Conor McGregor has not fought in the UFC since winning the Lightweight title almost a year ago. Such is the disparity in popularity between him and his fellow fighters, he can exert more control over who and when he fights than anyone. Here, we identify who his next opponent might be.
McGregor’s most obvious opponent is 33-year-old Tony Ferguson who is on a remarkable 10-fight win streak. An interim Lightweight title has been introduced in McGregor’s continued absence and Ferguson won it last Saturday. A fight between the two would be an acknowledgement of the primacy of rankings which many fans wish to see respected.
As a general principle, a hierarchy with rankings and the reward of advancing and eventually winning championships lends prestige, meaning and context to fights and elevate them above mere exhibitions or prideful scraps. As far as there is a ‘correct’ course of action in what is still just sport, it would involve McGregor defending his title against Ferguson.
However, the UFC’s new owners, the media company ‘WME’, are primarily interested in recouping their investment outlay of $4.2 billion. Therefore, they seek to sanction the most lucrative fights. Likewise, a man like McGregor, who made around $100 million against Mayweather will only consider returning for the most rewarding fight possible. In all likelihood, that would not involve Ferguson who, despite his talent, is not particularly marketable. Some find his “trash talk” and mannerisms strange and while some do enjoy Ferguson’s idiosyncrasies he has never been able to draw many paying customers to watch his fights.
McGregor has publicly stated his wish to “legitimise” his title by defending it against the number one challenger, while he also appeared to recently respond to Ferguson’s challenge by referencing him, albeit obscurely, on Twitter. Yet, McGregor is probably only willing to fight once, twice or possibly three times before he rides into the sunset. He may not wish to fight someone as dangerous in every facet of Martial Arts as Ferguson. Defeat would damage his personally projected image as the multi-weight, all conquering phenom to which much of his popularity owes. A victory over someone he has already beaten and who would offer a more lucrative prospect might be the more likely fight. Which brings us to his next potential opponent.
McGregor and Diaz’s rivalry has been characterised by both men’s acerbic verbal duals. McGregor’s victory in a five round classic rematch after Diaz submitted unexpectedly submitted him in the first fight consolidated the Californian as McGregor’s greatest rival. A decider is an intriguing prospect and such is the popularity of both men, the fight would yield higher viewing figures than the Ferguson fight would. McGregor stated after fighting Mayweather that he would like the trilogy.
The argument against such a fight being next is that Ferguson is perhaps more deserving especially if McGregor puts his title on the line against Diaz who is only ranked number 6. We have also already seen the two men fight and there are fresh opponents for McGregor which brings new intrigue. Having seen the rematch and the ways in which Diaz and McGregor’s styles interact, the fight would likely result in another close decision as both are now so familiar with one another’s strengths. It will certainly happen at some point and judging by the UFC’s preferred business model it is not unreasonable to extrapolate that this trilogy will be McGregor’s next fight.
This matchup would probably be the one that the UFC’s preferred one as it would possibly be an even more lucrative prospect than the Diaz trilogy. Khabib has the support of the vast numbers of MMA fans in his native Dagestan and in wider Russia. The UFC are looking to propagate their brand in Russia and holding this fight in, say, Moscow, would promise great financial reward.
Then there is the intrigue of the fight itself which makes it possibly the most tantalising of all the options. Khabib is akin to a comic book monster. He is undefeated, a freakish achievement in a sport as volatile and unforgiving as MMA. He wrestled bears as a child and has never lost a round in the UFC, mauling all before him with his extraordinary wrestling ability.
The clash of styles with McGregor with his striking oriented style is the stuff of fantasy for UFC fans. The main problem in its realisation pertains to Khabib’s health and ability to make the 155 lbs weight limit. He pulled out of his last fight in March after his weight cut left his liver dangerously deprived of blood and has been convalescing ever since. One can only hope that this ship has not sailed as we wait for the Irishman to make his move.