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Who’s Next for McGregor?

Handicapping who will get the next shot at Conor McGregor

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Heading into UFC 205, you just knew that if Conor McGregor added Eddie Alvarez’s lightweight belt to his collection that the challengers were going to start popping up like lotto balls. That was if he simply got by Alvarez, somehow finding a way to win. The fact that he utterly destroyed Alvarez inside of two rounds at Madison Square Garden — using a fencing posture and a left hand that caught Alvarez’s chin from range like a chameleon’s tongue does a fly — has made the imagination go wild a little bit. No longer is it just Contender A or Contender B who’s next for McGregor. It’s whomever McGregor fooking wants.

McGregor is the exception to every rule that this young sport has put in place. He has done away with the UFC rankings and meritocracy, making himself into a cross-divisional sweepstakes. He has done away with his label as an independent contractor (like the rest of mortals on the UFC roster), and is now vying for a piece of the WME-IMG ownership. He is no longer strictly a fighter; he is a promoter. His "Billionaire Strut" is now a thing in pop culture. It’s not that his fellow fighters hate him, it’s that his fellow fighters hate themselves for not being him. For not thinking like him. For not being as Big Picture and audacious and possessed with self-actualizing self-belief. McGregor is an unforgiving mirror for all fighters to see their own blemishes in, and the UFC is left holding the mirror.

For months, UFC president Dana White said that if McGregor won the lightweight belt, McGregor would then be forced to give up the featherweight belt that he won last December against Jose Aldo and he has yet to defend, so that contender traffic could get moving again. More than a week has gone by since the Alvarez fight, and you’ll notice McGregor still has both belts.

In other words, McGregor — at 28 years old, right there in his fighting prime — has the UFC in an illegal testical lock. And if history tells us anything in the cruel, delusional world of mixed martial arts, it’s that it won’t get any better than it is right now for the Irish coxcomb who came in three years ago, called his shots, and backed it all up. One well-timed punch is all it takes to bring it all crashing back down to earth. Even for the brightest stars, MMA is still Jenga.

Still, what "Mystic Mac" has done is as cinematic as it is historic. In 2014, he tweeted that he would hold two titles and a stake in the company. Two years later, here we are. In McGregor’s world.

White says McGregor won’t return until at least May, when he is due to become a father. But what’s next for McGregor when he’s ready to return? Let’s handicap some possible opponents.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Nate Diaz — Odds: 2–1

For all the corks being popped at UFC 205 for being the first UFC event at Madison Square Garden, it doesn’t look like it topped UFC 202’s pay-per-view numbers (despite Dana White’s initial excitement). Why? Because of Nate Diaz. Diaz as McGregor’s foil was MMA’s great detour in 2016. It didn’t make any sense by standards of merit, but it made up for that shortcoming in the "Holy Shit, I Can’t Believe This Is Happening" category (which, in the fight game, is really the category that matters most).

Diaz took a lot of punishment in that fight, but ended up dealing McGregor his first UFC loss, sinking a rear-naked choke late in the second round. Did it puncture McGregor’s mojo? Hardly. If anything, it just fueled a "must see" vibe for the rematch at UFC 202 — even if the featherweight belt was being hijacked in the process. The rematch took place at the same arbitrary weight of 170 pounds, because McGregor — in his fuck all y’all way — insisted on duplicating the exact circumstances of the first fight.

So, what did they do? They put on a classic, going five full rounds in which the narrative changed several times and each fighter overcame "done for" moments that dropped jaws throughout the pay-per-view-viewing world. It was ridiculous, really, something that no civilized person should want to see again. (Luckily, "civilized" is not the UFC demographic). McGregor avenged his loss, and — to the horror of everyone waiting in line for a shot at McGregor — a trilogy became inevitable.

So, does that rubber match take place now?

