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Conor McGregor's shadow still looms large as Khabib Nurmagomedov prepares for long-awaited return

LOS ANGELES – Khabib Nurmagomedov was in the middle of answering yet another question about Conor McGregor when his manager protested.

“Hey, timeout,” Ali Abdel-Aziz told reporters gathered at a recent media event designed to promote Nurmgamedov’s UFC 219 co-feature bout with Edson Barboza. “Khabib is here to talk about Edson Barboza. Forget about [expletive] Conor.”

It was an understandable sentiment. McGregor’s shadow looms over the UFC to an exhausting degree.

But you can’t talk about the implications of a fight like Nurmagomedov vs. Barboza on Dec. 20 in Las Vegas, which has the potential to be a barnburner of a bout all on its own merits, without discussing its implications on the division, a weight class overseen by an absentee champion.

McGregor, of course, won the UFC lightweight title by knocking out Eddie Alvarez at Madison Square Garden 13 months ago. Even those least informed on combat sports can tell you what he’s been up to since: Boxing Floyd Mayweather in August and enjoying his newfound wealth back in Ireland. Wednesday, news reports surfaced saying the UFC was in negotiations with Mayweather, presumably for a McGregor rematch under MMA rules. (Mayweather has since walked back earlier comments about potentially competing in the Octagon.)

For his part, the undefeated Nurmagomedov believes the time is well past due for McGregor to relinquish his claim to the championship.

“If you don’t have injury, if you’re healthy, if you’re champion, you have to defend it, of course,” Nurmagomedov said. “If you’re regular fighter, you can fight whenever you want. … He has to defend his belt. This is not about money. This is sport.”

Complicating matters is the fact the UFC has already crowned an interim lightweight champion in Tony Ferguson, who is also on the sidelines, after undergoing elbow surgery.

Khabib Nurmagomedov will make his highly anticipated return to the Octagon at UFC 219. (AP)

So while the native of the Russian republic of Dagestan is realistic about the fact that McGregor is a money machine for the UFC, he believes the only logical progression is to win his fight with Barboza, strip McGregor of his title and have Nurmagomedov and Ferguson meet for the real lightweight championship – a bout which was originally scheduled for UFC 209, but was scratched one day prior when the Russian had to pull out following a weight cut gone awry.

“Conor is in a different situation,” Nurmagomedov said. “He is very big star. UFC wants to put him everywhere, ‘Oh we have Conor McGregor UFC champ.’ He don’t want somebody to smash his face. This is what I think. But he have to defend his title or Tony Ferguson has to become real champ. My opinion, I’m gonna beat Edson Barboza and Tony Ferguson becomes real champ and we have to fight in April or May.”

It’s not that Nurmagomedov would mind McGregor-like transcendent stardom, mind you. Nurmagomedov believes he can become Russia’s version of a McGregor, Georges St-Pierre, or Anderson Silva for the UFC – giant stars in their respective homelands of Ireland, Canada and Brazil, respectively – if only the company would do the legwork to make it happen.

“I think the UFC has to come and make a deal, and they have to begin now,” he said. “After a couple years, I think they can make a lot of money with this. The UFC worked hard with Brazil. They made pay-per-views in Brazil and Canada. Now, they’re working with England. I think Russia is very big.”

It would take some tinkering with the PPV model, in which the company charges $60 USD to watch their events, Nurmagomedov believes. He says if the company can convert just a portion of the audience who currently watches him on free TV in his homeland, it will be well worth the effort.

“Russian people cannot buy a $60 or $100 pay-per-view,” he said. “If they made for Russian people a $10 or $15 pay-per-view, only for Russian people, I think they could get a couple million buys for my fights. I know almost five or six million people watch my fights live in Russia, but they watch on free TV. If three million people bought [a $15 pay-per-view], it’s going to be big money. They have to make a deal in Russia.”

But that’s out of Nurmagomedov’s hands. Before he can become a superstar, he’s going to have to show he can make it to the cage on a regular basis. He’s undeniably been an awesome force in the UFC’s Octagon, going 8-0 since making his debut in Jan. 2012. But inactivity has been Nurmagomedov’s hangup, as the Barboza fight marks just his ninth bout in a shade under six years and first in 13 months.

In Barboza (19-4), Nurmagomedov has a chance to re-introduce himself against one of the division’s hottest fighters. Barboza has had big things predicted of him too, and has really come into his own over the past two years, with three straight wins, four in his past five, and three post-fight bonuses over that span.

If Nurmagomedov takes care of business in Las Vegas on the Dec. 30, maybe he’ll stop hearing fewer questions about that other guy.

“This is real fight,” Nurmagomedov said. “This is most important fight right now. But of course I’m gonna focus on Edson Barboza. To be honest, I think about Edson and Tony Ferguson. I don’t think about Conor McGregor.”

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