The UFC's ongoing problems with headlining matches are set to continue Saturday at UFC 223 in New York, where Max Holloway has stepped in as a last-minute injury replacement for an injured Tony Ferguson in a main-event showdown with Khabib Nurmagomedov.
One thing is clear, however: The winner of that bout will become the new UFC lightweight champion with no qualifier in front of the title.
"No interim champ. When this fight is over, champion," UFC President Dana White said Wednesday at a news conference, gesturing to Nurmagomedov and Holloway. "One of these guys will be the champion."
This news was not taken well by Conor McGregor, the previous permanent holder of that title.
"You's'll strip me of nothing," he tweeted very early Thursday morning, punctuating his message by calling UFC officials "do nothing [very, very insulting word]."
McGregor won the lightweight title by defeating Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 in November 2016 bout but stepped away from the octagon to train for last year's lucrative boxing match against Floyd Mayweather. Ferguson stepped in to win an interim lightweight belt in McGregor's absence, but White said Saturday's bout between Nurmagomedov and Holloway will decide a new official champion.
"Tony Ferguson isn't being stripped. The only person here who is losing a belt is Conor. Conor's losing the belt, these two are fighting for the belt," White said at the news conference.
"The interim belt that he had, those two [Nurmagomedov and Ferguson] were supposed to fight - doesn't happen. One of these guys will be the champion. Tony is still the number one contender."
White insisted that McGregor "is coming back this year, 100 percent," adding, "We'll see how this thing plays out [with the lightweight title], and we'll go from there."
White later reiterated that stance on Fox Sports' "UFC Tonight," saying: "Conor does want to fight. Conor and I have been talking a lot. Conor does want to come back, he does want to fight, so he will fight this year."
White wasn't done with his somewhat surprising announcements Wednesday, asserting on "UFC Tonight" that former UFC heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar also will return to the octagon despite his passed issues with failed drug tests.
"Brock Lesnar's coming back," White said. "I don't know when, but yes, he is."
Lesnar has not fought for White's company since the infamous UFC 200 in July 2016, when he defeated Mark Hunt but later failed a pair of drug tests, leading to a lawsuit from Hunt. McGregor was supposed to have headlined that card, in a rematch with Nate Diaz, but White pulled the fight after the Irishman refused to break training for some promotional appearances.
A former UFC heavyweight champion and a major box-office draw, Lesnar had retired from MMA in 2011 and has been a pro-wrestling star with the WWE. Having retired again from MMA in February 2017, just weeks after receiving one-year bans from both the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the Nevada State Athletic Commission, Lesnar presumably would have to serve the remainder of his suspensions before being cleared to compete again for the UFC.
The contract between the 40-year-old Lesnar and the WWE is set to expire shortly after Sunday's WrestleMania 34, at which he will take on Roman Reigns, and his recent flirtations with White have been viewed by some as simply attempts to gain leverage with the pro wrestling company. According to noted MMA reporter Ariel Helwani, though, a "deal is in place" with the UFC and both sides just need to "finalize" it.
With the departure of Ronda Rousey, the inability of Jones to stay clean and McGregor's lengthy absence, the UFC has lacked major star power over the past year and a half or so, although Georges St-Pierre's long-awaited comeback has helped. The possible returns of McGregor - especially if he can be matched up with St-Pierre - and Lesnar could be just what the doctor ordered for White and Co., but MMA fans will be forgiven for preferring to believe it when they see it.