By Philip O’Connor
(Reuters) – After a series of plot twists befitting a Broadway production, the UFC had hoped to bring clarity to its disorderly lightweight division with Saturday’s UFC 223 fight card in Brooklyn, but it will be overshadowed by one man not on it — Conor McGregor.
The Irish fighter gate-crashed a media day on Thursday and caused chaos with his entourage when he attacked a bus ferrying fighters in the venue’s loading bay, an assault that led to injuries to some of those aboard the vehicle.
McGregor appeared in court in New York on Friday charged with assault and criminal mischief.
Fighters Michael Chiesa and Ray Borg were pulled from the card by the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) after sustaining injuries, and McGregor’s stable mate Artem Lobov was kicked off the bill for his part in the chaos.
In another twist, lightweight challenger Max Holloway was declared “medically unfit” to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov by NYSAC as he struggled to shed weight and make the 155-pound limit. He has been replaced by American Al Iaquinta in the title match.
Ever since the 29-year-old McGregor became the first UFC fighter to hold two belts simultaneously, the promotion has struggled to ensure its hugely popular ‘bad boy’ followed by the rules.
By the time Russia’s Nurmagomedov and Iaquinta face off across the Octagon in Brooklyn, 511 days will have passed since McGregor won the title from Eddie Alvarez at the Madison Square Garden in Manhattan in November 2016.
However, the Irishman was first stripped of the featherweight title he claimed in 2015 and he has never managed to defended either crown after winning them.
Instead, he took up boxing and enticed retired great Floyd Mayweather back into the ring for a huge payday, in a bout he lost, with American Tony Ferguson stepping in and winning the interim UFC lightweight belt by overcoming Kevin Lee.
Asked at a news conference on Friday whether he could foresee McGregor ever fighting in the UFC again, the organization’s president Dana White said he was not sure.
“This thing is so crazy. He is being arraigned right now and dealing with what he has to deal with. We’re dealing with this fight,” White said.
“Next week I’m going to go home and figure out how this whole thing plays out,” he added.
“It’s a very unique situation that we’re in. It’s never happened in nearly 20 years of doing this so we’ll see.”
Ferguson was originally scheduled to face Nurmagomedov in a highly anticipated showdown but the contest had to be canceled for a fourth time when the American suffered a freak knee injury last week.
Holloway stepped up at very short notice but could not shed the weight, opening the door for the 30-year-old Iaquinta to save the main event.
With his ability to smother opponents using his powerful wrestling skills, the undefeated Nurmagomedov is the promotion’s rising star but Iaquinta is an excellent grappler and will provide a tough test.
As Iaquinta came in slightly over the weight, only Nurmagomedov can win the belt.
The other highlight on Saturday’s card is a women’s straw-weight title rematch between champion Rose Namajunas and Poland’s Joanna Jedrzejczyk, whom the American knocked out in stunning fashion in the first round to win the belt in November.
However, anyone expecting to grab any of the limelight from McGregor is mistaken.
Emboldened by his money from the Mayweather fight, he has become a law unto himself, but his latest misstep has seriously tested the patience of White, who has excused plenty of bad behavior in the past.
However, with the promotion quickly tiring of his antics, the Irishman may find that while he might well be able to win back a belt in the future, winning back fans may prove a lot more difficult.
(Reporting by Philip O’Connor; Additional reporting by Rory Carroll; Editing by John O’Brien)