Notes From the Combat Underground: Who’s Next to Face McGregor?

Conor McGregor, love him or hate, has left an indelible mark on MMA. Along with Ronda Rousey, he is one of the few fighters who have become household names outside of the octagon, in mainstream culture. You can grab ten random people on the street and nine of them will know the crazy Irishman that knocks people out with his big left hand. Sure, you can say that he has talked his way up the rankings, avoided certain opponents and used his superior mental game to catch seasoned veterans as was the case with Jose Aldo and Eddie Alvarez but it’s undeniable that he is a tremendous athlete, a huge pay-per-view draw and has changed the way business is done within the sport of MMA.

The black mark on McGregor’s career is that he hasn’t defended any of his titles. There are those who feel that a champion isn’t a true champion until he defends his title, so where does that put Conor McGregor? In his pre-UFC career, he held the Cage Warriors Featherweight and Lightweight titles. In his UFC career, he has held the Featherweight belt and is the current Lightweight champion. For a brief period of time, he was allowed to hold belts simultaneously, which can be seen as a promotional stunt by the UFC to build the McGregor brand because he was quickly stripped of the Featherweight title due to inactivity.

With only one legitimate title in hand, McGregor chose to try his hand at professional boxing and fight the retired Floyd Mayweather in the “historical” money grab that happened on August 26, resulting in a him getting TKO’ed in the 10th round.

So now, we are faced with the question: who will McGregor face next? Below is a rundown of his top opponent choices.

Nate Diaz
Diaz and McGregor met for the first time at UFC 196 back in March of 2016. Originally, McGregor was going to fight Rafael Dos Anjos for the Lightweight title but Dos Anjos dropped off of the card due to a training injury. Nate Diaz was called in on short notice as a replacement. Nobody expected him to win; he was going to be the sacrificial lamb to the MMA gods, another victim for Conor McGregor to land his left hand on and add to his expanding list of victims. Furthermore, UFC president Dana White and the UFC brass did not want Diaz to win. They had invested a lot into the Conor McGregor brand and neither of the Diaz Brothers were company men, but instead were these sort of maverick outsiders that had their own cult following but would never play nice with the more mainstream aspirations that the UFC have. Well, Diaz proved everyone wrong when he submitted an exhausted McGregor in the second round, handing him his first defeat in the UFC.

Immediately, a rematch was quickly scheduled for UFC 202 in August, and McGregor edged out a decision win. It was a NARROW decision, a majority decision win, if you will. Two judges scored the fight 49-47 McGregor and one judge called it a draw at 47-47.

Both fights were big business despite the fact that a title wasn’t on the line. Talk of a trilogy, a rubber match, began circulating among MMA fans and media almost immediately. Journalists such as Ariel Helwani have claimed this it’s the only fight for both men. However, the reality is that, as much as rankings mean in this day and age, Diaz is currently ranked sixth in the Lightweight division, his last fight being against McGregor. If logic is applied, aside from the promise of big paydays and pay-per-view buys, this fight doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Tony Ferguson
These days, the UFC seems to be giving away interim titles. After defeating Kevin Lee in UFC 216, Ferguson earned his own interim title in the Lightweight division, the division that Conor McGregor currently reigns as champion. One would think that this would guarantee him a unification fight, but nothing is guaranteed in the post-Zuffa UFC.

Ferguson has definitely made his bones. He is currently on a ten-fight win streak with notable wins over the Rafael Dos Anjos, the former division champ, and eternal contender Edson Barboza, as well as most of the top combatants in the division.

Floyd Mayweather
There are a couple of ways that the McGregor vs Mayweather fight can be looked at. Some people have given the Irishman props for winning the first three rounds against arguably one of the greatest tactical boxers of all-time. Other have cited the fact that Mayweather often times gives up rounds to figure out his opponent’s movement patterns and timing. Check out the fight and decide for yourself. The one fact that cannot be denied is that Mayweather is not known for knocking his opponents out, instead choosing to fight a drawn out, tactical fight and win by decision. He felt comfortable enough with McGregor to step forward and throw leather, grinding him down and earning a stoppage in the ninth round.

For while after the fight, there was talk of the two re-matching. Both men pocketed in the excess of $100 million after the first fight. Why not do it again? During the trash talk leading up to the fight, Mayweather teased that he would fight McGregor in the octagon under MMA rules. Everyone knows how that would play out. But what about boxing? Unlikely. Mayweather is forty years old and retired; he has a pile of money and nothing to prove.

Paulie Malignaggi
Paulie Malignaggi, another retired boxer, has been spending more time behind the desk as an analyst for Showtime than hitting mitts of late. He entered the McGregor storyline when he was called in as a sparring partner in preparation for Floyd Mayweather. The popular theory is that McGregor wanted to beat him up a little as a result of some disparaging words Malignaggi made against his boxing skills. He flew in, out of shape, and immediately went into the ring and spared nine rounds with McGregor. Some questionable video footage of McGregor “dropping” Malignaggi surfaced and the games began.

A lot of the talk of Malignaggi fighting McGregor in an MMA setting has died down, thankfully. The belief that boxers have the appropriate skills to fight MMA demonstrates that they have little or no understanding of what the sport actually demands.

(Ed note: On 10/16, Malignaggi confirmed talks for a fight with McGregor are underway).

It’s safe to rule out Mayweather and Malignaggi from this discussion. It’s also safe to say that since Conor McGregor is currently under contract with the UFC that he will be fighting an MMA fight in the Octagon. UFC president Dana White has indicated that we should all “pump the brakes” on the idea of a third McGregor vs Diaz fight, but White has been known to have a flexible relationship with the truth, especially when a lot of money is on the line. McGregor’s striking coach has said publicly that “the fans” want the third Diaz fight.

What would happen if Diaz won? He would be the Lightweight Champion! Nobody at the UFC wants a Diaz brother as the champion of any division. It’s unlikely that Diaz will fight him while he holds the belt.

The only fight for Conor McGregor is against Tony Ferguson, who is the number one contender. The point of having an interim belt is the promise that the title will one day be unified. But then again, stranger things, such as Georges St-Pierre coming out of retirement and fighting for the Middleweight title, have happened in the recent years.

Come on, Conor. Defend your title.