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Who’s Next for Conor McGregor?

After UFC 216, that’s the only question everyone in MMA is asking

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Demetrious Johnson broke a record at UFC 216 on Saturday night, topping Anderson Silva’s mark of 10 consecutive title defenses by scoring a mesmerizing suplex-to-armbar finish of Ray Borg. That was an incredible way to enter the record books, and it was a big deal to some. The bigger deal to everyone, though, was the main event, which pitted Kevin Lee against Tony Ferguson for the lightweight interim title, giving the winner the inside track to face actual champion Conor McGregor. It was a tantalizing setup except … well, everyone knew it wasn’t that easy. McGregor, who was not in attendance at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, has never minded being dangled as the stakes, but he’ll be damned if he’s going to end up as anybody’s prize.

That’s one of the reasons Ferguson, after tapping out Lee via a third-round triangle choke, expressed himself the way he did afterward. “Where you at, McNuggets?” he screamed into the microphone. “I’ll kick your ass. Defend or vacate!”

McNuggets? You could almost picture McGregor somewhere in his ocelot robe and Saskatchewan sealskin slippers, cackling at his 105-inch plasma when Ferguson came at him with that bunk call-out. Yet the sentiment struck a chord with McGregor’s critics: He either has to defend or vacate, that’s just the way it’s always been.

And it would be this time, too, if we were in any other world but McGregor’s.

Fresh off his estimated nine-digit payday from his boxing foray with Floyd Mayweather, McGregor doesn’t have to follow any straight lines, nor abide by normal UFC logic of facing the most obvious contender. UFC president Dana White said Saturday that he wants to book McGregor against Ferguson to unify the 155-pound title. That would, of course, be a tidy way to restore order in the UFC’s lightweight division, which has been in a holding pattern since McGregor’s victory over Eddie Alvarez last year. But White says a lot of stuff, and most of it is just that—stuff.

The truth is, McGregor has some options in front of him, and right now there are a handful of people in the raffle to fight him next—some with belts, some with big dollar signs, some with vendettas, some with all of the above. Forget about Dana or the rankings; it’s up to the omnipotent Irishman to decide. Here’s a look at who’s in the running, along with some odds.

Ton Ferguson raises his arm after beating Kevin Lee during UFC 216 Joshua Dahl/USA Today Sports

Tony Ferguson

On Saturday night, Tony Ferguson beat Kevin Lee, not just to win an imitation belt that he can treat as real, but to try to get McGregor’s attention. McGregor has been on his mind a lot. Ferguson said on Monday he’ll follow McGregor around to any weight class and “fucking haunt his dreams” until they have the chance to knuckle-up, which sounds pretty serious.

McGregor, of course, won the lightweight title in November 2016 at UFC 205, and has yet to defend it. Instead, he boxed Mayweather, and in the process became filthy rich—the kind of rich that makes for a distorted view of the original landscape that made him, MMA. It would stand to reason that while McGregor was out, the UFC would unearth his next challenge upon his return. That’s what UFC 216 was set up to do —at least that was the illusion in play.

The problem is that, for all of Ferguson’s credits, he’s still an unknown quantity —in the broader public eye, anyway, and that’s a big factor. Ferguson, who has won 10 straight bouts and fights with equal parts determination, skill, and sadism, is like something dredged up from the dark web. Those who want to uphold the meritocracy of the McGregor era won’t like to hear it, but Ferguson’s win streak—including his recent handling of Lee—works against him for a fight with McGregor. As a demolition cardio freak of a fighter with no household name appeal, he becomes high risk, low(ish) reward.

So, despite the setup being perfect from a UFC traditionalist’s view—that an interim titleholder fights the actual titleholder, so long as the actual titleholder is available to do so—it’s just as likely McGregor will look elsewhere for his big return.