With McGregor’s soft spot for Diaz, and the fact that he knows he can treat Diaz as an ATM machine to withdraw eight solid figures, the Diaz-McGregor trilogy is the leading candidate. Diaz doesn’t belong anywhere near a lightweight-title shot (before he was thrust into his McGregor series, he had gone 2–3 in his previous five fights at 155 pounds), but he belongs to the McGregor lore. That’s more important. Should he beat McGregor in the third fight, you know that wouldn’t be the end of it, either. That would set up a vertigo-inducing best of five, and it’s likely we would never find our way out of the rabbit hole. Still, from McGregor’s perspective, it might beat the alternative:

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Khabib Nurmagomedov Odds: 5–1

Nurmagomdev (24–0) is the kind of fighter that talks to people when he’s dropping elbows on their temples, and it’s a detachment that quickly becomes upsetting. It’s like a psychopath talking to a victim — "you look so lovely this evening, Margaritte …" — while putting his bib on. He did it against Michael Johnson at UFC 205. "You have to give up," he said during an onslaught of ground-and-pound that would moments later end the fight. "I need to fight for the title. You know this. I deserve it."

There’s something about the cold Dagestani accent that is also unsettling — it’s like Ivan Drago’s "if he dies, he dies" shoulder shrug after doing that thing to Apollo Creed. Of all the contenders who are out there that truly want to mash McGregor into particles, Nurmy is the scariest. (And for the fans that want to see McGregor get mashed, he’s the top choice.) A sambo player who has experience wrestling bears, he knows how to get the fight to the place he wants it — that is, with him laying on top of someone, giving them no place to hide, and taking their soul into custody.

Nurmagomedov is the no. 1 contender, and he has been for a long time. It’s only injuries that have kept him from the title. Now it will could come down to McGregor’s sense of self-preservation and smarts. If McGregor does defend his lightweight title, and Diaz isn’t an option for whatever reason, the style clash between his sublime striking and Nurmagomedov’s grappling could be one for the ages. Already Nurmagomedov’s coaches are saying that McGregor’s ducking him, and McGregor is saying that Nurmagomedov can’t be trusted to show up, given his track record of overall fragility. Just like Jose Aldo, Nurmagomedov is even threatening to quit MMA if he’s not given a title shot. Maybe that will help leverage the deal — or perhaps create an interim title, depending on McGregor’s next move.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Tony Ferguson Odds: 6–1

And if not Diaz or Nurmagomedov, there’s always "El Cucuy."

Ferguson is my dark-horse pick in the McGregor sweepstakes. He has won nine straight bouts at lightweight, including a decision over former champion Rafael dos Anjos on November 5 in Mexico City. Unlike Nurmagomedov, who called McGregor a chicken after his fight in New York, Ferguson was low-key about what he wanted to do next. He didn’t call for a title shot. He didn’t blast McGregor just to kick up a beef. It’s not that he’s aloof — he’s just one of those stray badasses that will answer his phone any time it rings.

How great would a fight between McGregor and Ferguson be? Ferguson is a pressure fighter, one of the foremost innovators of kicks, a dervish of Inamari rolls to joint manipulation, and a pusher of thrill-by-the-sequence action. His chin is stupid. Everyone from Edson Barboza to Josh Thomson has clocked him clean, and yet he just growls and comes harder. Could he withstand McGregor’s left hand? Let’s just say that if people think that Diaz-McGregor is wild, then Ferguson-McGregor is a Tasmanian Devil orgy. At least come fight night. The build up to the fight would unfortunately pale in comparison to McGregor-Diaz. Ferguson simply cannot provoke like Diaz.

Still, out of all the options for McGregor, he might like the idea of Ferguson’s wild, often reckless style. The ground is an abstract place to end up in a fight with Ferguson, and that could sing to McGregor. But is Ferguson "historic" enough to please Big Picture McGregor? We’ll see.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Tyron Woodley Odds: 12–1

How good is McGregor at setting the table for the future with every step he takes in the present? This is a fighter who hit the entire top 10 of the featherweight division with grapeshot while recovering from an ACL tear a few years ago. There is no idling for McGregor. He’s always pissing off potential customers, and he did it again with current welterweight champion Tyron Woodley at UFC 205.

The two had some contentious moments in New York, particularly after McGregor got into a skirmish at the press conference with Alvarez while wearing his pimp’s mink and pajama bottoms. Woodley, sitting on the same dais, filmed the whole thing from his camera phone and posted it on his social media. Woodley and McGregor had a tense moment at the rehydration table after the official weigh-ins. That set up a Twitter exchange that led to Woodley telling McGregor to never call him "bitch" again, in which McGregor responded, "bitch."

