We’ve now seen that UFC events can work with the behind-closed-doors, social-distancing format. The main event at UFC 249 proved to be a Blockbuster, with Justin Gaethje claiming the Interim Lightweight Championship. Many now wonder if the UFC will put its biggest star on display before things return to normal.
McGregor has hinted at a summer return on social media, tweeting “See you in July” last week. It is rumored that the next UFC event will take place on Dana White’s “Fight Island”. The Irishman made his return to the sport in January of this year, after a 15-month hiatus, where his 45 second dismantling of Donald Cerrone made it look as though he’d never left. When it comes to who will be next to secure the biggest money fight in the game, there are a few names that continue to be mentioned. Here, we’ll take a look at the five potential competitors to be given a shot to take on the Notorious.
1. Justin Gaethje
The new Interim Lightweight Champion proved beyond all doubt at UFC 249 that he can rise to big occasions and get the job done. He bombarded Tony Ferguson with shots for 25 minutes before the referee stopped the fight with just over a minute to go. Its safe to say that if any chin but that of Ferguson was on the receiving end of the barrage, the fight would have been over much sooner.
Stylistically, a matchup between the two is an enthralling prospect. Two competitors who will most likely stand on their feet and trade blows for as long as possible – with no fans to drown out the impact, this one could get loud! Justin proved against Ferguson that he is capable not just of inflicting serious damage with his strikes, but also of avoiding being hit himself. As one of the most accurate strikers in the game, a matchup with Gaethje would provide an intriguing challenge for the Irishman.
Notorious certainly seemed keen for a fight against the Interim Lightweight Champion, tweeting “Your teeth. I’m going to put them on a f*****g necklace”.
Both Gaethje and his manager, however, have said numerous times that their priority is a fight with Undisputed Lightweight Champ, Khabib Nurmagomedov. Gaethje showed his intent on unifying the lightweight titles by throwing his interim belt to the ground during his post-fight interview at 249, saying “I’m waiting for the real one”. It seems that, for a fight with Gaethje to be next up for McGregor, Khabib must first be ruled out.
2. Jorge Masvidal
2019 was an incredible year for Masvidal, where, returning after a 16-month absence, he won all three of his fights in emphatic fashion. His 5 second treatment of Ben Askren alone has to have earned him a place in the UFC history books. He also currently holds the first ever BMF belt, which he won against Nate Diaz in November.
Gamebred has said multiple times that he has McGregor in his crosshairs, stating on The Dan Le Batard Show “I’d like to break his face. He’s an easy paycheck.” He also tried to draw attention to himself by showing up ringside to McGregor’s comeback fight in January wearing a bathrobe. McGregor laughed at the attempt, referring to it as “baloney” during the post-fight press conference.
The prospect of a fight between McGregor and Masvidal is a tantalising one: both have incredible flair and are known for finishing big fights very early- what a first round we’d be in for!
Masvidal has certainly earned a big-money fight. He has generated a lot of hype over the past 12 months, leaving some big names in his wake, which makes him an obvious choice for either a title match, or a shot at McGregor.
Although he doesn’t claim to be overly fussed about claiming Masvidal’s BMF belt, the Notorious said he’d still happily take it, as he expressed interest in meeting the no. 3 ranked welterweight contender at the press conference mentioned above.
There is another key reason a fight with Masvidal is particularly exciting, see section 4.
3. Khabib Nurmagomedov
After the war that took place at UFC 226, a rematch with Nurmagomedov is probably at the top of most people’s list of fights they want to see. The bad blood between the two has exploded beyond the octagon, with bans and fines for conduct being imposed on both sides from the UFC and from the American Government! Very little in this world is a sure thing, but there is no doubt that a second encounter between The Notorious and The Eagle would be one of the biggest fights of all time.
It ticks the box for entertainment value, but does it make sense? Some may say that is doesn’t. The last time the two met, Khabib’s victory was comprehensive; a grappling masterclass (with an exceptional haymaker included) that saw McGregor tap in round four to a neck crank. You might think McGregor hasn’t earned a second title shot in the lightweight division yet.