Odds Ferguson Gets the Fight: 4-1

Nate Diaz, whose face is bloody, raises his arms in celebration of a UFC 216 victory Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports

Nate Diaz

The odds-on favorite to win the McGregor sweepstakes is the same mean-mugger who’s already won the opportunity twice before: Nate Diaz. The reasons Diaz is a front-runner for McGregor are pretty obvious. The first fight (at UFC 196) went to Diaz, and the second fight (at UFC 202) broke PPV records as fans tuned in to see how McGregor would respond. He responded well, defeating Diaz via a majority decision in a ridiculously literal back-and-forth fistfight.

Now with that accidental fight having blown up into one of MMA’s great rivalries, a trilogy becomes massive. Does it make total sense? No. Will the MMA world cry about it right up until the touching of the gloves? Most certainly. Will people say McGregor is ducking Ferguson? A thousand times, they will. Will everyone tune in anyway? Giddily—especially if the UFC decides to just say to hell with it and makes Diaz-McGregor III for the lightweight title—seriously —just befuckingcause!

And besides, if you follow MMA at all, you know this to be true: There’s no time like the present. For years, the UFC wanted to put together a fight between Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre, and it never happened. It wanted Jon Jones and Cain Velasquez, yet it never went down. It wanted Ronda Rousey and Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino, yet Rousey began to lose and therefore all desire to see it diminished.

Should McGregor fight Ferguson and lose, the Diaz trilogy loses something, too. It loses the potential to break its own PPV record. If Diaz fights somebody else and loses, a fight with McGregor becomes preposterous (so long as McGregor’s on top). The timing isn’t great for Diaz-McGregor III where merit is concerned, but it’s perfect in that there’s still hysteria for it.

Odds Diaz Gets the Fight: 2-1

Paulie Malignaggi raises his arms in celebration of winning the European Union Welterweight title in 2015 Photo by Leigh Dawney/Getty Images

Paulie Malignaggi

Absurd, right? A retired boxer who leapt back into relevance only because of a sparring session he had with McGregor during McGregor’s camp for the Mayweather fight? It’s dumb as hell and a little gross. And yet, that’s kind of how the fight game works. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure, and right now McGregor is telling people which page to turn to.

Perhaps it’s to Malignaggi’s favor that the sparring session reached mythological proportions during the Mayweather-McGregor lead-up, playing out like a game of telephone in how it was exaggerated by each new narrator relaying the story. It went like this: Malignaggi felt like he was set up when he was brought in to spar McGregor, and grew incensed when pictures emerged telling a one-sided story of McGregor having his way in the sessions. After Malignaggi denied he was ever knocked down on Twitter, UFC president Dana White put out a clip of … well, Malignaggi being knocked down. That further pissed off Malignaggi and had him calling for a release of the entire sparring session.

And let’s be clear: If the training tape were released in its entirety, at this point it could be its own PPV.

This is a fight that will likely never happen (especially in a cage), but you’ve got to admire Malignaggi’s persistence in trying to stir things up. He’s no dummy. McGregor tried boxing, and lost against one of the all-time greats. Psychologically, he knows McGregor could be enticed to redeem himself in the boxing ring. Too random, you say? Nobody had contemplated Diaz and McGregor fighting until Diaz called out McGregor in Orlando after defeating Michael Johnson.

Just saying.

Odds Malignaggi Gets the Fight: 100-1

Max Holloway and Frankie Edgar

Max Holloway ; Frankie Edgar
Tom Szczerbowski/USA Today Sports; Adam Hunger/USA Today Sports

Max Holloway–Frankie Edgar Winner

A year before he bolted the division, McGregor won the featherweight title in December 2015 with no promises of a return. But in that case, after he made history by winning the second title at UFC 205, the UFC stripped him of the 145-pound belt and gave it back to Jose Aldo (whom he beat in 13 seconds). Max Holloway ended up taking the belt from Aldo at UFC 212 via an impressive third-round TKO.

