very public blinking contest between their lightweight champion and an organization with dollar signs in their eyes.

For the first time in his career, this could be a fight that Khabib Nurmagomedov can't win.

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