While its true that, under normal circumstances, a contender who is beat so decisively by the champion should have to earn a second shot, the circumstances that surround the Khabib-McGregor rivalry are far from normal. For the few who don’t know, after securing his victory, Nurmagomedov climbed out of the cage and attacked McGregor’s Jiu Jitsu coach and training partner, Dillon Danis. Members of Khabib’s family and entourage then flooded the ring and attacked McGregor. Khabib felt that McGregor and his team had crossed a line in the psychological warfare waged on him in the lead up to the encounter. Had Khabib simply taken his victory, and exited the octagon gracefully that night, a rematch would be a lot less likely. His antics have created a tenable argument that the business between the two is far from over.
The two will definitely meet again at some point. The only barrier I can see to the fight happening in June is that I think Dana White would rather have a capacity crowd in attendance to create the right atmosphere for such a charged bout. It will most likely be after the social distancing policies have been lifted that we’ll see the Eagle face the Notorious again.
4. Nate Diaz
Diaz and McGregor have given us two outstanding shows in the past, with one fight going to each competitor (Diaz by submission in the first encounter, and McGregor by decision in the second). A third fight would be winner-takes all and would be a fitting end to what has been a hugely entertaining rivalry.
Diaz returned to the UFC in mid-2019 with a victory over Anthony Pettis, after a three-year hiatus following his rematch with McGregor. He then fought Masvidal for the BMF belt in November, and ended up losing when the doctor stopped the fight before the fourth round commenced, for concerns over the deep cut Masvidal’s strikes left on Diaz’s eye. Known as one of the toughest MMA competitors on the planet, Nate would doubtlessly have fought to the end were it up to him – he has incredible stamina and usually performs well in later rounds. This loss definitely shouldn’t stand in the way of another big-money fight for the Californian Welterweight.
McGregor also seemed keen for a rematch, goading “Let’s go Nathan, Lets go brother. Number three. It’s always here” after his victory against Cerrone. However, its not clear what weight class the clash would go ahead at. After losing the first fight at Diaz’s preferred welterweight, Notorious thought it necessary to return to 170 lbs to put it right in the second bout. When asked about a third fight, Mcgregor said that it would have to be Nate’s turn to drop weight the next time – presumably to Lightweight. This was in 2016, however, and McGregor looked very comfortable at welterweight in January. It will ultimately depend on whether he wants the tactical advantage of putting Diaz through a large weight cut, or if he wants to stake his claim to a potential Welterweight title shot by taking out another 170lb-er.
5. Kamaru Usman
Usman is one of few UFC fighters McGregor hasn’t said too much about. The Nigerian won the World Title at UFC 245 in December, dominating Tyron Woodley in a 5-round bout. The champion stated on Joe Rogan’s MMA show that he’d love the chance to go toe to toe with The Notorious, placing a bout with the Irishman as second only to a crack at the legend George St Pierre (if he decides to fight again) in his list of desired fights. An accomplished wrestler with formidable striking ability, the Nigerian Welterweight would arguably be the toughest fight on this list.
Usman isn’t the first name that springs to mind when you think of a McGregor blockbuster, however, it could be the fight McGregor desires most.
McGregor has said repeatedly that belts aren’t his main priority in the fight game anymore. He’s expressed numerous times how he feels the UFC strip champions without cause and hand out made-up titles to people who haven’t earned a real shot (no prizes for guessing who this was directed at). He wants to build a legacy, and that is done by making impacts that can’t be taken away by the company. He was the first competitor ever to be the world champion in two weight divisions simultaneously. He was later stripped of both titles. Becoming the first ever fighter to win titles in three weight divisions must be on his radar. This would be a huge test for the Irishman, but the reward would be a record that would stand a long, long time.
However, this fight is unlikely to be the next one for McGregor, as he hasn’t made enough of an impact on the welterweight division yet. His domination of Cerrone was a good start, but in order to earn a title shot, he surely needs a victory over a higher ranked contender. This is the other reason a fight with Masvidal or Diaz makes sense: not only would they be fantastic stand-alone events, but could pave the way to an encounter against Usman to cement the Notorious’ place in sports immortality.
It’s hard to make a definitive call on who will be the next man to go toe-to-toe with Conor McGregor. Thankfully McGregor is the type of fighter that guarantees entertainment against almost anyone. Whatever happens, we’ll be in for a show!
Who would you like to see face McGregor next? Who do you think is most likely to get the big-money fight? One of these guys/ Someone else?