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UFC real or not: McGregor vs. Poirier will be for the lightweight title?

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The UFC lightweight division, regarded by many as the promotion’s most competitive division, has suddenly become wide open with the retirement of champion Khabib Nurmagomedov this past Saturday.

But how will the UFC determine a new champ at 155 pounds? There are at least five fighters who can make a case for competing for the crown.

While Justin Gaethje lost to Nurmagomedov at UFC 254, he remains in contention. Tony Ferguson, who has won 12 of 13, also is in consideration, and so is newcomer Michael Chandler, the former Bellator lightweight champ. However, the division has a huge bout that is believed to be close to being set for Jan. 23 between Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor. Will the UFC simply make that bout a title fight?

And what about Khabib? This is the fight game, after all. People come out of retirement a lot. Will Nurmagomedov, who is 29-0, return someday to take on Georges St-Pierre? The winner could be considered the greatest mixed martial artist ever. Or does Nurmagomedov even need that fight to be called the GOAT?

ESPN MMA experts Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim break down those topics and determine what’s real and what’s not.

Real or not: The McGregor-Poirier fight will be for the vacant lightweight belt

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Ariel Helwani reports on Conor McGregor accepting a fight vs. Dustin Poirier on Jan. 23, but McGregor has a stipulation that he wants the fight to take place at AT&T Stadium.

Helwani: First, let me preface this by stating I have no insider knowledge on this one. I mean, Khabib just vacated the title, and I don’t think the UFC brass thought that would happen. I definitely know they didn’t talk to either McGregor’s or Poirier’s camp about fighting for a vacant title on Jan. 23. That said, this makes way too much sense. I can’t imagine any scenario where they don’t do this. If in fact Nurmagomedov is done, and I believe he is (for now, at least), McGregor vs. Poirier 2 is the perfect vacant title fight.

McGregor’s only loss at 155 is to Nurmagomedov, and Poirier is coming off a win and has already defeated Gaethje. At around the same time, they should also book Ferguson vs. Chandler, and by the time the dust has settled with those two fights, Gaethje will be ready to come back, and he should still be in the mix, too. I’m sure the brass isn’t happy Nurmagomedov is leaving — after all, it feels like he was just coming into his own as a star — but the good news is the promotion has plenty of great options at its disposal, including the biggest draw in the game.

Real or not: Ferguson’s next fight will be against Chandler, and the winner faces the McGregor-Poirier winner for the title

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2:24

More than two months after his loss to Justin Gaethje, Tony Ferguson says he’s ready to step back in the Octagon and lists the names he’d be willing to compete against.

Raimondi: This seems like the most likely scenario. I could see the UFC making McGregor vs. Poirier for the lightweight title and trying to put Ferguson and Chandler together on that January card or another event in close proximity. Maybe even UFC 256 on Dec. 12. Gaethje should be in this conversation somewhere, too. But he’ll likely need another win to get a title shot after falling to Khabib.

Losing Nurmagomedov to retirement is a blow to the UFC, there’s no doubt. He’s one of the top three draws in the promotion — maybe No. 2, behind McGregor. It also feels like he’s leaving before his peak. Nurmagomedov looked better than ever against Gaethje. He was hungry, ruthlessly looking for a finish at UFC 254. It was almost scary to watch. Usually, Gaethje is the predator in his fights. But Nurmagomedov is the UFC’s apex predator and he hunted down Gaethje.

With that said, if the UFC could afford to lose a top star from a division, it was at lightweight, which remains the deepest and most talented in the world. Look at the possible title fights and contender bouts left in Nurmagomedov’s wake. It’s a collection of well-rounded, excellent fighters — former champs, former titleholders from other promotions and potential future stars. Speaking of stars, the idea of McGregor becoming lightweight champion again with a win over Poirier would be a boon to the UFC moving into 2021 — with the potential of crowds coming back.

It has been an odd few months. Aside from the coronavirus pandemic, three of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world have retired: Nurmagomedov, Daniel Cormier and Henry Cejudo. This feels like 2013 when Anderson Silva lost his title, then shattered his leg and Georges St-Pierre vacated his title and went on hiatus within just a few months of each other. Luckily, the UFC had a woman named Ronda Rousey ready to become a huge star. Israel Adesanya seems like the next big thing for the promotion now. But perhaps he could be joined by one of these very talented athletes in the lightweight division.

Real or not: Khabib will change his mind at some point and fight once more, against Georges St-Pierre

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Georges St-Pierre gives his reaction to Khabib Nurmagomedov retiring after his win at UFC 254 and why he’s happy for him.

Wagenheim: I’ll call this one a half-truth. Nurmagomedov has been a competitor all his life, and that intrinsic thirst did not vanish from his nature at the instant he lay down his gloves at the center of the Octagon. He will feel the urge to test himself again. It might be today. It might be a year from tomorrow. It will happen — the desire to return will captivate him.

But Nurmagomedov will not surrender to that desire. Not even for a legacy-enhancing dance with St-Pierre.

Khabib promised his mother that Saturday would be his final professional fight, so he will not fight again. Period. End of story. The most dominant fighter in MMA history knows that a man is only as strong as his word. The enticement of fortune and hosannas will not win out over his commitment to family and honor. He will live up to his promise out of respect for his mother, out of respect for his late father — his coach, mentor and sage.

If the itch for competition becomes too vexing to ignore? Should that day come, a man in shades and a hat — an inconspicuous ball cap, not the attention-grabbing papakha — will walk into Tristar Gym in Montreal unannounced. St-Pierre will be expecting him — only GSP, no one else. Khabib and GSP will have their go privately — no fans, no bright lights. What happens that day will be known just by them. Both men will find satisfaction in that.

Real or not: Khabib didn’t have enough title defenses to be considered the GOAT

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Before Khabib Nurmagomedov takes on Justin Gaethje at UFC 254, look back at his biggest wins inside the Octagon.

Okamoto: Yeah, that’s false. Not a great argument, in my opinion. Look, the whole GOAT conversation, I don’t get too wrapped up in it, personally — because at the end of the day there is no right answer. So, why are we gonna sit around and argue all day over something that doesn’t even have a correct answer to begin with? That said, I think it’s pretty clear there are four candidates for GOAT: Nurmagomedov, Jon Jones, Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva. And their cases are all kind of different.

St-Pierre has the sterling resume — a double champ — and was the closest thing to a perfect fighter in his era, in my opinion. Silva had the record for most consecutive title defenses — four — for a very long time, and he had a mystique factor that I think has to be accounted for. The manner in which he beat his opponents was just something different. Jones seems like the most gifted, the most talented of them all. His resume is littered with former greats, and his upcoming move to heavyweight will have a major impact on his legacy. Nurmagomedov has the undefeated record. The unbelievable accomplishment of staying perfect in a sport in which it’s virtually impossible to do so. Frankly, that’s more important than title defenses to me, and he still beat all the names in this division he needed to (Ferguson would have been great, but in the end, Nurmagomedov doesn’t need to beat Ferguson for his legacy). He’s also going on out on probably his best performance yet. So, those are the arguments. And personally, right now, I’m saying Nurmagomedov is the GOAT.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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