Now Holloway and Frankie Edgar are going to fight for the featherweight title at UFC 218 in December. Wouldn’t it just take things full circle if McGregor were to challenge the winner of that fight for a belt that he never really coughed up?

For a span of 24 hours back in 2015, Edgar believed that he would be facing McGregor next after the Irishman KO’d Aldo. Instead, McGregor made his way to the lightweight division to pursue that second belt. But the real story here is Holloway. He fought McGregor a little over four years ago in Boston, losing by decision. Since then the 25-year-old has won 11 fights in a row, making himself into one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the game. Even McGregor has seemed impressed with Holloway’s resiliency, which of course bodes well for a rematch.

The problem is that McGregor would have to cut a ton of weight to make 145 pounds again. He looked awful on the scale the last couple of times he fought at 145 pounds, and now that he’s developed a taste for the expensive finger foods while sailing around on a yacht, a return would seem unlikely. But if Holloway wins in December and agreed to meet McGregor at 155?

Hmm.

Odds of Holloway/Edgar Winner Getting the Fight: 40-1

Tyron Woodley in a fight during UFC 209 Joe Camporeale/USA Today Sports

Tyron Woodley

McGregor and welterweight champion Tyron Woodley had a brief encounter while sharing a card at UFC 205, and that made people contemplate a fight between the two. Given that McGregor’s career has been all about escalating feats of greatness—from winning his first title against Aldo, to winning the second belt against Eddie Alvarez, to ending up in a historic boxing match with Mayweather—a fight with Woodley would be the only step that wouldn’t be sideways or backward. Talk about your dangling carrots.

Adding a third title to his collection without ever losing one is just the stunt that gets McGregor’s blood going. That history is in play would assure the financial spoils that McGregor will demand. And hey, he met Diaz at 170 pounds for both fights—he’s no stranger to the division. Would he be an underdog? Big time. But being an underdog didn’t keep him away from cashing in against Mayweather.

Odds Woodley Gets the Fight: 35-1

MMA: UFC 209-Weigh Ins Joe Camporeale/USA Today Sports

Georges St-Pierre

GSP keeps reiterating that, should he beat Michael Bisping in a few weeks at UFC 217 in New York for the middleweight title, he is contractually obligated to fight that division’s no. 1 contender, Robert Whittaker. That’s undoubtedly true, but of course that could all change if McGregor begins casting an eye in GSP’s direction. No contract is mightier than McGregor’s power to tear them up.

That’s if St-Pierre wins. If St-Pierre loses in a respectable fashion and returns to the welterweight division that he ruled from 2007 to 2013 (before taking a break to restore his mental health), matching St-Pierre and McGregor could still become the biggest PPV in UFC history. Before there was a McGregor, there was GSP selling out the Rogers Centre in Toronto and shattering the UFC gate record. Think a fight between GSP-McGregor wouldn’t make the new UFC owners dab away their sweat with hundred-dollar bills?

Odds GSP Gets the Fight: 35-1

Boxing: Mayweather vs McGregor Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports

Floyd Mayweather

The very idea of Mayweather and McGregor fighting a second time—whether it be in a boxing ring, or (as long as we’re flinging ideas around) in the octagon—is enough to want to throw an index finger down your throat and induce vomiting. One time was more than enough, for that was one of the oilier novelties the fight game has ever withstood.

Yet it’s not out of the question that one (or both) of the principals will flirt with this idea, sooner rather than later. In fact, McGregor has already dared Floyd to take off his shoes and try himself in the less restricted realm of the cage, which would be a bad idea for a 40-year-old who’s never thrown a kick in his life.

Still, have you seen the way these guys spend money? There’s a reason the taxman was looking for Mayweather, and it won’t be long before McGregor starts seeing the finish line in his own career. If there’s one name that would tempt McGregor out of all other scenarios, it’ll be his partner in fleecing, “Money” Mayweather.

Odds Mayweather Gets the Fight: 150-1