But Woodley is a weight class above the one McGregor just went up to fight at. Sure, McGregor flirted with the idea of going up to welterweight to fight for that title even before he and dos Anjos were supposed to fight for the lightweight championship in March, and that thought remains. Having two titles is historic. But three titles? That might never be done again.

It would be other-level ridiculous for McGregor to go up and fight for Woodley’s belt because (a) of all the featherweight and lightweight contenders who he would be ignoring, (b) the UFC would be complicit with this, which might cause mutiny, and © Woodley is huge. Woodley would outweigh McGregor by 20 pounds on fight night. He has power that McGregor hasn’t yet faced. And he wrestles. If McGregor opts for this, go ahead and play his "Big Irish Balls" moment from the Alvarez presser on a loop.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Jose Aldo Odds: 12–1

At this point, Aldo has become so much mincemeat. When it was made clear that McGregor would rematch this summer against Diaz, Aldo and Frankie Edgar fought at UFC 200 for the interim featherweight title, with the winner being assured of a chance at McGregor’s title when he came back from moonlighting. He didn’t come back. And it’s likely he never will. He’s too big for the division, and he’s already got the lightweight belt. After so many promises and broken promises, Aldo asked for his outright release from the UFC before McGregor beat Alvarez (Aldo’s request wasn’t granted).

Aldo remains in limbo, just like the rest of the 145-pound division. His best course back to McGregor (and after getting knocked out by McGregor in 13 seconds at UFC 194 — it’s McGregor he wants a shot at more than a title) is to declare himself a lightweight. He could challenge McGregor there with a fresh coat of paint. And McGregor may look at Aldo as the best option considering that (a) he’s not Nurmagomedov, (b) he’s not Ferguson, and (c) the UFC has been trying to play this rematch back for a long time.

Still, this feels like a stretch. McGregor hasn’t shown much interest in Aldo, which only serves to further piss Aldo off.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Floyd MayweatherOdds: $100,000,000–1

This talk will go on so long as McGregor keeps winning — and especially if he keeps winning like he did against Alvarez. McGregor himself has 100 million reasons to keep answering questions about this fantasy match, and the undefeated five-division boxing champion Mayweather loves to talk about some Mayweather. When Floyd was asked about McGregor recently, he said he’s not even hearing it because he’s an elephant and McGregor is an ant.

Yet, here’s a secret: In reality, Mayweather is an elephant, and McGregor is just an ant, or however you want to look at it, because, well, they are different species. Cage fighter McGregor is smart enough to associate his name with boxing’s Mayweather’s because Mayweather associates his name with money. And money is the lead role in this imaginative intersport drama. Big Picture McGregor will never let a chance go by to hitch his name to a Brink’s truck. Never.

There are contractual reasons this fight won’t happen (especially with McGregor trying to rework a new deal for ownership stake), yet there’s a more practical one, too. If McGregor were going to fight Mayweather in an attempt to get one more zero added to his eight-figure paydays in MMA, it would need to happen now. Never mind that Mayweather will be 40 in February, MMA hates storybook narratives. McGregor will lose again at some point because this sport is merciless, and it doesn’t stop being merciless. Its poetry is in that kind of cruelty. McGregor is striking while the iron is hot, yet he is brighter, harder to touch ephemera.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Nick Diaz Odds: 50–1

Nobody is talking about this, but it should be mentioned. What about McGregor versus Nate’s older brother, Nick? The swap of Diaz brothers just adds a whole different dimension to this, and the lead-up to a Nick versus McGregor fight would be at least a dozen times more entertaining than anything we’ve yet witnessed. Not the same weight class? That’s one of those snags that belongs to yesterday, before McGregor began rearranging matchmaking perceptions. Nick has fought mostly as a welterweight, which is the weight class in which McGregor casts a third of his aspirations. Imagine McGregor and Nick, the fight game’s most refined talker and the socially awkward older Diaz, who has a low tolerance for the selling of wolf tickets? You know Nick has been watching Nate’s bank account grow since his McGregor series with a certain kind of sibling jealousy.

That would be epic. It’s a long shot. It probably won’t happen — yet — but it could. The truth is, at this moment in time, if McGregor wants to fight Nick, he will. It’s his sport now and, as he’s said all along, he’ll do with it what he pleases.

Chuck Mindenhall is a senior writer at MMA Fighting.